Global warming put to the test

The journal of a United States conservative Christian organisation has published a dissertation from a Princeton physics professor dismissing much of the "climate crusade". Garth George applauds.

"I wish global warming would get a move on," said an acquaintance at a function on a bleak, bitter day last week.

Which reminded me of one of the most comprehensive demolitions I've ever read of the theory that carbon dioxide emissions are a significant cause of global warming.

It is written by William Happer, a professor of physics at prestigious Princeton University and is published by First Things, a publishing house run by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, which describes itself as "an inter-religious, non-partisan research and education institute" - and is elsewhere described as the institutional journal of a Right-wing Christian organisation. Prof Happer's dissertation on greenhouse gasses and global warming runs to some 4500 words.

Here are some highlights.

He says that the notion that increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, notably carbon dioxide, will have disastrous consequences for mankind and for the planet is a "contemporary moral epidemic".

"The 'climate crusade'," he writes, "is one characterised by true believers, opportunists, cynics, money-hungry governments, manipulators of various types - even children's crusades - all based on contested science and dubious claims." Carbon, he says, "is the stuff of life" and humans exhale about 1kg of it every day. Before the industrial period, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was 270 parts per million.

Today, the concentration is about 390ppm, 0.039% of all atmospheric molecules.

"As far as green plants are concerned, CO2 is not a pollutant, but part of their daily bread - like water, sunlight, nitrogen and other essential elements ... Plants grow better and have better flowers and fruit at higher levels.

Commercial greenhouse operators recognise this when they artificially increase the concentrations inside their greenhouses to over 1000ppm." Prof Happer says atmospheric CO2 levels should be above 150ppm to avoid harming green plants and below about 5000ppm to avoid harming people, and our atmosphere today is much closer to the lower end than to the upper.

He says the current rate of burning fossil fuels adds about 2ppm a year to the atmosphere, so that getting from today's level to 1000ppm would take about 300 years - and 1000ppm is still less than what most plants would prefer, and much less than the limit for human beings.

Some of the problems the non-pollutant CO2 is supposed to cause, says Prof Happer, are "flooded cities, parched agriculture, tropical diseases in Alaska and even an epidemic of kidney stones".

"[CO2] does indeed cause some warming of our planet, and we should thank Providence for that, because without the greenhouse warming of CO2 and its more potent partners, water vapour and clouds, the earth would be too cold to sustain its abundance of life." Prof Happer says the earth's climate has always been changing. The present global warming is not at all unusual by the standards of geological history, and it is probably benefiting the biosphere.

"Indeed, there is very little correlation between the estimates of CO2 and of the earth's temperature over the past 550 million years (the 'Phanerozoic' period). The message is clear that several factors must influence the earth's temperature, and that while CO2 is one of these factors, it is seldom the dominant one."

Describing himself as a working scientist with a better background than most in the physics of climate, Prof Happer says CO2 really is a greenhouse gas and other things being equal, adding the gas to the atmosphere by burning coal, oil, and natural gas will modestly increase the surface temperature.

Other things being equal, doubling the CO2 concentration, from today's 390ppm to 780ppm will directly cause about 1degC in warming. At the present rate of CO2 increases in the atmosphere - about 2ppm a year - it would take about 195 years to achieve this doubling.

The combination of a slightly warmer earth and more CO2 will greatly increase the production of food, wood, fibre and other products by green plants, so the increase will be good for the planet, and will easily outweigh any negative effects.

Prof Happer says "mitigation" and control efforts that have been proposed will enrich a favoured few with good political ties - at the expense of the great majority of mankind, including especially the poor and the citizens of developing nations.

"A major problem," he writes, "has been the co-opting of climate science by politics, ambition, greed, and what seems to be a hereditary human need for a righteous cause. What better cause than saving the planet?"

Life is about making decisions, and decisions are about trade-offs. We can choose to promote investment in technology that addresses real problems and scientific research that will let us cope with real problems more efficiently.

Or we can be caught up in a crusade that seeks to suppress energy use, economic growth, and the benefits that come from the creation of national wealth." Prof Happer's full essay is available at

 • Garth George is a retired editor. He lives in Rotorua.


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