FACTS AND MYTHS ABOUT GLOBAL WARMING:
A CONSERVATIVE PERSPECTIVE
By JOHN R.E. BLIESE, Ph.D.
AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Originally published in the summer 2001 issue of REP’s The Green Elephant newsletter.
Global warming is one of our most critical environmental problems, but it is surely the most misunderstood. There is a lot of misinformation out there, and there has also been a disinformation campaign by some special interests who want to protect their short-term profits by preventing us from solving the problem. Unfortunately, some conservative organizations and publications have participated in this disinformation campaign.
There is no justification for this, just as there is nothing conservative about denying scientific evidence.
Global warming is a highly complex issue, so all I can do here is deal briefly with a few points.
Myth: There is a huge debate among scientists about whether global warming is a real problem.
False. If you look at the scientific journals, you will not find anything of the sort. The consensus of almost all climate scientists is that global warming is already happening, that human actions are causing it, and that it will cause major problems for our planet. Of the hundreds of climate scientists in the world, there are only a handful who are still doubters. When the TV news gives both “sides” equal time, it is seriously misleading the public about the current state of climate science. The earth’s climate is enormously complex, so there are still plenty of research questions to keep the scientists occupied for a long time. Still, the overwhelming consensus is that we are causing a serious problem for the near and distant future. The “debate” about global warming exists only on the TV news and the op-ed pages of the newspapers.
Fact: There is a greenhouse effect that warms the earth, and we should be very glad about it.
There are several trace gases in our atmosphere, present in only minute amounts, that trap heat. The most important ones of concern here are carbon dioxide and methane. Like the glass panes of a greenhouse, they let sunlight in to warm the earth but keep some of the heat from escaping back into space. If they were not there, the average temperature of the earth would be well below freezing, and none of us would be living on it.
These greenhouse gases have natural sources that produce them, and natural “sinks” that remove them from the air. These natural processes have kept the greenhouse gases stable for the past 10,000 years—since the end of the last ice age. The problem now is that we are producing these gases much faster than the sinks can remove them. Our carbon dioxide comes mostly from burning fossil fuels in power plants, cars, trucks and factories, and so on, and from burning tropical forests. Methane comes from agriculture, landfills, leaking natural gas lines, and coal mines.
Fact: The earth is getting warmer, and it is warming much faster than any natural variation.
This is happening both in the air at the surface of the earth and on the earth’s surface itself.
During the 20th century, the global average temperature of air at the surface increased by over 1o F., and much of that was due to our greenhouse gases. Now, this looks like a very small number, but it really is not. It is a global average and in that context it is very large. There is “only” a 9o F. difference between the middle of an ice age—with glaciers covering the northern United States—and our climate today.
Myth: Measurements from satellites show that the earth is not warming.
False. These satellites do not measure surface air temperature, nor ground temperature. They measure a column of air centered about 2.5 miles above the earth, and they have only been calculating this temperature for a few years. They show a very slight warming at that altitude, although scientists expected more warming, closer to surface temperatures. There is a lot of effort being devoted now to understanding why these two trends differ. But the evidence from satellites does not refute the evidence that the earth and the atmosphere at the surface are warming.
So… there are greenhouse gases, and we are adding them to the atmosphere much faster than nature can remove them, and the earth is getting warmer. We can already see some effects of this —glaciers are vanishing from Glacier National Park—but the really serious consequences will happen in the future if we continue to produce more and more of these gases. If we do not change, we are leaving a legacy of serious trouble for our children and grandchildren.
The scientific community’s best estimate is that, if we continue with business as usual, by the year 2100 greenhouse gases will have more than doubled and the global average temperature will be at least 2.5o F. higher and possibly much more, and still going up.
These projections are much higher than the ones given just five years ago. That means that within the lifetime of many of our grandchildren, the earth will be hotter than it has been in hundreds of thousands of years. Keep in mind, here, that we are not looking at weather that is just a few degrees warmer each day. In that respect, “global average temperature” is pretty misleading. (Just think of what the current global average includes. It averages everything from the Arctic to the tropics, from Death Valley in August to Alaska in January.) We are producing a whole new climatic regime, and many of the consequences will take the form of extreme events.
What will the consequences be?
Obviously, here we are in the realm of estimates and projections. We cannot know for sure, until it is too late, but some consequences are nearly certain and others are likely. There are also some risks that we cannot now predict how probable they are. But here are some realistic things to expect:
- Sea levels will rise, because water expands as it gets warmer. As a result, we should expect coastal flooding, especially in states like Florida and Louisiana. Storm surges will affect people farther inland than they do now. Highly-productive estuaries will be destroyed, if they cannot move inland because human development blocks them. Aquifers from which coastal cities get their water may become contaminated with salt water.
