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Two Crises of Unbelievable Magnitude: Can We Prevent One Without Exacerbating the Other?
Volume 4, Number 24: 13 June 2001

Two potentially devastating environmental crises loom ominously on the horizon.  One is catastrophic global warming, which many people claim will occur by the end of the next century.  The other is the need to divert essentially all usable non-saline water on the face of the earth to the agricultural enterprises that will be required to meet the food and fiber needs of humanity's growing numbers in but half a century (Wallace, 2000; Tilman et al., 2001).  This necessary expansion of agriculture will also require the land that currently supports a full third of all tropical and temperate forests, savannas and grasslands, according to Tilman, et al., who also correctly state that the destruction of that important natural habitat will lead to the extinction of untold numbers of plant and animal species.

How do the magnitudes of the two crises compare?  Tilman et al. suggest that the coming agriculturally-driven crisis is likely to rival that of predicted climate change, placing the two disasters on pretty much an equal footing.  Wallace, however, is unequivocal in his contention that the agricultural crisis dwarfs the climate crisis.  "There can be," he says, "no greater global challenge today on which physical and social scientists can work together than the goal of producing the food required for future generations."

It is our judgment that the conclusion of Wallace is the more robust of the two, based on the simple fact that the agriculturally-driven crisis is almost certain to occur, whereas there is still doubt about the climate crisis.  We also believe that Tilman et al. would probably not dispute this contention; for it is their own conclusion that "even the best available technologies, fully deployed, cannot prevent many of the forecasted problems," meaning the future scarcity of food, fiber, land and water described above.  This conclusion as to the unavoidability of the agricultural crisis is further buttressed by the fact that Tilman et al.'s analysis even assumed a reasonable rate of advancement in technological expertise, as we also assumed in an earlier analysis of the identical problem that arrived at essentially the same conclusion (Idso and Idso, 2000).

Here, then, is the dilemma we face.  Many people believe that the potential climate crisis is driven by the increasing greenhouse effect of the ongoing rise in the air's CO2 content, while many others believe that the increasing aerial fertilization and anti-transpirant effects of this phenomenon are the only "extra" things that can help us avert the otherwise near-certain food and water crisis.  What is the first group's poison, therefore, is the other group's cure.

So how do we resolve the knotty issue of anthropogenic CO2 emissions, when they are claimed to create one crisis but are deemed capable of averting another?  We do it by invoking the precautionary principle, wherein we consider the question of risk; and in this regard we have already completed, with a little help from our friends, one phase of the required analysis.  We have determined with a good degree of confidence that the agriculturally-driven environmental crisis will likely occur in spite of all we can do to stop it with what we already know, and even in spite of all we can do to stop it with what we can reasonably hope to learn over the next fifty years (Idso and Idso, 2000; Tilman et al., 2001).  The second task, therefore, is to determine if the likelihood of catastrophic CO2-induced global warming occurring sometime in the foreseeable future is anywhere near as certain as the looming agricultural crisis.

We could, of course, argue this question back and forth with various climate alarmists until both of our groups turned blue in the face; and so we will take a different tack.  What we will do instead is refer to the recent News Focus article of Kerr (2001) in the 13 April issue of Science.  In spite of the bad marks we gave the journal's Editor-in-Chief a few weeks ago for his extremely biased comments about the subject (see our Editorial of 18 April 2001), news writer Kerr has produced an amazingly balanced piece of science journalism aimed at this topic that provides all the information needed for our purposes.

Kerr begins by pointing out something about the latest report from the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that "drew little public notice" when it was released to the world at large.  That something was the fact that the range of global warming projections actually widened over the five years since the group's previous set of warming projections.  In other words, the most recent report of the IPCC suggests that it could get either warmer or colder than what they predicted five years ago, which means, or course, that the last five years of scientific scrutiny of the subject have only served to make earth's climatic future more uncertain than it was five years ago.

Kerr then proceeds to interview a number of outstanding climate scientists about this intriguing situation, noting that in some vital areas of the climate modeling enterprise, it is very true that "uncertainties have actually grown."  Texas A & M's Gerald North, for example, says "it's extremely hard to tell whether the models have improved."  Peter Stone of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offers the opinion that "the major [climate prediction] uncertainties have not been reduced at all."  Seattle's Robert Charlson, emeritus professor at the University of Washington, states that "to make it sound like we understand climate is not right."

With respect to how today's climate models perform in comparison to those of five years ago, Scripps Institution of Oceanography's Tim Barnett says "I don't know that they reproduce climate any better."  Jeffrey Kiehl of the National Center for Atmospheric Research allows that "the more we learn [about aerosols], the less we know."  In fact, the progress on the aerosol front has been so "good" that the range of possible aerosol effects now extends from essentially no effect to a cooling large enough, in Kerr's words, "to almost compensate for the total warming from all current greenhouse gases," which includes a lot more than just CO2.

Of course, this situation can work to a climate modeler's advantage.  "There are so many adjustables in the models," says Jerry Mahlman, retired director of NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, "we can always bring the models into agreement with the data"!!!  But it sure doesn't work to the advantage of the folks who must decide what to do about it!!  Hence, when all is said and done, Gerald North concludes "the uncertainties are large ... as large as 20 years ago"!

To be fair, most of the quoted atmospheric scientists still feel we should err on what they believe to be the side of caution with respect to the potential climate change problem by beginning to restrict anthropogenic CO2 emissions.  And if that were the only problem we faced, who could argue with them?  But potential CO2-induced global warming is not the only problem we face.  In fact, CO2-induced global warming plays a poor second fiddle to the agriculturally-driven environmental problem for which enhanced CO2 emissions could well provide the extra help we need to avert it.

This being the case, and in view of the additional fact that the agriculturally-driven environmental problem is much more likely to occur than is the global warming problem, it is our belief that logic demands that anthropogenic CO2 emissions be allowed to take their "natural" course, as dictated by the market place and sound science, since mandated CO2 reductions would appear to have a much greater likelihood of hurting the biosphere (by reducing our ability to avert the agricultural problem) than helping it (by preventing hypothetical CO2-induced global warming).

But what is logic to ideologues with an agenda?  They will paint black white, and white black, if it helps to promote their cause.  Expect nothing different from them here.

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

Idso, C.D. and Idso, K.E.  2000.  Forecasting world food supplies: The impact of the rising atmospheric CO2 concentration.  Technology 7S: 33-55.

Kerr, R.A.  2001.  Rising global temperature, rising uncertainty.  Science 292: 192-194.

Tilman, D., Fargione, J., Wolff, B., D'Antonio, C., Dobson, A., Howarth, R., Schindler, D., Schlesinger, W.H., Simberloff, D. and Swackhamer, D.  2001.  Forecasting agriculturally driven global environmental change.  Science 292: 281-284.

Wallace, J.S.  2000.  Increasing agricultural water use efficiency to meet future food production.  Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 82: 105-119.