When the Wall Street Journal publishes yet another argument for doing nothing about global warming, it’s just a dog-bites-man story. So why should anybody get particularly exercised by the Journal’s latest incarnation of this fixed idea, in the form of an extended essay by Steve Koonin? It was to be expected that the Journal would try to take some pre-emptive action on the eve of the opening of the United Nations Climate Summit in New York and the world’s largest climate-action rally. What makes Koonin’s piece noteworthy more than anything else is the messenger.
- He claims that the rate of sea level rise now is no greater than it was early in the 20th century, but this is a conclusion one could draw only through the most shameless cherry-picking. In reality, according to the data, the sea level trend was .8 millimeters of rise per year from 1870 to 1924, 1.9 millimeters per year from 1925 to 1992, and 3.2 millimeters per year from 1993 to 2014—i.e., the rate has actually quadrupled since preindustrial times.
- He claims that the human imprint on climate is only “comparable” to natural variability, whereas multiple lines of research confirm that the climate signature of human-caused greenhouse gas increases has already risen well above thebackground noise level. Koonin’s claim also obscures the fact that human-induced greenhouse gas increases are the only influences that have been found to provide a significant drive for warming. The most prominent natural influences, such as volcanic eruptions and heat uptake by the ocean, only serve to offset some of the warming caused by human influences.
- He states that human additions to the greenhouse effect will shift the natural greenhouse effect by only 1 percent to 2 percent by the middle of the century. This is another variant of the standard skeptics’ arguments that attempt to make the human influence seem small, but, like all such arguments, requires a lot of creative accounting. In reality, a large part of the natural greenhouse effect is due to substances (mainly water vapor, and consequent cloudiness) that are in the atmosphere only because carbon dioxide keeps the Earth warm enough to prevent them from condensing out. Carbon dioxide is the main control knob for Earth’s climate, and if one looks at the effect of doubling carbon dioxide relative to the baseline carbon dioxide greenhouse effect, that amounts to a change of over 10 percent—and at the rate our fossil fuel burning is increasing, we could go well beyond doubling. Further, if one looks at fossil fuel burning in terms of the magnitude of our disruption of the natural carbon cycle, industrial civilization looks like a force of much more than geological proportions. Fossil fuel burning is adding carbon to the Earth system at a rate that is more than 100 times greater than the volcanic sources that drive the Earth’s natural long-term carbon cycle.
- He states that the effects of carbon dioxide will last “several centuries,” whereas “several millennia” would be closer to the truth. The carbon dioxide we emit while dithering about what to do will cause essentially irreversible changes to our climate.
- He does a lot of hand-wringing about the uncertainties in ocean behavior, but doesn’t seem to appreciate that oceans cannot be a cause of long-term warming because almost all of the mass of the oceans is colder than the lower atmosphere. Oceans can delay warming by taking up heat (indeed they are, as ocean observations confirm), but the warming will be made up with a vengeance once the oceans stop taking up heat, as they eventually must.