The Hot Air of Climate Change, Part 1

Is global weather really changing?

This is a multi-part series examining the current debate over "global warming", also known as "climate change".

Over the past few years, we've seen an increasingly shrill cacophony of voices screaming about the damage humans are doing to Planet Earth.  For most of human history, increases in wealth and comfort brought by the application of technology and science have been greeted with open arms by all, with the partial exception of buggy-whip manufacturers and the like who are put out of work by the new technology.

The 1962 publication of Rachel Carson's classic Silent Spring marks the beginning of a sea change: the mass attack on technology and progress as a whole, for environmental reasons.

Because most normal human beings like the comforts of technology, and would prefer not to live as their great-great-grandfathers did, appeals to the heart will only go so far.  You can talk people into turning off lights when they leave the room; into turning down their thermostats a few notches; and maybe even into some limited recycling.  But in the grand scheme of things, and considering the ever-growing population of this world and its ever-increasing wealth, conservation measures are strictly limited in their reach.

As with so many issues, extremists try to camouflage the real questions so as to be allowed to do what they want to do, for their own reasons. In this case it's a naked power grab, in the form of an attack against free enterprise and private property.

The overwhelming majority of so-called environmentalists are either too ill-informed or too unintelligent to really understand what they are talking about.  The remainder are using the cloak of environmentalism to push their socialist agenda.

If you really are concerned about changing weather -- rather than a being captive to special interests -- there are several questions which are highly pertinent and must be explored and answered separately, before reaching any conclusions.  These questions are as follows:

  1. Is the weather changing?
  2. If so, is this change part of a known natural cycle?
  3. If not, what is causing the change?
  4. Does human activity contribute to the changes, and to what extent?
  5. If human activity is a significant cause, would specific proposed legislation have any positive effects, on balance?
  6. What would the cost be to make changes, and would that cost exceed the cost of dealing with the consequences of not making the change?

This series of articles will explore each of these questions in turn.

1. Is the weather changing?

In the 1970s, as satellite technology and global communications began to be widely available, scientists noticed a disturbing trend: the Earth appeared to be getting cooler.  Various conferences and symposia were convened to discuss the available evidence, which did indeed indicate cooling from about 1945 on.

Eventually, this concern made it into the popular press, culminating in an April 28, 1975 Newsweek article, "The Cooling World."  Other popular books and even songs on the subject appeared, reflecting the widespread concern.

Needless to say, these worries were entirely misplaced.  We have not entered a new ice age; far from it.  Today's worry du jour is the exact opposite, one of global warming.

It's easy to imagine that figuring out whether the earth is warming or not, should be fairly straightforward.  After all, we all know how to use a thermometer, and they have been around for several hundred years, how hard can it be?  It's not nearly that simple though.

For one thing, the location you are taking the temperature matters.  I could prove any trend I please, if I'm allowed to cart around the thermometer in between measurements.  Heck, if I took the temperature of the North Pole, and compared it to a 1945 measurement in Tahiti, I could conclusively prove that the Ice Age was already here.

I could do the same thing even staying in one place - the top of Mt. Washington, NH - if I'm allowed to vary the time of year in between.  Clearly, the only relevant measurements are ones where the reading has been taken in the same place for a long time, and on a regular basis over the course of the year.

But there aren't very many of these places.  Regular temperature readings have been taken in American cities for around a hundred years; in London for several centuries; and varying other major cities across the world for times in between.

The problem with this is that cities do not reflect the base temperature of the surrounding area, and particularly not over long period of time.  There are many reasons for this, from the fact that operating air conditioners raise the local temperature of a city, to the phenomenal city growth we have seen over the last hundred years.

You can try this effect for yourself.  Take a light green piece of construction paper, representing grass, and put it on a picnic table outside on a sunny day.  Next to it, place a black piece of construction paper, representing the pavement that constitutes most of the surface area of a city.  Put a thermometer on each one, and you'll find that the black paper is warmer.  So is a little of the air above it, because the heat is radiating off it.