- Ecosystems will be disrupted. Our climate zones will shift to the north as the earth warms, but this will happen far faster than ecosystems can migrate or adapt. Forests, for example, will be stressed, because the trees will soon be out of their climatic zones; and stressed forests are highly susceptible to fires and disease. Expect serious loss of our forests. And as climate zones shift, more species will become endangered and extinct. The more you think about it, the more you will see just how great the potential is for environmental disaster. The natural areas we enjoy face devastation.
- Precipitation will change. In a warmer climate, more of our rain will come from stronger storms, producing increased flooding. This is, in fact, already happening. Storm tracks will probably shift to the north, so some areas will suffer from increased droughts. There is evidence that a warmer climate is already producing stronger El Nino weather patterns, which cause widespread disasters. And there is evidence that a warmer climate will produce stronger hurricanes.
- Health problems will increase. A warmer climate on average means more deadly summer heat waves. This is already happening in the U.S., killing more people. And tropical diseases will be able to spread farther north into the U.S. This, also, is already happening.
- Food supplies will diminish. The studies generally conclude that in rich countries farmers will be able to adapt, but that the food supply in poor countries may be seriously harmed, possibly producing millions of environmental refugees.
There are also risks of unknown probability, such as a shut-down of the oceanic circulation system that would devastate both land and marine ecosystems, and the collapse of ice sheets in Antarctica that would raise sea levels drastically.
Clearly, we have a problem here. We also clearly have an obligation to take the lead in solving it. The U.S. has less than 5% of the world’s population, but we produce one-fourth of all greenhouse gas emissions.
Myth: Solving global warming will devastate our economy.
Nonsense, utter nonsense. The “studies” that produce that conclusion only get those results by starting with the assumption that it will be enormously expensive because there are no substitutes for fossil fuels and there is no way to become more efficient. As Amory and Hunter Lovins say, that is an assumption masquerading as a fact, and it is “flatly contradicted by experience.” Like the old saying about computers: “garbage in, garbage out.”
We can solve global warming without damaging our economy. Over 2,500 economists in the U.S., including eight Nobel Prize winners, signed a statement that concludes: “There are many potential policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for which total benefits outweigh the total costs. For the United States in particular, sound economic analysis shows that there are policy options that would slow climate change without harming American living standards, and these measures may in fact improve U.S. productivity in the longer run.” When was the last time 2,500 economists agreed about anything? In fact, we can reduce greenhouse gases in countless ways that will save money, leaving us better off than we are now.
There are four keys to reducing greenhouse gas emissions:
1. Quit destroying forests, especially tropical forests. We need to help those countries increase agricultural productivity without having to clear more land.
2. Increase the sinks for greenhouse gases. One obvious possibility: plant trees. They take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and give us all sorts of added benefits as well. We could begin a major replanting program on our national forests, which have been devastated by years of subsidized clearcutting.
But planting trees is even more effective in towns and cities, because the trees also shade buildings and reduce energy demand for air conditioning and heating. Methane from agriculture can be reduced, and it can be profitably captured from landfills and mines and then burned to generate electricity.
3. Increase energy efficiency. This does not mean we have to freeze in the dark. It means getting the energy services we want—heat and light and power—from burning less fossil fuel. As Paul Hawken and the Lovins say, “Climate change is not an inevitable result of normal economic activity but an artifact of carrying out that activity in irrationally inefficient ways. Climate protection can save us all money.”
Some 40% of U.S. greenhouse gases come from electricity-generating plants. We are so wasteful in our use of electrical energy that there are endless opportunities to replace inefficient lights and equipment and appliances and save money by burning less fuel. Replacing a 75-watt light bulb with an 18-watt compact fluorescent bulb, for example, gives you better light and uses so much less electricity that you save over $35 in the end—and it reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 1,600 pounds. Over half of all electricity is used to run motors in businesses and industries. Retrofit of proper controls pays for itself in a year or two and could cut the total electricity used in the whole world by one-fourth. The opportunities are so great that Amory Lovins calculates that the U.S. could run our entire economy on about one-fourth of the current electricity used, saving us billions of dollars every year.
Transportation is responsible for about one-third of our greenhouse gases, and this is another area where we are enormously wasteful. All of us who drive contribute to global warming. Every gallon of gasoline we burn puts 20 lbs of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, so yes, gas guzzlers will have to go. (In the not-too-distant future, our vehicles will probably be powered by fuel cells, which do not emit greenhouse gases.)
