LONDON — Here on the eastern shores of the Atlantic, the British papers are full of grim prophecies out of the big global warming meet in Kyoto: up 3 degrees Centigrade by 2100; seas rising, crops failing, malaria raging through scorched Siberia and the fetid swamps of the American Midwest. Don't take it too seriously. These international jamborees--the last big one was the U.N. enviro conference in Rio in 1992--create a greenhouse effect all their own.
The normal powers of human inattention and frivolity usually allow alarmist effusions of hot air about population explosions and adverse weather patterns to rise harmlessly into the upper atmosphere. But as each enviro summit approaches, the hot air released by several thousand experts all talking at the same time generates powerful thermal currents that assist in the formation of a toxic canopy, inhibiting the usual updraft of inanity. Sometimes it takes as long as three or four years for normal conditions to resume. There have been calls for a return to 1980 levels of inanity emissions, but it is doubtful that there can ever be any meaningful regulation of intellectual hot air. The Environmental Defense Fund would no doubt propose a system of "hot air credits," but all parties already have exceeded any likely quota.
Remember that weather modeling is still a pathetically uncertain art. Take this year's El Nino warming of Pacific waters. Until 1997, the most successful and longest running model of ocean phenomena such as El Nino was the one operated at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, N.Y. But as Science News reported in October, this particular model forecast a cold Pacific in 1997.
Listen to the gloomsters and you hear pell-mell verbal alarums about unprecedented warmings in this century, with the implication or outright claim that this is due to human agency in the creation of carbon emissions. The U.N. predictors--among the more dire of the whole forecasting bunch--say that average global temperatures have risen 1 degree Centigrade in this century thus far and may rise by another 1.5 to 3 degrees by the end of the next century. The gloomsters usually pick the upper number and ignore the possibility that much of the recent warming can be attributed to solar flaring rather than carbon dioxide, and that if these flares subside throughout the next few decades, the Earth will get colder even if carbon dioxide emissions increase.
The Earth has been warmer. When the Vikings sailed off for Greenland about 1,000 years ago, they weren't wearing fleece. True, they were tough hombres, but not that tough. In fact, it was warm enough for Greenland to be green, which is why they gave it the name they did. Just the other day, I ran across a 17th century description of Youghal, the town where I grew up on the south coast of Ireland. The author noted that oranges were grown in Dungourney, a hamlet six miles up the road now much too cold for cultivation of citrus. Chronologies of climate change show astoundingly rapid shifts at various points in the human journey. If the Gulf Stream suddenly ceased to bathe the British Isles in its warmth--a caesura that has occurred before--all talk of global warming would stop abruptly.
The gloomsters draw lurid scenarios of oceans rising, deserts expanding, agriculture failing beneath the torrid sun. The sea has been rising at the rate of about 1.8 millimeters a year for this century, and there's not much evidence that this will change. In fact, it might slow up, since a warmer Earth portends more snow on the Antarctic ice sheet, given that less sea ice means more evaporation, hence more snow. Food production will go up because of longer growing seasons at the productive latitudes.
The biggest gloomsters are the no-growth enviros, some working in cahoots with the nuclear power industry, which sees its last best hope in a theory of global warming caused by fossil fuels. The no-growth enviros throw in a lot of nonsense about Third World overbreeding contributing to speeded-up consumption of such fuels, plus increased production of methane gas from rice paddies and bovines. Roll all this up into one human bundle of balderdash and you get . . . Al Gore.
The trouble with global warming hysteria is that it discredits decent policies. It's wrong to pollute. But a rationale for this position that uses faulty arguments about carbon emissions just plays into the hands of the despoilers, who can then dismiss all protest as based on junk science.