Does that mean that the air temperature of your whole backyard has gone up?  Of course not!  But the measurement looks like it has - because the immediate surroundings of the thermometer have changed.

Consider how the environment of, say, Harvard has changed over the 400 years since it was founded.  The problem is made worse because many weather stations have been moved in recent decades away from the city center, out to the local airport - and an airport is almost entirely nice black pavement.

So it's quite difficult to accurately measure long-term temperature changes from the ground.  It's much easier to do with a satellite, but we've only had those for 40 years or so, which on the scale of climatic and geologic time is nothing.

There are number of other means used to try to measure historic temperatures indirectly, such as by taking ice cores.  But again, such methodologies are rather fraught - for instance, it's well known that continents and ice-caps move around fairly extensively over geologic time, so although the core is taken from the same spot, it doesn't mean that particular spot was in the same place on Earth over all that time.

This being the case, it's not possible to demonstrate that the Earth as a whole is actually warming up, other than over the last few of years, which is basically meaningless.  Now, this doesn't mean that macro-level global warming and climate change is not happening, nor that it is - the point here is simply that there is no way to tell.

This fundamental weakness in the science makes the entire global warming argumentation deeply shaky.  At bottom, it's impossible to prove!  So to say that "the debate is over" is flatly disingenuous.  It's like saying that the debate over flying saucers is over - some people believe in them, lots don't, but by the nature of the question, it cannot be conclusively proven either way.

We will assume, for the sake of argument, that global warming is in fact taking place.  That brings us to the next question:

2. Is this change part of a known natural cycle?

To be continued...

Kermit Frosch is a guest writer for  Read other articles by Kermit Frosch or other articles on Environment.
Reader Comments
Where is part two?
January 2, 2008 7:01 PM
It is not "impossible to prove" as you say. It might hard to prove right now, but it isn't impossible. Given steady temperature gathering in the same area over a long enough basis, it's rather simple.

By the way, the spots that are measured account for demographic shifts and population increases. And those don't apply anyway because readings are drawn mostly in uninhabited areas.

"Hot air" indeed!
January 2, 2008 9:34 PM
It has been said that Rachel Carson is one of the worst murderers in history. Her testimony, research and publications lead directly to the stop of malaria treatments in Africa and pesticide use in the marshs. After the treatments stopped, tens of millions of Africans have died from malaria over the past thirty years.
January 3, 2008 8:15 AM
I have been told by people who spend a lot of time watching birds that Ms. Carson faked her research - the story goes that birds who had a lot of DDT in their environment did BETTER because DDT killed parisites which took some of the bird's energy. She had to give the birds low-calcium diets to get them to be unable to hatch eggs. Birds need a lot of calcium in their diets to lay strong egs, as I understand it.

OOH, I have never been able to find confirmation of this. If it is so, the eco people would try to hide it.

I hear that mosquitos are beginning to develop resistance to DDT. If that is true, she merely delayed the time when DDT would be ineffective.

I also hear that the World Health Organization recommends spraying DDT on bed nets and on the inside walls of houses. The mosquitos avoid the DDT and stay away from the people. Can anyone point to some web sites with more information on DDT and malaria?

The bottom line is that we have to be VERY careful when eco types talk about new rules. One reason we're having so many bad fires in the west is that they started putting out forest firs. Fires due to lightning are common and came often enough that the plants and animals were used to small fires. Putting out fires let brush build up to the point that when they get a fire they can't handle, it is a HUGE fire.
January 3, 2008 8:46 AM
I think Jason missed the point. At the absolute max, temperature readings go back a couple hundred years, which on a planet that presumably has been here for many millions, is absolutely nothing. It's like trying to take someone's pulse in a millisecond - it simply can't be done, because the cycle of the pulse takes rather longer, and to be sure you got it right, you really need to observe a couple of cycles. Which can't be done that quickly. It would be like saying someone had high blood pressure based on an instant pressure spike taken the moment after the heart has beat. Of course there's a spike then - there's supposed to be, it's part of the cycle.
January 3, 2008 12:12 PM

1. Is the weather changing?
Not weather, climate. Weather is "Is it going to rain tomorrow ?" Climate is "Is it going to be hot this summer ?" Big difference. Climate changes matter a lot.

