Health and Climate

Sometime in the next 1,000 years our planet will slip into another Ice Age, if the historical cycles of the past continue to repeat.

It will not be pleasant. Where are you going to get food to eat when all of our farms and ranches are covered by a perpetual ice sheet? Last time I looked, there were no more wooly mammoths around — and even if there were, they couldn’t feed the world’s 6 billion people.

It will not be short. Warm periods, such as the one we are currently in, last only about 10,000 years. The cold periods that separate them last about 100,000 years.

The worst prediction I have heard about global warming is that Florida will be completely under water in 500 years. If scientists unlock the secret of immortality and I’m still around at that time, I’ll only be able to reach my Miami condo by gondola. Yet that will be a piece of cake compared to a world in which Miami is approachable only with snow sleds and huskies.

Have you ever wondered why some people hyperventilate about some crises and not others? Why do they froth at the mouth when they think about global warming, but remain almost indifferent to the much more serious threat of global cooling? I have a theory about that. But first a personal confession.

Coming Around Again

What started me thinking about today’s topic was last week’s winter storm — breaking temperature and snowfall records all across the country. Maybe the progression into an Ice Age has already begun, I thought. Then I realized that I too have been swayed by the very silly, totally unscientific rhetoric of the global warming alarmists.

Anyone who pays attention to climate data knows that broad temperature changes occur over thousands of years.  Along the way, there can be radical swings in temperature from day to day, week to week and even year to year. A single hurricane. A single snow storm. One year’s temperature record. Even ten years’ temperature record — none of this tells us anything interesting about where we are headed.

Yet we have been encouraged to think just the opposite by headline grabbing alarmists. Here’s amateur climatologist Al Gore telling us that a record snow storm is evidence of global warming. Here’s former Senator Robert Byrd telling us that lack of winter snow is evidence of global warming. Here is an apparently serious year 2000 prediction that English children will never experience snow.  Here is a 2009 report on record-breaking snow paralyzing London. One of the worst offenders is someone who should know better: NASA scientist James Hansen, who rarely lets any climate event go by without claiming the event is evidence of global climate change.

Even economists have bought into this. Here is Matt Yglesias telling us that 2010 was the third hottest year on record.  “2010 was tied with 2005 for the warmest year on record,” writes Paul Krugman in today’s New York Times. This must come as a surprise to climatologists familiar with the historical record:

  • During the Jurassic Period, when dinosaurs walked the earth, the planet was 18o F (10o C) warmer than it is today.
  • The earth was also warmer than it is today 500 years ago
  • As it was 1,000, 2,000, 2,500 and 3,000 years ago. (See Figure I.)

 

Source: John P. Bluemle, Joseph M. Sable and Wibjörn Karlén, “Rate and Magnitude of Past Global Climate Changes,” in Lee C. Gerhard, William E. Harrison and Bernold M. Hanson, eds., “Geological Perspectives of Global Climate Change: AAPG Studies in Geology, No. 47,” American Association of Petroleum Geologists, March 15, 2001, pages 193–212.

Almost as bad as the hysteria over annual temperature records, is the hysteria over carbon dioxide (CO2). Are we destroying the planet every time we take our car out for a spin around the block? As Figure II shows:

  • There was an explosion of life forms 550 million years ago (the Cambrian Period) when CO2 levels were 18 times higher than today.
  • During the Jurassic Period, CO2 levels were nine times higher than today.

Source:  Figures based on Monte Hieb, “Climate and the Carboniferous Period: Similarities with Our Present World,” Plant Fossils of West Virginia (Web site), updated September 19, 2006. For temperature data, see C.R. Scotese, “Climate History: Ice House or Hot House?” PALEOMAP Project, April 20, 2002; available at http://www.scotese.com/climate.htm.

Warm temperatures and lots of CO2 are very much pro-life. In the past these conditions produced a planet teeming with life. A world warmer than the one we have today may also be good for human health. But from a purely selfish perspective, I’d like to see the climate stay close to where it is. After all, we’ve invested a lot (including my condo) in the current climate regime.

