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Why Worry About CO2?
Volume 2, Number 14: 15 July 1999

A few decades ago we were worried about an impending ice age; and then, in less time than it took Rip Van Winkle to take a short nap, we did a full turnabout and began to worry about global warming. Why? Because some of the world's preeminent climate scientists told us that the ongoing rise in the air's CO2 content would dramatically exacerbate the atmosphere's natural greenhouse effect. Which means, of course, that the scientific establishment was initially wrong about global cooling, if we assume they were subsequently right about CO2-induced global warming.

But why should we worry about global warming, CO2-induced or not-CO2-induced? What's wrong with it? To list just a few things, it has been said that global warming will lead to melting of large portions of the polar ice caps, major sea level rise, more and greater floods, more and greater droughts, more and greater storms, more and greater crop failures, more and greater ... well, you get the picture. Just finish the sentence with whatever sounds bad.

These horror stories have provided the impetus for the environmental movement that has prodded and pushed the nations of the earth from Rio to Kyoto and beyond. But are they true? We and a number of other scientists have long said that these dreaded predictions are false. And it now appears that the global warming establishment is about to abandon them as well.

The genesis of this second 180-degree course correction derives from the fact that earth's climate can change dramatically over very short time intervals. As described by Kendrick Taylor in the July-August issue of American Scientist, proxy climate data obtained from polar ice cores reveal a number of instances in earth's past when temperatures changed by as much as 10C in but a couple of decades. And if it's happened before, it can happen again. Right? Right. Furthermore, we are told that a rapid climatic change of this magnitude would wreck unspeakable havoc on earth's biosphere.

The problem with this new scenario is that the threat of incredibly rapid climate change resides not in global warming but in global cooling. Which means, of course, that all of the reasons we have been given for fearing a CO2-induced global warming are no longer pertinent. In addition, it means that the climate change establishment has now been wrong a second time in their predictions of earth's imminent climatic fate, if each time they change their opinion we believe their newest theory is correct.

So what is this new theory? In a nutshell, increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations warm the earth, which intensifies the planet's hydrologic cycle, resulting in increased rainfall. The consequent increase in continental freshwater runoff into the North Atlantic then lessens the density of surface seawater there, inhibiting it from sinking, which destroys the driving force for the great circulatory "conveyor belt" system of the world's oceans that brings warmth to Europe via the Gulf Stream. Thus deprived of the Gulf Stream's advected warmth, Europe rapidly cools. Other portions of the planet follow Europe's lead; and before you know it, we're moving swiftly into a full-fledged ice age. That's right. Washington will not be submerged in a few meters of water; it will be overlain by hundreds of meters of ice!

So now, after a second 180-degree change of heart, the climate change establishment wants us to believe, with equally impassioned zeal, that the same bitter pill they wanted us to swallow to fight CO2-induced global warming will do just as good a job fighting CO2-induced global cooling. Get real. Used-car salesmen don't even make such claims! And what about their track record? After two complete about-faces, the climate change establishment would seem to be severely lacking in credibility.

This point is so important that it deserves a second paragraph. Think about it. We have been told for years there is a near unanimity of scientific opinion on the subject of CO2 and global change: it will result in catastrophic global warming. So sure have this theory's proponents been, in fact, they have convinced the leaders of most of the earth's nations they should dramatically restrict CO2 emissions to save us from ourselves. And they have nearly convinced the public we should pay dearly for doing so. Now, however, in a total repudiation of all the reasons they used to convince us to act as they have decided we should act, they tell us to continue to act as they have decided we should act, but for totally different reasons that acknowledge the falsity of their prior set of reasons.

Would you bet the homestead on the predictions of a group with this track record? If you do, you deserve what you get, or more likely lose. But let's think about it some more. It's possible we could save the farm and reap a number of economic and biospheric benefits at one and the same time.

Consider, first of all, the newly proposed mechanism of climate change. In its basic form, it really does sound reasonable. So reasonable, in fact, that we are tempted to believe the bulk of it. But why does it have to result in catastrophic cooling? Wouldn't it be more reasonable to believe that it would develop gradually, as the air's CO2 content gradually rises, and merely act as a brake on global warming, nullifying it and no more? Indeed, is it not precisely a negative feedback of the type that so many of us have been postulating for so many years that acts as a planetary thermostat and tends to stabilize earth's temperature?

In addition to this variant of the theory, it's possible it could be completely wrong on one of its key points. Taylor notes, for example, that the source of the potential modulation of the oceans' "conveyor belt" may not be located in the North Atlantic but rather in the tropical Pacific. He also suggests that the mechanism responsible for initiating changes in the conveyor could be variations in the sun's energy output. And he admits that "the dynamics of ocean circulation around Antarctica are too poorly understood to completely exclude the possibility that they may play a role."

So, the details of the new theory are still rather hazy. Yet on this uncertain basis we are being asked to forge ahead with actions to establish international energy policies that have the potential to create worldwide havoc in and of themselves. Is that even rational? First it's cooling, then its warming, then it's cooling again. And the cure for these opposites is one and the same thing: less CO2 in the air!

Again, we ask, do you want the people who create or embrace such swiftly and radically changing theories to muddle with the fate of the earth and human society as well? We know not what course others may take, but as for us, we say: not on our piece of the planet. We require something just a little more solid before committing to such drastic action. And you should too, especially in light of the undeniable real-world evidence that atmospheric CO2 enrichment exerts a host of positive influences on earth's biosphere.

So why worry about CO2? We suggest that the reason is not because it will either catastrophically warm or cool the planet, but because it is being used as a pretense to catastrophically change society and redefine the way the world is governed. Climate change reality may well be hidden in the noise of natural variability; but political reality is clearly evident in the noise of the climate change establishment.

Dr. Craig D. Idso
Dr. Keith E. Idso
Vice President

Taylor, K. 1999. Rapid climate change. American Scientist 67: 320-327.