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Brooks Wilson's Economics Blog: A Blast From the Past: Global Cooling

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Blast From the Past: Global Cooling

I just finished rereading, "The Weather Conspiracy: The Coming of the New Ice Age" written by the Impact Team and published in 1977.  The members of the impact team are given, but after an Internet search of three names and not a single useful hit.  The book captures exaggerated concerns of global cooling by a fear mongering media.  They quote a few papers and discuss the extreme outcomes, suggesting that these are the likely.  They conclude that we are headed for a new ice age with catastrophic consequences for civilization: war, famine and pestilence.  A typical passage reads,
America and the rest of the Northern Hemisphere are returning to normal weather. After fifty years of unprecedentedly temperate climate, the world is returning to the more radical shifts and the cooler climate that characterized the previous eight hundred years. Many climatologists believe that since the sixties the world has been slipping toward a new ice age. The only questions in their minds are: What kind of ice age will it be, little or great? How soon will it happen?
Temperatures would only have to drop by 2.8 degrees F to plunge the world into a new ice age.  The authors provide a small list of consequences of a little ice age.
India would have a major drought every four years, and 30-50 million metric tons would be required from the world's grain reserves to prevent the death of 150 million Indians.

China would have starvation conditions every five years and need 50 million metric tons of grain for its people.

Canada would lose 50 percent of its food production, and reduce exports by 75 percent. 
The consequences of a great ice age, apparently equally likely to occur would be much greater and little or great, our descent could happen rapidly. 

The causes of global cooling are natural as well as man-made, dust from pollution blocking the warming energy of the sun.  Intriguingly, the authors mention carbon dioxide emissions as a warming mechanism that does not sufficiently offset cooling, setting up the concern of some scientists that man-made global warming may kill millions, not global cooling.
Many hot-earth men believe that global temperatures will rise by at least 3.8 degrees F by 2020, given that the volume of carbon dioxide is doubled in the next fifty years. If this happened, ships could well sail the entire Arctic Circle, and the melting of the polar ice caps could cause the sea level to rise by two hundred to four hundred feet. London and New York would vanish. So would Rome, Paris, Brussels, Antwerp, Marseille, and hundreds of other cities. Trees would grow in Alaska and Siberia; cattle would be raised on what was once tundra.
Their conclusions sound familiar.  Temperatures have warmed, but we are not underwater yet.  We are not even close to losing a major city. 

Given the more probable event, global cooling, the authors conclude,
Under coming conditions, clearly the rich countries of the world (in other words, the tiny minority) will have to make do with less food.  With the exception of the U.S., they will run a food balance-of-payments deficit that will put a big dent in their economies and cause some degree of social disruption. 

For the poor countries of the world, the implications are more ominous.  Many will starve.  This future will place an almost unbearable moral and political burden on the U.S. and its people.  We must face up to the following "unthinkable questions":

1.  How much food will we keep for ourselves?  In other words...

2.  How much are we willing to reduce our standard of living to feed others?  For example, would we all be willing to stop using our air conditioners if the energy so released would feed another 400,000 people?  Or would we rather stay cool and let them starve?

3.  Are we going to give away our food or sell it?

Who gets how much, and why?
The authors disdain for the market system is clear.  Our accumulation of wealth through markets created the problem.  We consume too much.  It does not fairly treat price as a rationing mechanism.  If food becomes scarcer, it's price would rise and we would buy less.  If food costs more and cooling reduces wealth, we will use less air conditioning (a bad example in a cooling world) and less heating as well. 

Yesterdays misreading of climate change has implications for us today.  I fear that some advocates of the theory of global warming hurt the science supporting their position by focusing on low probability extreme events to rally support for political action to curtail carbon emissions.  If ice caps don't melt, wiping out cities, devastating agriculture, and causing energy wars, science is likely to be blamed.  

1 comment:

  1. Official government measurements show that the world’s temperature has cooled a bit since reaching its most recent peak in 1998.

    That’s given global warming skeptics new ammunition to attack the prevailing theory of climate change. The skeptics argue that the current stretch of slightly cooler temperatures means that costly measures to limit carbon dioxide emissions are ill-founded and unnecessary.

    Proposals to combat global warming are “crazy” and will “destroy more than a million good American jobs and increase the average family’s annual energy bill by at least $1,500 a year,” the Heartland Institute, a conservative research organization based in Chicago, declared in full-page newspaper ads earlier this summer. “High levels of carbon dioxide actually benefit wildlife and human health,” the ads asserted.