August 17, 2004

The Predictable Distortion of Climate Change

A recent news story—itself a disturbing distortion of climate change science—should prompt any critical citizen to ask this: Why do scientists inevitably emphasize scare stories that aren’t warranted by even the most cursory respect for the facts?

Consider coverage of a recent Science article by Princeton’s Steve Pacala. Along with colleague R. Socolow, they argued, plausibly, that emissions of carbon dioxide—the main human greenhouse gas—can be reduced by increased adoption of existing technologies. They fail to mention that people have to want them, and they have to actually work.

For a reality check on this one, ask owners of hybrid automobiles, whose major complaint, according the prestigious J.D. Power and Associates, is that they don’t get nearly the fuel economy that they advertise, nor do they justify their increased cost. (Honda’s two-seater Insight is an exception, but it employs so many additional energy-saving technologies, including an 1800-pound weight resulting from its frameless-all aluminum construction, that it is an enormous money loser for the manufacturer).

Pacala argues that without the forced adoption of hybrids and many other technologies that customers abhor (such as ugly, unreliable wind-generated electricity), carbon dioxide emissions will skyrocket, which would lead to a massive warming of the planet.

The August 16 Washington Post carried Socolow’s comments:

If governments fail to act, Socolow said, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will triple in 50 years. “Keeping it below a doubling is a heroic task,” he said.

Before people started burning fossil fuels to power our society (with all the attendant benefits contained therein), the atmospheric concentration was about 280 parts per million. It’s now about 375, an increase of about 34%. For comparative purposes, the concentration a quarter-century ago was around 330, or 18% above the background.

Socolow actually told the Post, apparently with a straight face, that this 16% rise in 25 years will become a 300% rise in the next 50 “if governments fail to act.”

That is absolute nonsense. According to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the amount of carbon dioxide emissions per capita has been dropping worldwide since the 1980s. And further, population (those “capita”) isn’t increasing at nearly the rate projected a quarter-century ago. In 1980, the United Nations predicted a global population of 15 billion in 2050. Their most recent estimate is down to nine billion, a 40% reduction.

To triple from the 280ppm background by 2054, carbon dioxide must increase at 1.65% per year.

But, as companies compete to produce more efficient technologies, the rate of increase has remained much smaller than that, and has changed very little. Over the entire period for which we have accurate records (beginning in 1958), the increase has fluctuated between a mere 0.4% per year and a mere 0.45%.

The gloomy predictions are based upon a naïve assumption that this percentage must quadruple, despite its decades of constancy, because of both increased population and the oft-repeated saw that “the world desires an American lifestyle.”

Well, population grew at only 60% of the rate it was supposed to. And, in fact, the world did adopt that American lifestyle—which means less and less use of energy per capita or per dollar economic output. Americans now produce a constant dollar’s worth of GDP with only 60% of the energy we used a mere quarter-century ago. And the world is either buying or emulating our more efficient power-production technologies. All of these increases in efficiency occurred despite our current crush on gas-hog SUVs.

There is simply no way these trends are going to suddenly reverse. Efficient electrical technologies are flooding the world, not to fight global warming, but because people want cheap energy.

Which leads to the obvious question: In light of these facts, why did Socolow make his statement to a newspaper of the Post’s stature?

World Climate Report editor Dr. Patrick J. Michaels has just written a book cataloging dozens of similar instances. The reason is obvious. The scientific community has a financial incentive to spout gloom and doom. Doing so generates oodles of money from our single sugar daddy, the federal government. No one ever leverages billions out of or Nation’s Capital (the current annual outlay for “global change” research is $4 billion) unless they threaten the worst. Then the political process takes credit for saving us from certain destruction. And the media, addicted to “if it bleeds, it leads” stories, without questioning, print the worst.

Don’t expect scientific peer review to stop this process. To gain expert-review status, a scientist has to also have oodles of federally funded research. Who would rationally derail this gravy train? So, papers arguing against the end of the world (which are obviously correct) are much harder to publish, while any problems with apocalyptic submissions are either glossed over or ignored.

All of which guarantees that my colleagues are going to continue to scream bloody climate murder with impunity. It is simple economics interacting with politics, as evinced by unquestioningly published absolute nonsense.


Michaels, P.J., 2004. Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media. Available on September 27, 2004, The Cato Institute.

Pacala, S., Socolow, R., 2004. Stabilization wedges: solving the climate problem for the next 50 years with current technologies. Science, 305, 968-972.

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