|The Week That Was
January 25-31, 1999
Last week Norwegians and Alaskans were seen layering their mittens and buying up batteries for their electric socks. The National Weather Service reported on Thursday (Jan. 28) that air temperatures in Alaska's interior had dropped to minus 70 degrees F, with windchills at minus 100 degrees F, the coldest weather in Alaska in a decade, and close to the record of minus 80 degrees F, set in 1951. In northern Norway, official temperature readings dropped to minus 60.2 degrees F, just a hair off their record of minus 60.5 degrees F set in 1886. Finland and Russia were setting cold weather records. In Siberia, some spots hit minus 92 degrees F.
In such weather, rubber tires shatter, oil gels, and a pan of warm water tossed into the air explodes into a shower of ice particles, a little trick demonstrated over and over again for television news cameras.
This presents a problem for those pushing for adoption of the Kyoto Protocol. What to do? What to say? The Arctic and Antarctic are refusing to melt on schedule, and these are the areas predicted to be hit hardest by global warming. In the Antarctic, record cold temperatures were measured in July 1997 and April 1998. In October 1998, a report from the British Antarctic Survey said satellite observations of the western Antarctic ice shelf indicate that it is stable and likely to remain so in the foreseeable future. Some forecasters are predicting that, with the end of the La Niņa, we may see a significant cooling trend over the next two years.
But there are always the computer climate models to fall back on. Last week Peter Barrett of New Zealand's Victoria University of Wellington and Tim Naish of New Zealand's Geological and Nuclear Science Institute, both participants in an Antarctic study intended to provide definitive proof of an impending climate catastrophe, gave Reuters a scary scenario based purely on speculation. No numbers, no substantiation, nada.
Here's the pitch (Jan. 27): "If models are going to be believed" the rates of change are going to be very quick. Global warming..."could soon begin" to threaten the massive western Antarctic ice shelf. Average global temperatures "could rise" at over four times the rate of the last 100 years. Global warming "could raise" sea levels by as much as 20 feet in the next generation and the earth "could be" heading for a mini ice age.
"We're playing Russian roulette with the climate and no one knows what lies in the chamber of the gun, " said Naish, vastly improving on that shopworn "canary in the coal mine" analogy.
"Once the conditions are set in train to melt, the process cannot be stopped," said Barrett, chief scientist on the project. "Some people would say it's getting too late...we need awareness and political will to address the problem."
Interestingly enough, Peter Barrett's comments during a press briefing just six months ago (Reuters, June 23, 1998) were decidedly different. Then he said that melting was a worry, but on a scale of HUNDREDS OF YEARS, adding that "NO ONE thinks the ice sheets are going to melt in the next hundred years."
Now Barrett and company have the Antarctic ice shelf melting in the "next generation" and they've tossed in a "mini-ice age" to boot. In academia, this is called covering all of your grant-application bases.
The Clinton-Gore Administration discovered last fall that $2 billion spent annually on global warming may buy lot of bad science--and bad scientists--but it still isn't enough to whip up the public hysteria necessary to convince the Senate to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Last week, the White House announced that it wants to up the ante to $4 billion, including $1.4 billion in tax incentives, which Vice President Gore called "significant new investments...to accelerate our aggressive, commonsense efforts..."
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, the Connie Mack (R-FL)-Joe Lieberman (D-CT) proposal to give U.S. companies "early action" emissions credits, which they can use later in complying with the Kyoto Protocol, has hit--pardon the pun--rough sledding.
Both industry and green groups are waking up to the fact that this scheme will reward politically well-connected corporations for "business-as-usual" improvements they would have made anyway. (Companies pushing for early crediting, not surprisingly, are prominent backers of Eileen Claussen's Pew Center on Global Climate Change.) American Electric Power, for example, stands to reap an enormous benefit from its forest projects in Latin America. British Petroleum reportedly has a full-time staff of 10 working on an internal crediting program that could give it an advantage over competitors like Exxon.
Although the corporate-savvy Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) is promoting the Mack-Lieberman "early action" credit proposal, representatives from nine other Green organizations--including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace, Ozone Action, Union of Concerned Scientists, and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG)--met with staff of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Thursday (Jan. 28) to demand changes to the bill. They got the brush-off. Committee staffers said they were already working with the EDF, which they called the "premier environmental group," and that was all the support they needed.
Not that the Mack-Lieberman proposal will do anything to reduce atmospheric CO2 or ameliorate the as yet unsubstantiated global warming anyway. What it will do is ensure that the burden for compliance with the Kyoto Protocol--which it assumes will be ratified--will fall disproportionately on small and politically less well-connected companies. Small companies can't afford the full-time staff to ferret out credits. Many large companies haven't yet addressed the issue. Without credits, they stand to get stuck with a larger share of the bill.
Many public policy groups, including the Competitive Enterprise Institute, have pointed out that a vote for "early action" emissions credits is a vote for the Kyoto Protocol. We agree. For a whole host of reasons, this proposal is a stinker.
The Worldwatch Institute says that windpower is the world's fastest-growing energy source and one of the world's most rapidly expanding industries (Earth Times, Jan. 29). Peak generating capacity (i.e. when the wind is blowing) in 1998 was up 35 percent over 1997, an increase of 2100 megawatts worldwide. That figure represents more than a hundred windpower stations, but it's the equivalent of just three nuclear power plants--and nuclear keeps generating electricity when the wind doesn't blow. Worldwatch acknowledged that windpower stations were heavily subsidized, but didn't say if they actually turned a profit.
Finally, an Associated Press report last week says the earth's warming oceans are breeding new and deadly viruses, which are killing marine life and threatening human health. According to James W. Porter, an ocean studies specialist at the University of Georgia, there are "increasing reports of dying coral, diseased shellfish and waters infected with human virus."
One always wonders with a statement like "increasing reports of" whether the problem is actually increasing or just the reports are increasing. But, in any case, Professor Porter is disturbed about it. "These are the cries and whispers beginning to confront us about the ecological dangers ahead," says Porter, flashing his literary side. ("Cries and Whispers," Ingmar Bergman, 1972)
Dr. Peter Barrett, mentioned earlier, foresees a mini ice age if the Antarctic ice shelf melts and the oceans cool. Prof. Porter sees a human health disaster if the ocean warms.
Pick your poison. You probably paid for it...
TW2 is compiled by SEPP Research Associate Candace Crandall