American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

House Committee Examines the Science Behind the Global Climate Warming Debate (8-21-98)

On July 29th, the House Committee on Small Business invited scientists and representatives from interest groups to discuss the science behind global warming. In 1995, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international consortium looking at the science behind global climate, concluded that this century's temperature increase "is unlikely to be entirely natural in origin" and "the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on the climate." Despite these findings, a number of vocal scientists with differing views are providing enough contradicting views to keep the debate going. A February 1998 Geotimes article addresses the age-old problems of scientific consensus and its relevance to the global warming debate. There are also many other climate updates provided on the AGI website. Four of the six witnesses invited by the Committee Chair testified that global warming is not happening. The other two scientists, invited to testify just one week before the scheduled hearing, argued that global warming is indeed occurring.

Previous hearings held by the Committee examined projected effects of the Kyoto Protocol on small business and farmers. The Chair introduced this hearing as "The Undermining of American Prosperity? -- The Science". The hearing focused on the science behind the global warming debate. First citing projected costs to Americans as a result of the Protocol, Talent then challenged the assertions put forth by Protocol supporters as being "based primarily on:

  1. The pretense of a consensus within the scientific community, when in fact no such consensus exists;
  2. Highly selective and misleading use of data; and
  3. Utter failure to confront the body of evidence suggesting that the Earth's warming trend is natural and beneficial."
Dr. Robert T. Watson is the current Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This group consists of scientists (atmospheric chemists, oceanographers, biologists, chemists, meteorologists, and others), economists, and industry representatives. While granting that there is uncertainty inherent with scientific theory, Dr. Watson went on to redirect the questioning of the hearing. He said that "the question is not whether climate will change in response to human activities, but rather where, when, and by how much." He noted a residence time of over 100 years for carbon dioxide as one of the reasons to act now and not wait until global warming is indisputable. The IPCC has projected an increase of the global mean surface temperature by 1-3.5°C by the year 2100; a sea level rise of 15-95 cm leading to loss of land; shifting patterns of precipitation; increased food production in mid- to high latitudes; 30% decrease of agricultural productivity in Africa and Latin America, and an increased transmission of vector-borne infectious diseases.

Dr. Watson used Shell Oil and British Petroleum's efforts in alternative fuels as an example of how not all of industry is opposed to Kyoto provisions. During questioning he also stressed the secondary benefits of the Kyoto provisions such as lower levels of local and regional pollution (particulates, ozone, and acid rain). "Significant reductions in net greenhouse gas emissions are technically, and often economically, feasible, and can be achieved by utilizing an extensive array of technologies and policy measures that accelerate technology diffusion in the energy supply, energy demand, and agricultural/forestry sectors."

Dr. Daniel Lashof is a senior scientist with the National Resources Defense Council. He began his testimony by stating that coincident with the highest carbon dioxide levels in 200,000 years, global warming is already upon us. He listed numerous examples of weather extremes our country has been experiencing this summer and gave a $4 billion price tag to the heat- and drought-related agriculture losses in Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, and Georgia. Like Watson, he also listed potential detriments as more frequent and intense heat waves, increased spread of infectious diseases, flooding along coasts and river basins, extreme droughts and severe storms throughout the country. The "extreme weather" examples were later disputed by Dr. John Christy in his testimony. Dr. Watson also conceded that weather patterns may not be significantly related to global warming.

Lashof mentioned a July 16th letter from the Chairman Talent that cited a paper from Science documenting a climate record with no discernible change in recent history. Lashof brought to the committee's attention that the paper only had data from a single core in the Sargasso Sea. They were likely speaking of Lloyd Keigwin's paper (November 29, 1996) in which he describes using sea surface temperatures derived from ocean sediments as a baseline for climate change variations. In this record he derived temperature of 1°C higher 1000 years ago and 1°C cooler during the "Little Ice Age" 400 years ago. Lashof concluded by comparing action used to address threats of national security and applied them to global environmental health: "The Defense Department would never base its response to military threats on the view of a handful of doubters or on the hope that the world will turn out to be benign. We should apply the same precautionary principle to global warming policy."

Against Kyoto
Dr. Patrick Michaels, Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia entitled his testimony "Kyoto Protocol: A Useless Appendage to an Irrelevant Treaty." The media frequently quotes him as a skeptic of global climate change. In testimony, Michaels charged that there are consistent errors in the climate models used by the IPCC. He then introduced other greenhouse gases into the global climate debate by stating that methane has a much greater potential to increase temperature and is also supposedly responsible for 15% of warming this century. He gave a historical background of the debate, beginning with the 1988 testimony of James Hansen of NASA that there was a strong "cause and effect relationship" between temperatures and anthropogenic causes. Using a figure from Hansen's 1988 prediction of what the global temperature would be from 1988-1998, he compared it to observed satellite data for that same period. Michaels' figure showed that the observed temperatures for this period were cooler than those Hansen had predicted. Ironically, two weeks after the hearing, a letter in the August 13 edition of Nature questions the cooler temperatures derived from satellite data. Effects of orbital decay of the satellite were not considered in the data. When a first-pass correction is applied, the data actually show a warming of 0.13°C per decade.

