By Dr. Nayyer Ali

May 05 , 2006

Global Warming

I just returned from vacation in Hawaii where I read a very interesting book on global warming, written by Tim Flannery. It’s called “The Weather Makers.” Tim Flannery has written a great addition to the debate on perhaps the most difficult and important question of global public policy, namely, are humans responsible for climate change, and do we need to do something about it right now?
This is in fact a very complex scientific question, and Flannery is certainly in the camp that would answer yes. He has written a thorough and well-argued brief for his position. He is clearly familiar with the range of scientific evidence that has been developed, and he does an excellent job of making it understandable and accessible to the average intelligent layperson.
In brief, Flannery shows that our modern industries, based on fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas, are generating so much carbon dioxide that they are raising the concentration of that gas in our atmosphere at a significant rate. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that traps the heat energy of sunshine and warms the Earth. By raising the concentration from 280 ppm to 380 ppm over the last century, Flannery argues that we are having a significant impact on the atmosphere and climate. Business as usual will push this number over 750 by the end of the century, and lead to so much warming that we will face significant environmental catastrophe.
Flannery is on his strongest ground when he describes the impact of warming on biodiversity. While the environment has weathered much climate change in the past (e.g. for much of Earth's history we had no polar icecaps, and even in the last million years we have had repeated ice ages come and go), the cold-adapted species would have nowhere to run in a warmer world. Tropical mountaintops and the polar regions have very vulnerable biodiversity that could not stand much warming.
Flannery is weak in a few areas. He overstates the vulnerability of human society to climate change. There is a reason why malaria does not occur in Hawaii or Singapore, and that is wealth and resources. Human society will grow much wealthier over the next century and this will provide ample resources to adapt to climate change. The global economy is growing at about 4% per year, and even at 3% per year, we will transform our current global economy of 35 trillion dollars into one over 600 trillion dollars by 2100. That will certainly make it affordable for all of humanity to survive climate change.
The biggest weakness of the book is that although Flannerty is intending to write the definitive argument in favor of immediate action, he does not address a number of serious objections to the scenario of doom that he posits. Although some global warming skeptics are shills for coal and oil producers, not all of them are. Richard Lindzen is a respected atmospheric scientist at MIT, and his arguments are not addressed, and another reputable scientist, Fred Singer, is dismissed, incorrectly, as a Moonie (not sure how that is relevant anyway). Lindzen has argued that the theoretical basis of global warming, the "global circulation models" that are used to model and predict the long-range climate outlook, are simply not good enough to answer the question at hand, and to rely on them to make this huge public policy decision is flawed.
Another major critic of immediate action is Bjorn Lomborg, a statistician in Denmark and author of the book "The Skeptical Environmentalist". Lomborg accepts the basic theory of global warming, but argued that the IPCC scenarios for global warming are flawed and exaggerated by three critical factors. They overestimate human population growth in the coming century, they use market exchange rates rather than purchasing power rates to estimate the size and predict the growth of Third World economies (these make for huge errors in India and China's predicted emissions), and they assume both massive increases in fossil fuel use along with persistent low prices, something we can see is unrealistic. Lomborg argues that if one uses correct assumptions, and takes into account the dampening effect of rising prices and falling costs of solar and wind power, we will never reach the doomsday scenarios.
Flannery should have addressed these major issues to strengthen his own case. Even still, his is a very important contribution to this issue, and should be read by those who are true believers and by skeptics with an open mind. The future may depend on it. Comments can reach me at


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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
© 2004 . All Rights Reserved.