George Will: The Truth About Global Warming

In last week's NEWSWEEK, the cover story was a hymn to "The Thinking Man's Thinking Man." Beneath the story's headline ("The Evolution of an Eco-Prophet") was this subhead: "Al Gore's views on climate change are advancing as rapidly as the phenomenon itself." Which was rather rude because, if true, his views have not advanced for 11 years. (Click here to follow George F. Will)

There is much debate about the reasons for, and the importance of, the fact that global warming has not increased for that long. What we know is that computer models did not predict this. Which matters, a lot, because we are incessantly exhorted to wager trillions of dollars and diminished freedom on the proposition that computer models are correctly projecting catastrophic global warming. On Nov. 2, The Wall Street Journal's Jeffrey Ball reported some inconvenient data. Soon after the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—it shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with the Thinking Man's Thinking Man—reported that global warming is "unequivocal," there came evidence that the planet's temperature is beginning to cool. "That," Ball writes, "has led to one point of agreement: The models are imperfect."

Models are no better or worse than their assumptions, and Ball notes how dicey these assumptions can be: "The effects of clouds, for example, are unclear. Depending on their shape and altitude, clouds can either trap heat, warming the earth, or reflect it, cooling the planet." It gets worse: "The way that greenhouse gases affect cloud formation—and how clouds in turn affect temperature—remains a subject of debate. Different models treat these factors differently."

Some scientists say the cooling is a product of what Ball calls "the enigmatic ocean currents." Others say that even if the cooling continues for several decades, as some scientists think it might, warming will resume.

And if it does not? A story in the April 28, 1975, edition of NEWSWEEK was "The Cooling World." NEWSWEEK can recycle that article, and recycling is a planet-saving virtue.

Meanwhile, however, the crusade against warming will brook no interference from information. With the Waxman-Markey bill, the House of Representatives has endorsed reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to 83 per-cent below 2005 levels by 2050. This is surely the most preposterous legislation ever hatched in the House. Using Energy Department historical statistics, Kenneth P. Green and Steven F. Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute have calculated this:

Waxman-Markey's goal is just slightly more than 1 billion tons of greenhouse-gas emissions in 2050. The last time this nation had that small an amount was 1910, when there were only 92 million Americans, 328 million fewer than the 420 million projected for 2050. To meet the 83 percent reduction target in a nation of 420 million, per capita carbon-dioxide emissions would have to be no more than 2.4 tons per person, which is one quarter the per capita emissions of 1910, a level probably last seen when the population was 45 million—in 1875.

Such nonsense is rare, but nonsensical fears are not. In their new book, SuperFreakonomics, Steven D. -Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner revisit the great shark panic of the summer of 2001. Eight-year-old Jessie Arbogast was playing in the surf near Pensacola, Fla., when a bull shark bit off his right arm and gouged a piece of his thigh. The country, with an assist from the media, became fixated on the shark menace. Time's cover proclaimed "The Summer of the Shark"; Time's story began:

"Sharks come silently, without warning. There are three ways they strike: the hit-and-run, the bump-and-bite and the sneak attack. The hit-and-run is the most common. The shark may see the sole of a swimmer's foot, think it's a fish and take a bite before realizing this isn't its usual prey."

Jeepers. Everyone out of the water!

Or not. Time, to its credit, let the air out of its story by noting that the numbers of shark attacks "remain minuscule." They were small during all of 2001, all over the globe. That year there were 64 shark attacks, only four of them fatal. Between 1995 and 2005, shark attacks worldwide varied between a high of 79 in a year and a low of 46, averaging 60.3. Fatalities averaged 5.9, about 50 percent higher than in 2001. The unfortunate Jessie Arbogast became an occasion for the fun of experiencing a frisson of synthetic fear. The real thing arrived in late summer 2001, on September 11.