Overall, Amory Lovins calculates that it is so much cheaper to save fuel than to burn it, that the U.S. could cut greenhouse gas emissions drastically and save $300 billion per year. And there are many additional ways to cut greenhouse gases at low cost.
4. Expand renewable sources of energy—wind, solar, biomass, fuel cells—to replace fossil fuels.
Here we need more research and development, but both Congress and the energy industry are so myopic that they invest very little in renewables research. A little more money here would go a long way. And just because we still have cheap fossil fuels around is no reason to delay switching to renewable sources of energy. As the head of Shell Hydrogen says, the Stone Age did not end because the world ran out of stones, and the Oil Age will not end because we run out of oil. In fact, the only reason renewables are not competitive on the market right now is because people and industries who burn fossil fuels do not have to pay for the damages caused by the air pollution they emit. Switching to renewable energy sources solves the damages from air pollution on top of protecting the climate.
So, there are many sensible things we can do to solve global warming. And they do not require government control of our lives. They do require government policy and leadership. There are numerous market barriers that keep our economy from becoming more energy efficient; governmental policy and leadership can help remove them. In many cases, this will involve no more than providing information and expertise: showing people and companies how to be more efficient —such as the EPA’s “Green Lights” program, which shows businesses how to save electricity and money in lighting commercial buildings. In some cases, it may mean getting prices right, e.g., making polluters pay for the damages they cause—as free-market theory says they should—which will also make renewables competitive.
As Amory and Hunter Lovins say, reducing greenhouse gases is not about command and control. “It’s about helping markets to work properly—and then letting them do their job…. Innovative, market-oriented public policies, especially at a state and local level, can focus chiefly on barrier-busting to help markets work properly and reward the economically efficient use of fuel. This require much less intervention in the market than we now have with regulatory rules and standards.”
Fact: Global warming is not a liberal conspiracy to expand the power of government, nor is it a theat to our prosperity. It is a very real and compelling problem that we must face and solve.
An important conservative principle is that society is intergenerational, so we have obligations to be good stewards of the earth for future generations. Consequently, we have an obligation to take the lead in dealing with threats to the climate. Besides, as the Lovins ask, “if the ‘cost’ of protecting climate ranges from strongly negative to roughly zero or irrelevant, what are we waiting for?”
Let’s not let our Republicans in Washington—in Congress and in the White House—delay any longer.
For further information…
For development of the points made here, and citations of supporting studies, see the two chapters on global warming in John R. E. Bliese, The Greening of Conservative America (Westview Press, 2001).
For the science of global warming, the best book for non-scientists is Sir John Houghton’s Global Warming: The Complete Briefing, 2nd ed. (Cambridge University Press, 1997), 250 pp.
For sensible solutions that will save money and strengthen the economy, see Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins, Climate: Making Sense and Making Money (Rocky Mountain Institute [www.rmi.org], 1997), 39 pp.
For many things your company or organization can do to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and improve the bottom line, see Joseph Romm, Cool Companies (Island Press, 1999), 277 pp.
To understand all of the contradictory claims about the economic costs of solving global warming, see Robert Repetto and Duncan Austin, The Costs of Climate Protection: A Guide for the Perplexed (World Resources Institute, 1997), 47 pp.; and Stephen DeCanio, The Economics of Climate Change (Redefining Progress [www.rprogress.org], 1997), 46 pp.
CREDIT FOR THIS PIECE: This was the third feature article that John R. E. Bliese, Ph.D. — a REP member from 1996 until his death in 2009 — wrote especially for The Green Elephant. Taken all together, these pieces make a significant contribution to the body of literature that Dr. Bliese built up around the theme that Conservation is Conservative.
Dr. Bliese retired in 2002 as Associate Professor of Communications at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. He published numerous articles and monographs on the link between conservation and conservatism.
We remain grateful for all four of these essays and are proud to continue making them available on our website. We also know that he would be happy to know that they are still available for future generations to read and learn from.
“Conservative Principles and the Environment” (Fall 1997, The Green Elephant)
“The Great ‘Environment Versus Economy’ Myth” (Summer 1999, The Green Elephant)
“Facts and Myths about Global Warming: A Conservative Perspective” (Summer 2001, The Green Elephant)
“Saving Life on Earth: Doing Noah’s Job Today” (Spring 2004, The Green Elephant)
We also highly recommend Dr. Bliese’s important book, The Greening of Conservative America, which elaborates on many of the themes discussed here.