Rushing to Climate Change Conclusions

A group of distinguished scientists has issued a report confirming the theory of man-made global warming. Many of those same scientists are now holding their breath, hoping that a major research project in Antarctica will, for the first time, prove the existence of man-made global warming.

To the ordinary non-scientist, these two statements may seem a bit contradictory, but apparently not to the members of the National Academy of Sciences panel charged with reviewing the evidence for climate change and making recommendations for addressing its effects. These scientists, it would appear, are so committed to the ideology of man-made global warming that they are willing to issue a definite opinion in advance of compelling new research that might debunk their conclusion. But then, timing is everything, and the academy's 869-page report, requested by Democrats in 2008, has been issued just ahead of the left's attempt to ram a cap-and-trade bill through Congress.

Predictably, the NAS report confirms findings contained in the much-criticized 2007 IPCC  report. The NAS panel believes that climate change is "largely" the result of human factors and that the consequences are even worse than those suggested by the IPCC. The NAS scientists believe that by 2100, sea levels could rise as much as ten times more than previously thought.

That is quite a leap in just three years, but then the NAS panel was charged not just with surveying the scientific literature surrounding global warming -- it was told to arrive at definite policy recommendations, and it was not shy about doing so. Those recommendations include the goal of reducing U.S. carbon dioxide emissions to 64% of current levels by 2050 despite the fact that in the next forty years, America's population will increase to 400 million, and the world will still rely on fossil fuels for most of its energy needs. As the International Energy Agency asserts in its prognosis for 2030, "oil will remain the world's main source of energy for years to come." Regardless of these facts, scientists on the NAS panel believe that a 36% reduction is feasible. They have not pointed out how.

Buried near the end of the NAS report is the admission that "knowledge about future climate change and possible impacts will evolve." This being the case, how can the NAS panel be so confident in its "compelling case that climate change is occurring and is caused in large part by human activities"? Since the NAS panel is well aware of the fact that knowledge about climate change "will evolve," why is it in such a hurry to insist that Americans switch from fossil fuels to impractical alternatives? Especially when a major research project will soon report results that may alter the science in dramatic ways?

This project, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) Divide Ice Core Project, is studying the record of climate change over the past hundred thousand years based on ice core samples that preserve greenhouse gases, soot levels, and other indicators. There is speculation that natural cycles of warming that resulted in enormous ancient wildfires may have caused CO2 levels to increase. It may well be that CO2 levels did not cause warming, but the other way around. If confirmed, this theory would refute the notion that CO2 levels cause the earth to warm. The WAIS Divide Project should help to resolve this issue, so why has the NAS published its report at this particular time? By waiting just one year, the NAS panel would have been able to incorporate evidence from the WAIS Divide Project -- evidence that would either strengthen their case or rebut it entirely. I am surprised that a scientific panel would not vote to delay its report in light of such ongoing research.

But then, maybe the NAS panel believe that they already have enough evidence to convict fossil fuels of warming the earth. The panel was chaired by Pamela Matson, Dean of the School of Earth Sciences at Stanford University. Professor Matson's home page lists her research interests, among others, as "developing an ecologically based global budget for the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide" and "developing metrics that allow identification of [agricultural and coastal environments] most vulnerable" to "climate changes, policy changes, and other interacting factors." As I read this summary of fifteen years of research, I have to suspect that Professor Matson already has an opinion as to whether climate change is largely man-made.

Robert Fri is another member of the NAS panel who has written about climate change for decades. Fri served as the first Deputy Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and as president of Resources for the Future, a nonprofit organization that focuses on such issues as "how to cost-effectively constrain greenhouse gas emissions" and on "the question of climate change adaptation." I may be mistaken, but it would not appear that either Mr. Fri or Resources for the Future is in much doubt about the reality of man-made global warming. (One of the nonprofit's researchers, by the way, will be serving on the twelve-person panel appointed to review the work of the IPCC. I wonder what results the panel will come up with.)

Wouldn't the NAS report have been more credible if individuals from outside of government and academe -- and persons not invested in the global warming thesis -- had been appointed to write it? It is troubling that the National Academy of Sciences should appoint a committee that includes global warming adherents to "study" the factual basis of man-made global warming. It is even more troubling that the timing of the panel's report should be geared to the introduction of climate change legislation in Congress. In 2009, hacked e-mails from Britain's Hadley Centre for Climate Change revealed what many consider to be a virtual conspiracy to promote climate regulation. One would sincerely hope that the NAS panel has not engaged in a similar project based more on politics than science.

Dr. Jeffrey Folks taught for thirty years in universities in Europe, America, and Japan. He has published many books and articles on American culture and politics.