Hot Air at The New York Times
Jude Wanniski
June 25, 1997


Memo To: Vice President Al Gore
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: “Global Warming”

I notice you are being trashed in recent days by environmental extremists for having been less extreme than you were in your 1989 book, especially on the issue of “global warming.” I extend my heartfelt sympathies to you, even assuming you will be tempted to redouble your effort to shut down economic growth on Planet Earth in order to prevent icebergs from melting, because of the carbon dioxide we create as we drive to and from work. It is hard not to be an environmental extremist if you wish the support of The New York Times editorial page, which has been paving the road to global warming with its good intentions. With the neo-Malthusians at the United Nations this week pushing global warming, the Times was back at it this week, with its lead editorial on Sunday, June 22, entitled: “No Hot Air on Global Warming.” In fact, the editorial is nothing but hot air. It allows the global warming propaganda to proceed unimpeded. Take the June 22 editorial, piece by piece:

Five years ago, more than 100 world leaders came together for the first international Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, leaving a diaphanous trail of promises to clean the earth’s atmosphere, save its rain forests and otherwise collaborate on common environmental challenges. Many of these leaders or their successors will convene at the United Nations this week to review their work. There is little to celebrate. The oceans are as polluted as ever, and deforestation proceeds at a ruinous pace. Perhaps the most conspicuous failure, however, involves the hugely contentious subject of global warming.

First, Mr. Vice President, we should agree that the when the Times complains that “the oceans are as polluted as ever,” it must not be aware that the oceans are not polluted at all. Salt water destroys all pollution. The oceans are the surest cleansing agents on earth. As fast as NYC pitches garbage into the Atlantic, the Atlantic cleanses it. Of course, if one throws garbage into the ocean at the beach in Coney Island, it will get pretty disgusting. But that’s quite another matter than asserting that the oceans are as polluted as ever. The statement is correct, but only in the sense that they are not polluted at all.

The next assertion is that deforestation proceeds at a ruinous pace. This is also completely, totally false. There is now more forest on the planet than there was 200 or 300 years ago. There are more trees on earth today than there were a century ago, and a century ago there were more trees than there were two centuries ago. Forests are profitable when maintained, and they are. The United States (not including Alaska) in 1920 had 600 million acres of forest, and today has 728 million acres. The most densely populated state in the Union is New Jersey, where I live, and the Department of the Interior classifies one third of the Garden State as forest. The only areas of deforestation that were of significance in the past half century were in the Communist countries of the USSR and mainland China. Since 1978, China has been reforesting. The USSR, which is almost all forest to begin with, is being replenished too. The New York Times is writing silly things, not worthy of a high school newspaper. Here is the second paragraph of its Sunday editorial:

President Clinton cannot avoid addressing that issue [global warming] when he speaks on Thursday. With only 4 percent of the world’s population, the United States produces more than a fifth of the “greenhouse gases” like carbon dioxide that are contributing to a gradual and potentially disruptive warming of the earth’s surface. Moreover, the United States has fallen well short of its Rio pledge to stabilize greenhouse emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000. Only two of the industrialized nations that joined in that pledge, Germany and Britain, are expected to meet their targets. The United States will exceed it by 13 percent or more.

First of all, carbon dioxide constitutes only 1% of the material that produces a “greenhouse effect” on Earth. Scientists agree that water vapor constitutes the other 99%, and if all water vapor were removed, the temperature on the earth’s surface would be lower by some 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Of the carbon dioxide, 97% is produced naturally, by volcano activity, forest fires, plant decay, and the oceans. Only 3% is produced artificially, by mankind, driving cars, heating homes, and fueling industrial plants. The other primary source of greenhouse gas is methane, which is produced in lesser amounts than the 200 billion tons of CO2 that goes into the atmosphere each year, but by some estimates has 30 times the warming potency of CO2. Methane is generated by volcanic activity, wetlands, termites that chew wood and expel methane, flaring of gas at oil wells, and by cows, which expel methane through flatulence. Now if we take all sources of greenhouse gases and then identify the part that comes from mankind burning coal and oil, we get a much different picture than we do from the extremist who writes the Times editorials.  We must multiply 0.01 by 0.03 to find out how much artificial CO2 contributes to all greenhouse gas, including water vapor. We must then multiply this by at least 0.03 to factor in the methane contribution. The artificial contribution of CO2 is then only 0.000009 of the total. If we translate this into a number we can understand, we see that mankind is not that responsible for global warming, if there is such a thing. One mile is 5,280 feet. On that scale, the amount of artificial CO2 would be no more than half an inch.

You will then note, Mr. Vice President, the Times then complains about the lack of progress for cracking down on greenhouse emissions, wondering if the President “and Mr. Gore are up to the challenge.”

The President has one important thing going for him. There is a far broader scientific consensus on global warming than there was in Rio five years ago and there are many more creative ideas about how to address it... One reason why the industrial nations opted for voluntary targets in Rio was that mainstream scientists simply could not agree whether man-made emissions contributed to the small rise in global temperatures that began late in the 19th century. In 1995, however, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, consisting of about 2,500 scientists, concluded that they had. Their language was cautious, their forecasts were gloomy.

This is all baloney. There were only a few scientists on the UN panel who actually did some work in developing the computer models that led to its conclusions. There were not 2,500 scientists who signed the report, only 40.

