Lott: An Alarming Shade of Green

by Roger Lott | 5/1/11 10:00pm

"Fire and brimstone," "real collapse" and "biblical concern" are the kinds of phrases many of us have come to associate with global warming. Economist Eban Goodstein did not disappoint in his lecture at Dartmouth this April, using these terms and many others as he called on his audience to save the planet by redesigning "every city on Earth" and becoming superheroes like characters from "The Lord of the Rings." Before trying to build a new world order, however, it's worth taking all the hysteria about climate change with a grain of salt.

There's certainly been a lot of unfounded alarmism in recent decades. In 1970, ecologist Kenneth Watt said, "If present trends continue, the world will be 11 degrees colder by the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us in an ice age." In 2000, University of East Anglia senior research scientist David Viner predicted that within a few years, "Children just aren't going to know what snow is." It's time to stop taking people with academic credentials so seriously when they engage in such nonsensical speculation.

Goodstein predicted in his lecture that "Impacts from the arctic ice melting could cost somewhere between $2.4 trillion and $24 trillion in cumulative damages by 2050." The absurdly unhelpful breadth of this range reflects how hopeless it is to try to predict temperature changes over four decades and then reduce to dollars and cents an infinite number of effects on issues such as animal welfare, forestry, human health, agriculture and energy use. These impacts aren't even necessarily negative ones indeed, a model by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that a slight rise in temperature would cause modest growth in total world agricultural output.

It's far from clear that the past century's mild warming of about 0.6 degrees Celsius is really the result of increased human emissions. Carleton University paleoclimatologist Professor Tim Patterson points out, "When CO2 levels were over 10 times higher than they are now, about 450 million years ago, the planet was in the depths of the absolute coldest period in the last half billion years." Given the National Center for Policy Analysis estimate that humans are responsible for just 0.28 percent of the greenhouse effect, we shouldn't be too ready to assume responsibility for climate change. Indeed, temperatures actually fell from 1940 to 1970 at the same time that carbon dioxide emissions increased.

Considering the guesswork and subjective judgment involved in predicting the effects of climate change, it's no wonder that damage estimates for a metric ton of carbon dioxide emissions range from the $2 suggested by Dutch economist Richard Tol to the $85 proposed by British economist Nicholas Stern. It is disturbing that environmental groups believe the government should mandate massive and extraordinarily expensive infrastructure changes based on an almost arbitrary figure that could easily be off by a factor of 10.

Any government response to climate change will inevitably be more about politics than science. By exaggerating global warming threats, government officials can justify higher taxes and push a variety of preexisting agendas as they regulate the various human activities that contribute to emissions. Former Canadian Environment Minister Christine Stewart put it best when she said in 1998, "No matter if the science is all phony, there are collateral environmental benefits ... climate change [provides] the greatest chance to bring about justice and equality in the world." This sentiment is perhaps shared by many members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which Vincent Gray, an expert reviewer on every IPCC report since 1990, insists "is not a scientific body. It is a political organization that puts out propaganda as naturally as Green Peace."

While environmental awareness is generally a good thing, we must be on guard against "experts" spouting sensational, politically-motivated scaremongering to make headlines and attract funding. Unfortunately, the College's decision to invite someone like Goodstein without bringing in opposing perspectives reflects the extent to which many members of the Dartmouth community have bought into the overblown hype surrounding climate change.