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January 1, 2008

ACTIONS AND CONSEQUENCES

“Mother Nature simply operates at a level of complexity that is, at this point, beyond the mastery of mere mortals (such as scientists) and the tools available to us.”
—John R. Christy, director, Earth System Science Center, University of Alabama, Huntsville

What do we know, for sure, about global warming? Not much, as it turns out, and certainly nowhere near as much as most environmentalists would have us believe.

We know some warming is occurring, as it has many times over the millennia. Because extreme climate cycles have happened before, it is difficult to say what impact human activity actually has on today’s weather, or what weight should be given to human activity on computer models of what may happen during the next 100 years. As John Christy said in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece last November, “[I] cringe when I hear overstated-confidence from those who describe the projected evolution of global weather patterns over the next 100 years, especially when I consider how difficult it is to accurately predict that system’s behavior over the next five days.”

I take Christy’s comments to be authoritative, since he is a participant in the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, co-winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize along with Al Gore.

Christy’s comments about the immense complexity of the global climate, the many cycles of warming and cooling, and the inadequacy of computer modeling techniques run contrary to the simplified, popular notion that human activity has caused ruinous global warming. Yet at this writing, the House has passed (although the Senate has so far resisted) an energy bill that focuses heavily on such measures as advanced biofuels, mandated higher levels of automotive fuel economy, renewable energy such as wind and solar power, and other sustainability measures. No one knows how this policy fight will shake out, nor the fate of similar struggles over carbon emission caps or other measures aimed at reducing greenhouse gases.

We’re all for rational measures to protect the environment. None of us wants to live in the polluted environment of China (see “Death Watch,” Forward, November/December 2007). All of us in the North American metals industry have reason to be proud of our record of implementing pollution control measures.

Yet enthusiasm for greenhouse gas limitations threatens to exceed reason. Scientists calculate if global automotive average fuel economy reached 43 miles a gallon, the net effect would be to reduce projected warming by 0.05 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, or less than day-to-day temperature variations now. Or if 10% of the world’s heavily polluting coal plants were replaced by nuclear power, with no emissions of carbon dioxide, the 1,000 new nuclear plants would slow warming by 0.2 degrees per century.

We don’t doubt there is merit to environmental concerns. But the evidence seems to suggest that even if humans are contributing to global warming, our ability to alter climate change is limited and perhaps not even the best way to benefit humankind. Environmentalists apparently believe today’s climate is the Earth’s “best” state and that it must be preserved. We in the metals industry are not so presumptuous.

As environmental issues come to the fore, we strongly urge everyone to base decisions on what we actually know, not what we surmise. We encourage policymakers to remember that we must not undermine manufacturing or the economy in the popular zeal to respond to the widely perceived but greatly unproven threat. We also strongly encourage all MSCI members to get involved in the debate, because the outcome is too important to leave to alarmists, bad science or politicians and their opportunistic, short-term thinking.