So the really interesting question is: can we thwart Mother Nature and make the climate stay where it is for our own comfort and enjoyment? No one knows. But as the next Ice Age approaches, conservatives who pooh-pooh the threat of global warming may hope that humans can affect the climate. Liberals who drive around in Priuses because they think they are saving the planet may rush out and buy Hummers instead.

As for sound public policy, economic reasoning suggests a go-slow approach — the opposite of what all the alarmists are saying. And this is true whether you are worried about warming or cooling. Suppose you are willing to commit $100 billion to the welfare of our descendants living 100 years from now. You can spend it on alternative energy and other CO2 reduction activities right now. Or you can invest it at, say, a 6% real rate of return in the economy. If you choose the latter, you can bequeath a sum that will grow to $25.6 trillion in 100 years — about 1 ½ the size of our entire economy at current prices. The longer we delay spending the money, the more funds our descendants will have to deal with the problem later on. As explained by Kevin Murphy (via David Henderson), there is almost no case for spending all, or even most, of the money any time soon.

Now for my theory. The next Ice Age will be caused by Mother Nature. Ditto for an asteroid hitting us from space. Ditto for the earthquake that’s going to send Los Angeles into the sea. But global warming might — just might — be blamed on human beings.

Some people only get excited over crises they can blame on their fellow man. Think nature = good and humans = bad and you will get the picture.

Comments (25)

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  1. Linda Gorman says:

    The climate data on which the global warming claims are based make health policy data look solid.

    For a basic introduction to how bad the global warming thermometer data are see E.M. Smith at http://chiefio.wordpress.com/2009/07/30/agw-basics-of-whats-wrong/

    As Instapundit notes, the next crisis du jour may be the claim that modern technology is reversing the earth’s magnetic pole. The only hold-up is figuring out how to blame the pole shift on modern technology and ignoring the fact that there are past shifts in the geological record.

    However, crack teams are at work resolving this public relations issue, several promising solutions have been proposed, and there is hope that the global warming tax financed funding rivers can be dredged and rechanneled.

  2. Ken says:

    Nice post. Very sensible.

  3. Devon Herrick says:

    The science for predicting the weather hundreds of years in advance is precarious (and the information obtained is often conflicting). Awhile back some pundits advanced the theory that global warming might interrupt the conveyor belt-effect that pushes heat from the tropics north via the ocean currents. The trade winds then blow the heat East towards Europe, which makes the weather far warmer than similar latitudes in the United States. In other words, global warming could cool Europe. Historic temperature data suggests a coming Ice Age so Northern Europe and Russia might become unbearably cold.

  4. Virginia says:

    Very funny post. I was thinking the same thing last week.

  5. The piety of man never ceases to amaze me. As if our knowledge and technology earned the right for us to exist on this earth. In the big picture, man kind will get no more or less consideration the the dinosaurs. Live for today, for you shall die tomorrow.

  6. Stan Ingman says:

    John, I am surprised you feel no problem writing about a subject you ..like .. Gore are not an expert on.

    Annual weather and climate change are not known to collate well as experts point out to those who want to listen.

    Watching two experts debate the issue support my position that randon comments like from former WVa Senator do not make me forget about the issue.

    Your simple attempt at reviewing data do not make my feel better about the issue as well.

    Is CO2 an all good gas ? Would like you to debate this issue ..to see how you think. Should it be regulated or not?

  7. John Goodman says:

    Stan, I wasn’t trying to make you feel better. And maybe you are missing my point. I don’t want Miami to be under water, any more than I want it covered with ice and snow.

    The problem is: we may not be able to do anything about either eventuality.

    As for public policy,I thought that was clear too. We should take a go slow approach.

  8. patrick says:

    Stan – yes, it is a “good gas”. Plants can’t live without it.

  9. John Baden says:

    John,

    I’m sitting out a small blizzard in my warm study on a Montana ranch just a few miles from Bozeman. You’ve seen our place and may recall the hills behind our home. They are between us and the Gallatin Range of mountains. How did they get there?

    These hills are glacial deposits pushed out of the mountains by glaciers a few tens of thousands of years ago. At that time our ranch was under ice–and it probably will be again.

