Global Warming Lacks a Clear Consensus

Posted December 4, 2008 at 4:21pm

Until the 1890s, it was common for doctors to bleed their patients. The belief was that draining blood removed toxins from the body. Of course, this practice was based on bad science and incomplete knowledge. The loss of blood weakened the patient, often resulting in death. One-dimensional policy proposals aimed only at reducing man-made greenhouse gases, based on what we know now, may well turn out to be the modern-day equivalent of bloodletting. In this case, America is the patient, and the poorest among us will suffer most.

There are those who say we know global warming is occurring, that it is caused by man-made greenhouse gases and is a severe threat. Millions have been spent studying climate change, yet contrary to repeated claims, there remains significant uncertainty and disagreement within the scientific community. In October, Ronald Prinn, a professor of atmospheric chemistry at MIT and director of the Center for Global Change Science, released a study revealing a simultaneous worldwide increase in methane levels, calling into question theories that man is the primary contributor to global warming.

During the December 2007 U.N. climate conference, 100 scientists wrote a letter to the secretary general calling climate change “a natural phenomenon that has affected humanity through the ages.” The groundbreaking “amplifier theory” published by Jan Veizer and Nir Shaviv in 2003 concluded solar variation amplified by cosmic ray flux accounts for at least 66 percent of the variance in global temperatures. When accounted for, this theory minimizes the effect of carbon dioxide on Earth’s temperatures, thereby questioning increased carbon dioxide emissions’ impact on global temperatures. This theory was supported by Giles Harrison in October 2008 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. Even an expert reviewer with the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, David Wojick, stated, “The hypothesis that solar variability and not human activity is warming the oceans goes a long way to explain the puzzling idea that the Earth’s surface may be warming while the atmosphere is not.”

Consensus on global warming’s impact has also not been reached. Soil, the world’s largest source of carbon dioxide, produces 10 times more than all human activities combined. In November 2008, Johannes Lehmann, a Cornell University professor of biogeochemistry, and others released a study of climate models incorporating increases in carbon dioxide emissions from soil. His study found small changes in soil carbon emissions estimates have large impacts on climate models. Therefore, he concludes predictions about global warming are wide-ranging, and we cannot know the actual effect.

Amid such continuing uncertainty, Congress should move cautiously. At a minimum, we should initially pursue dual-benefit rather than single-benefit strategies. Carbon capture and sequestration, for example, adds cost and provides only a single benefit: limiting greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, carbon capture alone, excluding sequestration, will cost $390 million to $610 million per coal-fired plant. Similarly, cap-and-trade programs increase cost significantly while only marginally reducing greenhouse gas emissions and doing nothing directly to achieve other energy goals. The European Union’s emissions trading scheme has cost $4.7 billion per year and decreased emissions by only 0.8 percent since 2006.

On the other hand, encouraging alternative energy sources such as solar, nuclear, wind, geothermal and hydropower, in conjunction with hybrid vehicles, provides dual benefits: reducing greenhouse gases and decreasing dependence on fossil fuels, particularly foreign oil. The electricity generated by a 1,000 MW nuclear reactor is enough to displace 13.7 million barrels of oil in one year. Additionally, improving the efficiency of automobiles, homes and commercial buildings will decrease emissions, conserve energy and cut fossil fuel dependency. According to the Energy Information Administration, if we increase our average fuel economy to 45 miles per gallon, we can almost eradicate our dependence on foreign oil over the next 20 years. And, by using Energy Star appliances, Americans can save about 30 percent on their home energy bills.

Should science ultimately conclude global warming is occurring and is human-caused, we will have taken meaningful action to address the problem. Should science, however, determine global warming is not caused by man-made greenhouse gases, we will still have reduced our reliance on, and inefficient use of, fossil fuels. One-dimensional proposals may ultimately be necessary, but they aren’t yet. Right now, we can take steps to reduce man-made greenhouse gases while also achieving other important goals.

The single-benefit proposals currently being considered will bleed America’s economy. Studies by the Heritage Foundation, the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Council for Capital Formation and others suggest the Climate Security Act, introduced by Sens. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and John Warner (R-Va.), which would establish an economy-wide cap-and-trade program, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory initiative to reduce carbon dioxide emissions will have a catastrophic impact on our nation’s economy.

David W. Kreutzer and Karen A. Campbell estimate that the EPA’s regulatory initiative will result in a loss of more than 2.8 million manufacturing jobs. And NAM estimates 1.8 million net jobs lost by 2020 from the Climate Security Act.

Kreutzer and Campbell predict gross domestic product will lose $600 billion in a year. Annual family income will drop $1,170 initially and $4,000 by 2025. Lower-income Americans, the elderly and those on fixed incomes will be hit the hardest. A state-by-state analysis shows low-income Arizona families, making $14,800 annually, will spend 19 percent of their income on energy by 2020 if the Climate Security Act is implemented.

Proponents of single-benefit strategies talk about “green collar” jobs, but they acknowledge only one side of the equation. They fail to take into account jobs lost. Job losses projected by Kreutzer and Campbell, NAM and ACCF are net; they account for new “green jobs” as well as jobs lost.

One-dimensional strategies will impose real costs. And we don’t even know yet if such policies will slow global warming.

Whether one ascribes to the worst-case global warming scenario or believes global warming is a myth, all can agree it’s critical for America to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and foreign oil and to conserve energy. Until we know more about global warming and its cause, we should pursue dual-benefit solutions that reduce greenhouse gases and improve our economy. Without more complete information on climate change, insisting upon severe, costly, single-benefit strategies could, like “bleeding,” ultimately be worse than the disease.

Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) is a member of the Energy and Commerce and Energy Independence and Global Warming Committees.