No sensible nation should make major policy decisions based on a tower of assumptions as shaky as the global-warming hypothesis

Paul MacRae

Times Colonist, March 3, 2002

Two campaigners from Greenpeace dropped by last week to talk about global climate change and the Kyoto Accord.

They made a careful, reasoned case for Canada signing on to the accord, which would commit us to reduce greenhouse gases to six per cent below 1990 levels (right now they’re 14 per cent above), with lots of statistics and scenarios about the potential horrors of global warming.

They talked about the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has almost 3,000 scientists contributing to it, all convinced the planet is getting warmer and determined to do something about it.

The pair also argued that coping with global warming will help Canada’s economy, rather than hurting it, and that the development of more efficient technologies and sources of energy will create jobs and save money.

That’s not what the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters association told the federal government last week: they believe Canada could lose up to 450,000 jobs and take a $40-billion hit.

Environment Minister David Anderson responds that we’re already taking a massive hit as the climate warms up — the Prairie drought is costing Canada $5 billion, for example. He figures Canada’s economy will only lose about $500 million a year by implementing Kyoto. He says the business community’s figures are speculative.

The problem is, all the figures in the great debate over global warming are speculative — the argument is built on a tower of assumptions, none proven.

Assumption No. 1: The globe is on a permanent warming trend.

The past 10 years or so have been the hottest in living memory. That might be a sign the planet is getting permanently warmer; it might also be a natural fluctuation before Earth plunges into the next ice age, which would be far more disastrous for Canada than global warming.

The Earth was warmer 1,000 years ago; Greenland was balmy enough then (“green” land) that the Vikings could settle there. Human-generated greenhouse gases didn’t cause that warming — which was followed shortly afterward by a “mini-ice age.”

Thousands of scientists support the global-warming thesis. But more than 17,000 scientists have signed the Oregon Petition against Kyoto. There is no clear consensus about the issue of whether the planet is on a permanent warming trend; there are only statistics and computer models supporting both sides.

Bottom line: we don’t know for sure what is happening with the Earth’s climate over the next few centuries, but we do know the Earth cycles between warm and cold spells every few thousand years.

Assumption No. 2: Global warming is caused by human activity.

Yes, it might be connected to human activity. It might also be connected to changes in the sun’s activity (the sun puts out far more heat than a mere six billion human beings). Or, as noted above, natural fluctuations in temperature over thousands of years. Or one of a thousand other causes.

Assumption No. 3: We can stop global warming if we sign the Kyoto Accord and haul back our economy.

There is no evidence to support this — how can there be if assumptions 1 and 2 still aren’t proven? But even if the planet is warming and human beings are at fault, stopping warming through Kyoto may be no more possible than reversing an ocean liner with a canoe paddle. The planet puts out its own greenhouse gases by the millions of tonnes every year; human beings contribute less than five per cent of it.

Assumption No. 4: Adhering to Kyoto will actually help our economy by encouraging new technologies and more efficient use of energy.

Maybe it will, maybe it won’t (the manufacturers and exporters of Canada don’t think it will). If the planet is warming we’ll still need new technologies to cope, so we’ll get economic benefits and jobs from innovation whether we try to stop warming or not.

On the other hand, it makes economic sense to develop alternatives to fossil fuels anyway, because they pollute and because they will eventually run out. That’s why the big oil companies are investing heavily in solar technology and gasoline/electric hybrid cars are already on the market.

Market forces are already pushing us toward more energy efficiency and use of alternative power sources. That push will continue as the fossil fuels run out, whether we endorse Kyoto or not; crippling the market in favour of dubious social engineering may actually hamper the change to more efficient forms of technology.

Environmentalists point to the “uncertainty principle” when they can’t marshal enough facts to prove global warming: if global warming could happen, they say, we should behave as if it will happen.

Before this country takes steps, like signing Kyoto, that could wreck or at least cripple its economy, Canadians should demand at least some certainty.

No sensible nation would make major policy decisions based on a tower of assumptions as shaky as the global-warming hypothesis.

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