    Montana, the most remote of the contiguous 48, long suffered from two things, cold and distance. Fortunately, technology has greatly reduced the pain of both. Due to improved technology, automobiles, buildings, and clothing are so much better that even twenty years ago that cold really isn’t a problem. Being under ice is.

    Like wise, the cost of distance has shrunk dramatically. Jet travel and the internet magically generate the qualities of propinquity even though we’re far distant. Instant access to your Health Alert exemplifies illustrates one important reason why. Being but four hours from DFW another.

    It’s easy to be grateful when living here.

    Best wishes,
    John

  10. David Lenihan says:

    I love a good confession.

    DL

  11. John Garen says:

    Thank you for some basic facts of Earth’s historical temperature record and atmospheric carbon dioxide content. They are almost nowhere to be found in many discussions of climate change but are critical to any informed argument.

  12. Catherine says:

    Last week’s weather was just way too close to an ice age for me. Can’t take much more of this global warming. BTW – I like the video for this.

  13. Stephen C. says:

    Climate change is like health care. It’s almost impossible to have a rational discussion about it. Thanks for this post.

  14. Frank Timmins says:

    As opposed to the debate about the relative pluses and minuses of CO2 (which seems to be as silly as a similar discussion about H2O, or O for that matter), I am more intrigued with the question raised as to why some people “hyperventilate” over something as inane as man made global warming (or cooling).

    John Goodman thinks certain people are predisposed to blame “their fellow man”. I wonder if it has something to do with some psychological condition of self loathing. For example, it seems that one can observe an relatively inordinate amount of collectivist sentiment in the mega rich, which may originate from a kind of guilt complex. Perhaps the environment wackos suffer from a similar disorder born of a sense of being personally undeserving of our ability to somewhat control our surroundings and to dominate the other species of life on the planet.

    Personally, I know as much about psychology as I do climatology, so a large dose of salt should be added. On the other hand the level of professionalism to come from credentialed climatologists makes me think my guess is as good as theirs.

  15. Don McCanne says:

    What will man’s position in the universe be 300 billion years from now? Of course we don’t know, but it is very unlikely that anyone will be concerned about John’s condo in Florida nor my home looking out at Catalina, a home that shares a tectonic plate with Los Angeles.

    I believe that I understand why John and I have different views on health policy (I am a supporter of a single payer national health program), but what I have had difficulty understanding is why the discussion on global warming has become so politicized.

    There is considerable evidence that man is having an impact on earth beyond that of pure natural phenomena, even if small in geophysical or astrophysical terms. Why have we framed this in a manner that divides us into political camps over the issue – camps that are aligned much the same as those over the health care debate – one side believing that we should work together, using government as an effective infrastructure, and the other side believing that each of us can do better on our own, relying on individual responsibility and the free market?

    Maybe that is it. Maybe acknowledging that we are having a detrimental impact on earth would require us to work together to slow it down, when free markets lack the tools to do that.

    Or maybe it’s even simpler than that. Government action to slow global warming could actually require the Koch brothers to spend funds on public policy applications that they care not to, especially when they’d rather spend some of it on refuting the science of global warming. Compound their savings over 300 billion years, and that could really add up to a sizable fortune.

  16. Sterling Burnett says:

    I have written on a number of occassions that global warming theory, the idea that humans are primarily responsible for a general warming of the planet with all manner of catastrophic clamatic changes as a result is more akin to a religion than a good effort at science. The hallmark of science is potential falsifiability and testability/repeatability. Ask anyone who argues that humans are causing harmful climate change, what conditions would have to previal for them to consider their belief falsified and the theory wrong. I’ve yet to find anyone who will stand by an identifiable set of conditions that which if they prevailed, the person would then accept that humans aren’t causing warming. It’s a matter of faith that’s why they can claim with a straight face that if it is colder than average its global warming, if its warmer than average its global warming, if glaciers are melting its warming, if glaciers are growing its warming, if the southwest receives more rain than average its warming, it the southwest faces more drought its warming. Whatever the climate “change” from what they believe the average is for a self-selected period of time, its proof of humanity’s negative impact on climate. As proof, the simply pick the model that predicts that particular result (ignoring the models that predict other results but which they used the day before to hype a different impact).

