April 20, 2007 -- The heavy breathing over global warming is enough to terrify anyone.
Last week the Washington Post interviewed a 9-year-old who said the Earth is "just starting to fade away." In 20 years there will be "no oxygen" he said, and he'll be dead. The Post went on to say that "for many children and young adults, global warming is…defining their generation." How sad.
Thirty-six years of consumer reporting have taught me to be skeptical of environmental scares. Much of what the media scares us about turns out to be myths.
Watch "Myths, Lies and Downright Stupidity" on a special edition of "20/20" Friday, May 4th at 10 p.m. EDT
But is the global warming crisis a myth? Read on.
Excerpts from "Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity," coming out in paperback May 1. (Click here to buy "Myths, Lies and Downright Stupidity").
MYTH: Global warming will cause huge disruptions in climate, more storms, and the coasts will flood! America must sign the Kyoto Treaty!
This has to be broken into four pieces.
MYTH No. 1: The Earth is warming!
TRUTH: The Earth is warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said the global average surface temperature increased about 0.6 degrees Celsius over the 20th century.
MYTH No. 2: The Earth is warming because of us!
TRUTH: Maybe. The frantic media suggest it's all about us. But the IPCC only said it is likely that we have increased the warming.
Our climate has always undergone changes. Greenland was named Greenland because its coasts used to be very green. It's presumptuous to think humans' impact matters so much in comparison to the frightening geologic history of the earth. And who is to say that last year's temperature is the perfect optimum? Warmer may be better! More people die in cold waves than heat waves.
MYTH No. 3: There will be storms, flooded coasts and huge disruptions in climate!
TRUTH: There are always storms and floods. Will there be much bigger disruptions in climate? Probably not.
Schoolchildren I've interviewed were convinced that America is "dying" in a sea of pollution and that "cities will soon be under water!"
Lawyers from the Natural Resources Defense Council (another environmental group with more lawyers than scientists) warn that "sea levels will rise, flooding coastal areas. Heat waves will be more frequent and more intense. Droughts and wildfires will occur more often."
But many scientists laugh at the panic.
Dr. John Christy, professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Alabama at Huntsville said: "I remember as a college student at the first Earth Day being told it was a certainty that by the year 2000, the world would be starving and out of energy. Such doomsday prophecies grabbed headlines, but have proven to be completely false." "Similar pronouncements today about catastrophes due to human-induced climate change," he continued, "sound all too familiar and all too exaggerated to me as someone who actually produces and analyzes climate information."
The media, of course, like the exaggerated claims. Most are based on computer models that purport to predict future climates. But computer models are lousy at predicting climate because water vapor and cloud effects cause changes that computers fail to predict. In the mid-1970s, computer models told us we should prepare for global cooling.
Scientists tell reporters that computer models should "be viewed with great skepticism." Well, why aren't they?
The fundamentalist doom mongers also ignore scientists who say the effects of global warming may be benign. Harvard astrophysicist Sallie Baliunas said added CO2 in the atmosphere may actually benefit the world because more CO2 helps plants grow. Warmer winters would give farmers a longer harvest season, and might end the droughts in the Sahara Desert.
Why don't we hear about this part of the global warming argument? "It's the money!" said Dr. Baliunas. "Twenty-five billion dollars in government funding has been spent since 1990 to research global warming. If scientists and researchers were coming out releasing reports that global warming has little to do with man, and most to do with just how the planet works, there wouldn't be as much money to study it."
MYTH No. 4: Signing the Kyoto Treaty would stop the warming.
In 1997, the United Nations met in Kyoto, Japan, and asked the developed nations of the world to cut CO2 emission to below 1990 levels.
And even advocates of Kyoto admit that if all the nations signed the Kyoto agreement and obeyed it, global temperatures would still increase. The difference by 2050 would be less than a tenth of a degree. The fuss over Kyoto is absurd. Even if Kyoto would have an impact, do you think all the signers are going to honor what they signed? China is predicted to out-emit us in five to 10 years. India will soon follow. What incentive do they have to stop burning fossil fuels? Get the shovel.
The fundamentalist greens imply if we just conserved energy, and switched from fossil fuels to wind and solar power (they rarely mention nuclear power -- the most practical alternative), we would live in a nonglobal-warming fairyland of happiness. But their proposals are hopelessly impractical. Building solar panels burns energy, as does trucking them and installing them. Not to mention taking them down again to repair them.
To think that solar energy could stop the predicted temperature increase is nonsensical. EPCOT, a theme park with a solar energy ride, consumes about 395,000 kilowatt-hours per day. The Department of Energy says you'd need around a thousand acres of solar panels to generate that much electricity. EPCOT itself only sits on 300 acres, so you'd have to triple the size of the park just to operate it. (Windmills are no panacea either. They are giant bird-killing Cuisinarts, and we'd have to build lots of them to produce significant energy.)
In 2000, a group called Cape Wind proposed to erect 130 windmills in Nantucket Sound, off the coast of Massachusetts. I think the drawings make them look interesting, but -- horrors! -- they would be visible from the Kennedy family vacation compound in Hyannis Port. Robert Kennedy Jr., grand poo-bah of the environmental zealotry movement, is leading a campaign to ban the windmills from Nantucket Sound. The group he leads, the Waterkeeper Alliance, said it supports wind farms -- but Kennedy fights the one near his home. What a hypocrite.
Eighty percent of the world's energy comes from fossil fuels. Kyoto would decimate just about every Third World country's economy, and deliver a catastrophic blow to our own.
So what should we do about the threat of global warming?
First, calm down.
Second, if the world is warming, it is much more reasonable to adjust to it, rather than try to stop it. If sea levels rise, we can build dykes and move back from the coasts. It worked for Holland.
Farmers can plant different crops or move north. Russian farmers farmed northern Siberia for centuries. When the area became cold and desolate, the farmers moved south.
Far better to keep studying global warming, let the science develop and adjust to it if it happens, rather than wreck life as we know it by trying to stop it.