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There Are Bigger Environmental Fish to Fry
Than Anthropogenic CO2 Emissions

Volume 4, Number 42: 17 October 2001

In the eyes of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), as well as those of a host of political functionaries worldwide, the curtailment of fossil fuel usage is, in a way of speaking, the only game in town, and the United States is the proverbial odd man out when it comes to sitting down at the environmental banquet table. As a perceptive scientist (Kite, 2001) has recently pointed out, however, the rest of the world would do well to similarly excuse themselves from the deceptively enticing meal, which promises much but will ultimately meet the dietary needs of no one.

Kite begins with the basics, noting that "the overall greenhouse effect is a good thing," and that without it, "life would be rather uncomfortable." Indeed, he correctly reminds us that some ten thousand years ago, "the sites of most major North American and European cities were buried below hundreds of meters of ice," a situation that makes nearly all scenarios of future climate change pale in comparison.

Kite accepts, as do most people on both sides of the global warming debate, "that human activity has changed the composition of the atmosphere," by associating the historical rise of the air's CO2 content with the development and progression of the Industrial Revolution. But with respect to the claimed climatic impact of this phenomenon, i.e., CO2-induced global warming, he says "the case against humans is not as clear as some make out."

In presenting his thoughts on the subject, Kite notes that climate change has been the norm "since the earth's formation." We further note, in this regard, that since the inception of life on the planet, roughly half of these climate changes must have been warmings and the other half coolings, in order for us to not have frozen to death or been fried to a crisp, as evidenced by the fact that we are here to write these words and you are here to read them. Hence, it is only natural that after the most recent global cooling of the Little Ice Age, which followed on the heels of the preceding Medieval Warm Period, we should experience a modest global warming as we recover from that colder period, which has indeed occurred and may, in fact, still be in progress, although we greatly doubt it.

A second point made by Kite is that carbon dioxide, methane and CFCs, even in aggregate, "are not the principal greenhouse gases," since air contains some 40,000 parts per million (ppm) of water vapor compared to a mere 370 ppm of CO2 and even less of the other gases. He also rightly notes that "humans have no control over water vapor emissions," and, hence, that they have little control over the strength of the atmosphere's greenhouse effect, which clearly makes the Kyoto Protocol an exercise in futility, as far as nature is concerned.

In broaching the cause-and-effect question, Kite notes that "the assertion that high levels of carbon dioxide and high temperatures are necessarily coincident may not be correct," citing a period some 450 million years ago when CO2 concentrations were possibly twelve times higher than today and "the earth was in the middle of an ice age 5C cooler than today." We have also broached this topic several times, noting that whenever atmospheric CO2 and temperature appear to move in unison, it is temperature that always takes the first step [see Carbon Dioxide (Correlations With Temperature) in our Subject Index].

As for earth's recent temperature history, Kite cites the case of California as an example of the problems we face in determining what's actually happened over the past century or so, as well as what's happening now. When the data from all climate stations in the state are averaged, there is an upward trend in temperature that is similar to the trends reported by the IPCC for the Northern Hemisphere and globe. When the data are divided into high-density and low-density human habitation groups, however, the former areas are found to depict even more dramatic warming, while the latter areas are seen to have actually cooled a bit.

In thinking about these results, it does not take a rocket scientist to realize that the mean temperature trend of the less-urbanized stations must be more representative of the true climate history of that part (California) of the world at large, which is likely not warming at all, since the more-urbanized areas of the state (and the world!) are subject to the well-known Urban Heat Island effect, which grows ever larger with increasing population and energy utilization. "Could it be," Kite therefore asks, "that global temperatures are really stationary or even decreasing?" We believe this question to be highly relevant and think it very likely that the stationary alternative is the correct one (see our Editorials of 15 June, 1 July, 15 July and 2 August 2000).

In concluding his insightful treatise, Kite declares that "environmental degradation is a far more serious problem than possible climate change," and that it will, if not corrected, "have far greater impacts in a much shorter time." Again, we certainly agree, having highlighted the overarching problem of providing sufficient food - and the land and water needed to produce that food (which often are obtained at the expense of nature) - for the burgeoning human population of the planet, which is a concern that simply dwarfs the highly-hyped climate change scenario of the IPCC and its political allies (see, for example, our Editorials of 21 February 2001 and 13 June 2001). Hence, we renew our plea for greater consideration of these far more certain problems, rather than continuing the business-as-usual approach of spinning our wheels and squandering precious resources that are, in the words of Kite, "currently devoted to impact analyses of uncertain and probably imaginary climate changes."

Yes, we clearly have much bigger fish to fry than poor old CO2, which is actually not a problem but a part of the solution. And we have a moral imperative to do so - see our Editorial of 4 July 2001) - and do it now.

Dr. Sherwood B. Idso
Dr. Keith E. Idso
Vice President

Kite, G. 2001. A skeptical view of climate change and water resources planning. Irrigation and Drainage 50: 221-226.