Michaels delineated how subsequent IPCC reports in 1990, 1992, and 1995 have continually reduced the predicted temperature change for the next century from 3.2°C to 2.6°C and then 2.0°C. Tweaking those numbers to compensate for overestimation of direct CO2 warming, a reduction in methane concentration, and a decrease in CO2 accumulation, he derived a 1.0°C warming. His research also suggests that greenhouse warming only takes place in dry air masses during the winter, which leads to a decrease in global temperature variability. That conclusion in turn led him to ask, "Who cares?" To illustrate his point, Michaels showed a cartoon of a medical doctor speaking with a patient (Earth), "Well, you have a slight temperature, we're not sure why, so we are going to amputate your legs."

Dr. S. Fred Singer, President of the Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP), began his testimony by saying that "Climate science does not support the Kyoto Protocol and its emission controls on carbon dioxide". SEPP's mission is to "clarify the diverse problems facing the planet and, where necessary, arrive at effective, cost-conscious solutions." He criticized the Protocol for not having a defined goal or providing guidance as to what level of CO2 is desirable.

Singer then made the following points about the global climate debate:

  1. There is no scientific consensus.
  2. Climate models have not been validated by actual data, and they cannot handle clouds.
  3. An ice age is overdue.
  4. Warming will lead to a decrease in sea level.
  5. Excess carbon dioxide acts a fertilizer and is good for agriculture.
  6. There is natural variety within global data. [For example, Singer stated that the climate was warmer 1000, 3000, and 6000 years ago. People were living back then, and they were alright. Rep. Millender-McDonald (D-CA) took advantage of the Chair's blanket permission to interrupt testimony by asking Dr. Singer what the population was millennia ago.]
Dr. John Christy, Associate Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Alabama was a contributor to the IPCC. Despite being part of that consortium, his testimony was aligned with the Chair against the Kyoto Protocol. Christy first pointed out that in the 1970's, claims about the global climate predicted a cooling trend. Christy's research revolves around satellite records in which he detects a decline in the temperature of the troposphere. He addressed the recent fixation of extreme weather events as being based on false data, saying, for example, that Dallas (with 29 consecutive days with temperatures above 100°F) was due for exceptionally high temperatures. He stressed the need for more studies before action, "...the slower warming rate in the last two decades in effect gives us the security of time so that data from future observations and research may be used within the debate...When it comes to global warming, save the Earth but not before you reduce the scientific uncertainties and not by sacrificing the poor."

Dr. Marlo Lewis, Jr. is the Vice President for Policy and Coalitions of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an organization that promotes free market principles. Lewis attacked what he identifies as the Administration's biggest argument for action on global warming, "low-cost planet insurance for ourselves and future generations". Lewis argues that over-regulation by the federal government can lead to loss of life instead of the preservation of it. He reasoned that the measures proposed by the Kyoto Protocol should not be instituted until they can be proven to be safe. Lewis gave the example of mandated fuel efficient vehicles leading to smaller vehicles which were, therefore, less "crash-resistant". He then attributed 2000-4000 deaths to fuel efficiency regulation. His list of reasons to disregard concern about global warming includes that CO2 helps plants grow, hurricane intensity has decreased, and that "when the planet was warmer than today (e.g., the Medieval Warming of 1000 AD to 1200 AD), mankind flourished." "Spending trillions to avoid better weather and a greener planet would make no sense at all."

No more hearings are scheduled with the House Committee on Small Business at this time. The Senate passed a resolution (S.Res.98) in July of 1997 that stated that the United States should not be a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol if it would harm the economy or have lesser standards for developing countries. The House and Senate added language to the VA, HUD & Independent Agencies appropriations bill to prevent expenditures fulfilling the Kyoto Protocol. In addition, both have had stand-alone legislation introduced (H.R.3807 and S.2019) to hinge Protocol implementation funds on Senate ratification.

Sources and Related Sites
NASA's Global Warming and Climate Change Science Policy master directory
Wentz, F.J and Schabel, M. Effects of orbital decay on satellite- derived lower-tropospheric temperature trends (Letter to Nature). Nature 394, 661 (13 Aug 1998).
Hansen, James E.; Sato, Makiko; Ruedy, Reto; Lacis, Andrew; Glascoe, Jay. Global climate data and models: A reconciliation. Science v.281:930-932 (14 Aug 98).
July 28, 1998 press release from House Committee on Small Business
Nameroff, Tamara. The climate change debate is heating up. GSA Today, December 1997.
"Kyoto Earth Summit Information Center" press locator center
hearing testimony
National Science Foundation survey on the public's perception of global climate science

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Contributed by Joy Roth, AGI Government Affairs Intern
Posted August 21, 1998; Last updated September 10, 1998

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