Thursday, February 16, 2006

Global Warming and the Kyoto Inquisition

The issue of global warming may well be analogous to the debate between Galileo and the Inquisition, as some claim, but I’m not so sure which side of the debate represents the Inquisition in the analogy. It seems to me that all sides are capable of suppressing or ignoring the facts.

Consider the following:
The northern hemisphere is warming, and has been doing so since the “Little Ice Age” of the 1600s. We are still below the average for the past 3000 years, however, and far below the temperatures reached in the Medieval Climate Optimum of the 1100s, when Greenland was indeed green. Evidence for this has been derived from sea bed core samples of plant life whose growth reflects ocean surface temperature and correlates well with contemporary accounts.

The role of man-made CO2 in this long term warming trend is totally insignificant. Scientific consensus is lacking, but it appears that varying levels of solar activity are the prime driver of ocean surface temperatures of the past three millennia.

Among greenhouse gases, CO2 contributes less than 5% to the greenhouse effect. In turn, man-made CO2 accounts for less than 5% of the total CO2 in the atmosphere. Canada’s contribution to global man-made CO2 accounts for less than 5% of that small total. In the context of the Kyoto agreement, Canada is contributing about a 100th of one percent to global warming. This amount can hardly be considered significant, nor should the removal of a third of our little contribution be expected to make the slightest difference to the global climate.

Water vapor is the main contributor to the atmospheric greenhouse effect. Given our recent dry conditions, in Western Canada we should be hoping for more water vapor in the atmosphere, not less. The reality is there is probably nothing we can do that will make any difference to atmospheric water vapor levels, but a Grade 9 science student would know that a warmer atmosphere can hold more water.

80% of the temperature increase in the 20th century occurred before 1945. Atmospheric CO2 levels did not begin to rise significantly until after 1945. As levels did rise, temperatures actually started to fall. When I studied climatology in university in the early 1970s, temperatures had been falling for 30 years and the experts of the day were predicting another Little Ice Age. Some scientists blamed industrial activity for the cooling. Some of those same scientists who dismissed CO2 as insignificant in the 1970s, when it conflicted with their warnings about global cooling, now blame CO2 for global warming.

Much of today’s debate around global warming is driven by the predictions produced by mathematical models of the atmosphere. Temperatures in the troposphere have actually been declining over the past two decades. This decline is confirmed by 20 years of independent measurements taken by satellite and by radiosonde balloon. To my knowledge, no global model has even come close to approximating the actual behavior of the atmosphere over the past 50 years. If the models are proven not to work with real data, why do we believe them?

I raise these examples in order to demonstrate that the evidence is far from clear about what is happening to temperatures. What may be causing temperatures to change (either up or down) is also the subject of active debate, and the causes are far from conclusive. The IPCC is only one voice of many, much like the Inquisition, and the summaries of the IPCC’s conclusions have been reported with far more certainty than even the IPCC’s detailed writings would support.

Some believe that the debate is about putting the “short term interests of a few corporations ahead of scientific knowledge and the future of our planet.” In my travels around the world, it appears to me that developed, industrialized countries that generate wealth and employment have the cleanest cities, the healthiest populations and highest regard for the essentials of life. It is these societies who have the will and the means to clean up the excesses of industrial development.

If we shut down steel mills to comply with Kyoto, steel production will relocate to countries which are not signatories. These countries may already be worse polluters than Canada and have no incentive to clean up. Meanwhile we will have lost jobs and opportunities to develop technology to produce even cleaner steel. While the Kyoto true believers may dismiss this loss as “the short term interests of a few corporations” the reality is that the loss would affect the long term interests of all Canadians. To put it bluntly, we depend on our industry for our health care, social programs and overall well-being.

Should we be concerned about air quality? Absolutely. Start with sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, heavy metals, and other particulates. Kyoto does nothing for these known pollutants. If companies are forced to spend money capturing CO2 because of Kyoto, they will have less to spend on controls for the real pollutants.

We should apply our resources and energy to the task of developing and applying technology to burn coal more cleanly, so that power plants can produce more megawatts per tonne of coal. We should be pouring money into oil sands research to find ways to exploit the world’s greatest reserves without wasting precious water or natural gas. We should be supporting pure and applied research in government, industry and universities that will produce jobs and knowledge that will benefit the world.

Kyoto encourages little of this. Instead, Kyoto asks us to spend our money on CO2 credits from countries whose dirty industries collapsed in the early 1990s, or who converted from coal to nuclear power just in time to get credit for CO2 reduction. It is an economic sham based on questionable science and a cynically manipulative publicity program. We owe it to the world, and our families, to do better.

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