2. If so, is this change part of a known natural cycle?
Not according to 90% of the scientists who study this.

3. If not, what is causing the change?
That's why they are studying it. On the basis of evidence gathered so far, us.

4. Does human activity contribute to the changes, and to what extent?
Same answer as 3. Again, 90% of those involved in the studies say human civilisation is causing significant quantites of greenhouse gases to accumulate in the atmosphere causing gradual increases in temperature. Quantifying the exact figures is difficult. These are very large and complex systems (that's why weather forecasting is a difficult art) and trying to account for every variable, every input, every feedback loop is nigh on impossible.

5. If human activity is a significant cause, would specific proposed legislation have any positive effects, on balance?
Depends what the legislation is.

6. What would the cost be to make changes, and would that cost exceed the cost of dealing with the consequences of not making the change?
Again, depends on what costs you use. Economists don't put values on esoteric items like "50% increase in likelihood of torrential rains destroying mid-west wheat fields over next 25 years" or even simpler items like "failure of monsoon over Asia leading to massive surge in emigration/immigration and humanitarian aid required"

They prefer to cost out things like requiring coal fire power stations to have decent scrubbers in the chimneys which isn't taking the whole picture into account.
January 5, 2008 10:03 AM

Where does "90%" come from? Assuming that's even possible to know, I've haven't seen any data suggesting that the vast majority believes what you are saying. Gore claims that as do others in his camp. In my daily visits to various science web sites and communities, I don't see an overwhelming majority of experts saying that at all. Of course, there are plenty of NON-experts saying that.
January 5, 2008 6:39 PM
New Scientist - can't remember which issue but last three months or so.
January 5, 2008 7:03 PM
Have a look at:

Unfortunately it's on their pay site but it gives the issue number so you should be able to get the full article at a library.

January 7, 2008 5:46 AM
Mark, look beyond the MSM reports. The International Journal of Climatology just published a study demonstrating that the computer climate models are bogus, and that what Frosh wrote about the difficulties of proving global warming (much less humans as the cause) is correct. Some of the study authors were on the IPCC so ought to be worth a listen.
January 7, 2008 8:32 AM
Having a look at:
to try and find it...

Can you tell me which issue of the IJC contains that study please ?

January 10, 2008 7:20 AM
It was published online. Here you go.


Full article (PDF warning)

30 seconds of Googling will work wonders...
January 11, 2008 8:47 AM
May 13, 2010 1:23 PM
May 27, 2010 5:44 AM

Lots of hot air all over the debate. Forbes on June 7, 2010, p 12, popped one of the climate change bugaboos:

Green BS About Cows

Farm animals such as cows, sheep, and goats ar4e portrayed by certain environmentalists as enemies of the atmosphere because of the methane they produce. Well, it turns out that live stock that graze on grasslands actually reduce another alleged global-warming-producing greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide.

A study carried out by Germany's Kalrsruhe Institute of technology and others in Inner Mongolia found that nitrous oxide proliferates when livestock have bot been grazing. Grasses get longer, allowing microbes to incubate and, in turn, release this gas. When cows and other animals eat the grasses the microbes die. After carbon dioxide and methane, nitrous oxide is the biggest greenhouse gas.

In reality grazing animals are global-warming neutral. This study has received little publicity, though, so don't expect to see pictures anytime soon of Al Gore frolicking with sheep or goats.

October 31, 2010 5:30 PM

Grusse, Breit mal Frosch.

This is one really well written and readable article.

Take some time out and absorb it.

November 26, 2010 3:06 AM

July 29, 2012 5:17 PM

Why is Mars getting warmer, then? Human activity?

July 29, 2012 8:09 PM

September 21, 2012 10:40 AM
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