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Hot Air is Bad for Us

The current uproar over the posture of the Bush administration on global warming and, most recently, on power plant emissions vividly illustrate the political hypocrisy and opportunism imbuing debates on environmental issues. Take first global warming. The charge that the current phase of global warming can be attributed to greenhouse gases generated by humans and their livestock is an article of faith among liberals as sturdy as is missile defense among the conservative crowd. The Democrats have seized on the issue of global warming as indicative of President Bush’s wilful refusal to confront a global crisis that properly agitates all of America’s major allies. Almost daily the major green groups reap rich political capital (and donations) on the issue.

Yet the so-called “anthropogenic origin” of global warming remains entirely non-proven. Back in the spring of this year even the International Panel on Climate Change which now has a huge stake in arguing the “caused-by-humans” thesis admits in its Summary that there could be as one in three chance its multitude of experts are wrong. A subsequent report issued under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences is ambivalent to the point of absurdity. An initial paragraph boldy asserting the “caused-by-humans” line is confounded a few pages later by far more cautious paragraphs admitting that the thesis is speculative and that major uncertainty rules on the role played in climate equations by water vapor and aerosols.

It’s nothing new to say the earth is getting warmer. I myself think it is, and has been for a long, long time.On my shelf is an excellent volume put out in 1941 by the US Department of Agriculture called “Climate and Man “, which contains a chapter acknowledging “global warming” (that same phrase) and hailing it as a benign trend that would return the earth to the normalcy in climate it enjoyed several hundred thousand years ago.

Anything more than a glance at the computer models favored by the “caused by humans” crowd will show that the role of carbon dioxide is grotesquely exaggerated. Indeed the models are incapable of handling the role of the prime greenhouse gas, water vapor (clouds etc), which accounts for 25 to 30 times as much heat absorption as carbon dioxide.

Similarly the International Panel on Climate Change admits to a “very low” level of scientific understanding on an “aerosol indirect effect” that the Panel acknowledges is cooling the climate system at a hefty rate. (Aerosols are particles that are fine they float in air.)

In a particularly elegant paper published last May in Chemical Innovation, a journal of the American Chemical Society, Professor Robert Essenhigh of Ohio State University reminds us that for the last 800,000 years global temperature and carbon dioxide have been moving up and down in lockstep. Since 799,700 of these years were ones preceding any possible human effect on carbon dioxide, this raises the question of whether global warming caused the swings in carbon dioxide or vice versa. Essenhigh argues convincingly that the former is the case and as global temperatures warm a huge reservoir of carbon dioxide absorbed in the oceans is released to the atmosphere. Clearly this is a much potent input than the relatively puny human contribution to global carbon dioxide. Thus natural warming is driving the raised level of carbon dioxide and not the other way round.

But science can barely squeeze in the door with a serious debate about what is prompting global warming. Instead, the Europeans, the greens and the Democrats eagerly seize on the issue as a club with which to beat President Bush and kindred targets of opportunity.

Now take the latest brouhaha over emissions from coal-fired plants. The industry wants what is coyly called “flexibility” in emission standards. EPA chief Christy Whitman is talking about “voluntary incentives”, and market-based pollution credits as the proper way to go. Aware of the political pitfalls, the Bush administration has recently been saying that it is not yet quite ready to issue new rules.

Now, there’s no uncertainty about the effects of the stuff that comes out of a power plant chimney. There are heavy metals and fine particles that kill people or make them sick. There are also cleaning devices, some of them expensive, that can remove these toxic substances. Ever since the 1970s the energy industry has fought mandatory imposition of such cleaners. If Bush and Whitman enforce this flexibility they will be condemning people to death, as have previous footdragging administrations, both Democratic as well as Republican.

Both political parties have danced to the industry’s tunes. It was with the propagandizing of Stephen Breyer (now on the US Supreme Court, then a top aide to Senator Teddy Kennedy), that the trend to pollution credits began. And after the glorious regulatory laxity of the Reagan/Bush years the industry was not seriously discommoded in Clinton Time. Ask the inhabitants of West Virginia and Tennessee whether they think that the coal industry lost clout in those years.

The sad truth of the matter is that many “big picture” environmental theses such as human-caused global warming afford marvelously inviting ways of avoiding specific and mostly difficult political decisions. You can bellow for “global responsibility” without seriously offending powerful corporate interests, some of which (like the nuclear power industry) now have a big stake in promoting global warming. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill loves the “caused by humans” warming thesis and so does the aluminum industry in which he has been a prime player. On the other side we can soon expect to hear that powerful Democrat, Senator Bobby Byrd arguing that the coal industry is in the vanguard of the war on global warming, because the more the more you shade the earth perhaps the more rain you cause. So burn dirty coal and protect the earth by cooling it. The logic of the caused-by-humans models installs the coal industry as the savior of “global warming”? You want to live by a model that does that? CP

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Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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