Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed November 1995
Copyright ©1995 by Rob Matthews

Global Warming? Who Cares?

By Rob Matthews
Rob Matthews is a professor of geological sciences at Brown University. He writes extensively about the role of sea level change in stratigraphy on time scales ranging from thousands of years to tens of millions of years.

"We are now developing a confederation of technological shopkeepers who peddle their services and products to a Congress that is buying slogans."

A new 700-page report from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concludes global warming is real and foresees dire consequences. As a scientist long involved in global change research, I find the threat of global warming quite benign compared to the ongoing political encroachment upon the domain of basic scientific research.

The current media hype centers around three main segments. First, global warming is real. Second, coastal flooding shall occur as glaciers melt and sea level rises. Third, droughts and "murderous heat waves" shall somehow be the natural consequences of global warming.

There is an alternative view to each of these threats. First, "global warming" is, at best, the current answer to the wrong question. Second, if the West Antarctic ice sheet were to flow into the ocean, sea level would rise about 5 meters. That is the bad news. The good news is that the physical properties of ice are well known. If this "catastrophic" event were indeed in progress, the resultant sea level rise would be completed in about 400 years.

Regarding "murderous heat waves," it is important to note that old people shall die. Whether a subset die of heat in summer or of cold in the winter has nothing to do with the question of global change.

The bottom line is that we live on an extremely dynamic planet. On the time scale of 1 to 1,000 years, climate shall undoubtedly change. There shall undoubtedly be winners and losers as a result. Under the wildest assumptions concerning global warming, the planet shall remain habitable for hundreds of millions of years.

So how do we get such discrepant views of the global future? The classic simple answer has always been "sensationalism sells newspapers." A more current explanation is that global warming is primarily a concoction of the environmentalists. Both ideas fail to capture the complex interaction that has emerged among the public, Congress, science bureaucrats and a minority of the scientific community.

For at least the last 25 years, the program managers at the federal science funding agencies have told the scientific community that new initiatives were essential to get more money out of Congress. For a while, the new initiatives idea worked well. The pitch was that a certain field of science was at a juncture where the large infusion of funds over 10 years would move that field of forward rapidly. Congress was attentive; money was forthcoming; significant progress occurred in targeted areas. However; with increasing federal budget deficits, there has been an unwritten conspiracy to attach a sense of urgency to new initiatives. A publicly perceived threat might be something for which Congress could appropriate new funds. That ploy has backfired. Congress now tells the bureaucrats there shall be no new money; but if the threat is such an urgent topic, they should redeploy their existing funding in those directions. As funds for basic research dry up, scientists are forced to gravitate toward the slogans of the day. In the process, these individuals become more and more the hired hands of the government juggernaut and less and less the scientists blazing their own trails at the frontiers of science. We are now developing a confederation of technological shopkeepers who peddle their services and products to a Congress that is buying slogans.

Thus, the good news is that the planet is probably safe for another few hundred millions years. The bad news is that bright, self-motivated young people are going to Wall Street or the computer industry instead of going into basic science. While there is blame enough to spread around, the liberal Democrat tradition of legislating mandates to "solve" slogan-problems comes especially to mind. As a rule, Congress mandates that the private sector spend billions "fixing" slogan-problems while the Congress itself spends only millions funding basic research on the relevant topics. The ratio of millions to billions means less than 1 percent of the funds from the overall economy are spent reseaching the problem whereas greater than 90 percent of the funds are spent on "correcting" The Problem, whether or not "The Problem" is real. The simple solution is that Congress should rescind mandates and spend 5 percent of the rescinded mandate on basic research. The net effect for the overall economy would be a 95 percent reduction in the dubious mandate and a tenfold increase in spending on related basic research.

With regards to global warming, plan as though you should wear a shirt and a hat in the summer. In a certain limited sense, I suppose that is "the end of life as we know it" for some of us. With regards to basic science, write Congress and tell its members to stop mandating solutions to non-existent problems and get back to funding basic research. Calculations suggest the earth shall face a new Ice Age sometime within the next 37,000 years. Let's hope we know enough about the ocean/atmosphere/cryosphere system by the year 3000 to make the right decisions.