  17. Seamus Muldoon MD says:

    Dinosaurs chose to ignore the reality of TFGW (triceratops flatugenic global warming) and look what happened to them. If we don’t learn from the lessons of the past…

  18. Dan says:

    John,

    Why did you choose to use the reconstructed (from proxy data, by the way) “Surface Temperature of the Saragosa Sea” as a historical measure of “the Earth’s temperature?” It seems an odd choice to me.

  19. Dan says:

    “Sargasso Sea”…sorry for the typo.

  20. Sterling Burnett says:

    Dan asks a good question. He notes that the historical data is proxy data and that it is from one location taken to represent the globe.
    All historical data reconstructions of climate are based on proxy data of one form or another. Clearly direct measurments did not exist so we look at undersea debris, location, volume, make-up, and ratios of various isotopes of chemcals or elements (in ice cores and peat), pollen, and tree rings to extrapolate CO2 levels and temperture.
    The Sargasso Sea example is one point on the globe but is representative of other measurements from other places around the globe. We could have chosen anyone of them but we would still have been pinpointing one location using proxy data. A good examination of a variety of different sources of data for historic temperature trends can be found in: http://www.ncpa.org/pub/st279 or in Singer and Avery’s larger book on the same topic.

  21. steve says:

    “Warm temperatures and lots of CO2 are very much pro-life.”

    Then I assume your condo has piped in CO2? How much do you use? Are there any upper limits you try to avoid?

    Steve

  22. Frank Timmins says:

    Steve, I guess how much CO2 you have piped into your condo depends upon how many pets you have, and how much heavy breathing you do (amongst other things).

    Now that we think about it given the amount of hot air emitted around Washington D.C., I would guess that the District of Columbia should be designated as a greenhouse gas hazard zone. I guess you are right in that we should consider the upper limits of how much of that we can stand.

  23. Dan says:

    Sterling,

    Thank you for the detailed reply. To be more direct, I question the wisdom of making declarative statements such as, “This must come as a surprise to climatologists familiar with the historical record:…The earth was also warmer than it is today 500 years ago. As it was 1,000, 2,000, 2,500 and 3,000 years ago. (See Figure I.)”

    I am not familiar with the Sargasso proxies but to me, the data just looks like noise. In addition, there are no error bars, so I have no idea if any of the fluctuations are even statistically significant. Furthermore, it is not plotted against any other proxies (from different locations or different methods). Finally, labeling the time axis without ticks is a bit frustrating as is plotting backwards from “present day” starting from t=0. According to the citation, the paper was published nearly a decade ago, so t=0 certainly isn’t present day.

    A compilation of a fairly up to date set of proxy data can be found here (and references cited therein):
    http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/paleo/globalwarming/paleolast.html

    Also see the report from the National Academies:

    http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11676

    Incidentally, careful consideration of all available data seems to tells a “hotter” story…So to pry further, if I may, why do you consider the Sargasso Sea proxy to be “representative” of global temperatures? It would be interesting to see the Sargasso proxy plotted with the existing instrumental record to see how correlated they are. Are you aware of any such study?

  24. Patrick says:

    Don – I’d love to offer an answer as to why this has become so politicized. Its about money. Politicians on both side invent and magnify crisis to get funding. Scientists do to. I am not a scientist but I am a skeptic (which all scientists should be). A real sad part of this, as far as I am concerned is that both sides (but mainly the left) have lumped CO2 in with sulfur, mercury, and other known pollutants.

    Conservation is a virtue. Its simple to me. Those that keep things clean, conserve resources, and are good stewards are practicing a black and white virtue. No maybes. No debates.

    Hummers have become “statement” cars of some on the right. Its wrong headed.

    I don’t mind anyone buying carbon credits or planting a windmill. I just want them to stay out of my wallet.

  25. Frank Timmins says:

    Patrick “I don’t mind anyone buying carbon credits or planting a windmill. I just want them to stay out of my wallet.”

    The problem is the first sentence negates the second.