Unless the current rates of combustion of carbon-based fuels -- coal, gas, oil -- could be reduced, they warned, temperatures would rise between 1.8 and 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century. Temperature changes in the middle level of that scale could cause a 20-inch rise in sea levels that would flood coastal lowlands and tropical islands, an increase in weather extremes, and global damage to forests and croplands. Despite challenges from businesses, which have been attacking the science in tobacco-industry fashion, the U.N. panel has not retreated from its basic findings.

The Times does not tell us that the panel’s work was done with computer simulations, not actual measurements of what is going on around the world. It is of course true that man-made CO2 emissions have increased by 30% in this century, but that only means on a scale of one mile of greenhouse gases, man’s contribution has gone from 3/8 of an inch to half an inch. The Times does not tell us that scientists agree the actual measurements show a global warming beginning in the 19th century, of about 1 degree Fahrenheit, but that the entire amount of that warming took place prior to 1940! Inasmuch as the earth has been cooling slightly since 1940, the period in which the greatest increase in man-made carbon dioxide has occurred, the evidence points in the opposite direction. Indeed, there are “scientists” who now warn of global warming who began years ago warning of a new ice age. 

About one-third of the atmosphere’s greenhouse gases is produced by electric power plants, one-third by cars and truck and one-third by other commercial enterprises and ordinary households. Reducing these gases not only means using less energy. It will also require expensive investments in cleaner fuels, cleaner cars and new technologies.

Given the minuscule contribution of these sources to the problem, the statement itself is preposterous. If there were a global warming problem, there is at least agreement among scientists that methane would be easier source to combat. In Gregg Easterbrook’s A Moment on the Earth, [Viking, 1995, 745 pp.], by far the best overview of environmental issues ever written, we get this perspective on methane: “Because methane is so potent as a heat-trapping gas, it may be as responsible as carbon dioxide for any recent warming. As Sherwood Rowland, the University of California scientist best known for the basic equations of ozone depletion theory, says, ‘If we are really serious about the greenhouse effect we would go after methane first.’”

This makes too much sense, and the reason methane is not attacked first is because the people who are behind the greenhouse quackery are not interested in solving that problem. They want to find some way to slow economic growth in the developing world, which they can only do if they can enact global political conventions around greenhouse mythology. We note in The Wall Street Journal’s Monday Outlook column that British Petroleum has now swung behind the greenhouse theory. At the Denver Summit this week, Tony Blair, the new British Prime Minister, sounded the doomsday alarm unless the world stops burning so much coal and petroleum. The United Kingdom, of course, has converted enough of its industry to natural gas that it now meets the standards set at the Rio Convention. It is in London’s interest to have all England’s competitors switch to more expensive energy inputs. Karl Marx would have smiled knowingly at Tony Blair’s speech. Recall President Clinton last year making a friendly suggestion to China that it refrain from becoming dependant on fossil fuels in its internal development. How about ethanol?

Back at The New York Times editorial, we are advised that closing down our own use of fossil fuels will actually be good for the economy:

Earlier this year... about 2,000 economists signed a statement asserting that the benefits of action on climate change outweighed the costs and that a well-tailored plan relying totally on market mechanisms could actually improve productivity. A study by the World Research Institute reached the same conclusion. Both the economists and the study suggested that one mechanism could be a carbon tax that would make coal and petroleum fuels more costly and discourage consumption. The revenue from the tax would then be recycled into the economy in the form of lower payroll and corporate taxes, thus encouraging new investment.

The fact that 2,000 economists who know little enough about their own profession can sign a statement about something they know less than nothing  is amusing in itself. The solution that is proposed could have been written by Corporate America: Let’s have a big tax on gasoline and coal and use the revenues to reduce our payroll and business taxes. The Times has been making the argument for a big energy tax for 25 years, originally arguing that the world was rapidly running out of fossil fuels. Now we need a big tax because we are finding too much of the stuff. The world’s proven reserves are now up to a trillion barrels, enough to last another 40 years at projected rates of consumption. And exploration has barely scratched the surface. 

Since a carbon tax is unlikely to fly in Congress, both the economists and the study suggested a more politically palatable option that the Administration has generally embraced -- an international emission-trading scheme that would set a global ceiling on emissions and give each country a national ceiling. The idea behind this scheme is that rich nations who cannot keep within their limits without crippling financial investments will be able to “buy” pollution permits from poorer countries whose economies are so inefficient that even the tiniest adjustments can achieve big reductions in greenhouse emissions.

Yes, indeedy. We will impose ceilings on ourselves and then buy increases in the ceilings from countries that agree to use less energy. The Congress will go along with that. So will China, which really doesn’t want to grow very fast and will be happy to sell us some of their ceiling.

This mechanism is not without flaws, and it remains to be seen whether everyone can agree on such a complicated scheme before Kyoto [a global warming conference in December]. But in the long run Mr. Clinton’s greatest problem may be to convince Congress, which must ratify whatever emerges from Kyoto, to take the issue of global warming as seriously as the scientists do. That means taking it seriously himself and getting his Vice President, who has been silent on the issue of late, to speak out. It was Mr. Gore, after all, who asserted in “Earth in the Balance” that global warming “threatens to destroy the climate equilibrium we have known for the entire history of the human race.... The longer we wait, the more unpleasant our choices become.”

I am taking the liberty of presuming, Mr. Vice President, that since you wrote your book several years ago you have come to have a better appreciation of the facts regarding global warming. My assumption is that one of the reasons you have “been silent on the issue of late,” as the Times puts it, is that you have learned a thing or two in the last few years about the sources on which you relied for these doomsday theories. If you are going to run for President in 2000 carrying this kind of stuff around, you would not get very far in your debate with Jack Kemp before you would find yourself forced to defend an indefensible position.