The “Duh” After Tomorrow?

Printer-friendly version
posted June 4, 2004

On May 28th, a new Hollywood blockbuster is poised to unleash a perfect storm of propagandistic gyrations. Like The China Syndrome and Waterworld, “The Day After Tomorrow” is an apocalyptic tale of environmental self-destruction. This time though, it’s not a nuclear reactor or melting ice caps, it’s a sudden ice age -- and we mean like a few days worth of sudden -- caused by human greenhouse gas emissions that trigger the shutdown of a major oceanic current that distributes heat around the globe.

Many scientists and activists have criticized the movie for its scientific inaccuracy. University of Virginia climatologist Patrick Michaels suggests that the science is so poor in The Day After Tomorrow that it’s likely to trigger a “global stupid storm.” Events in the movie, Michaels observes, are “physically impossible.” In a letter to Science magazine, Columbia University climatologist Wallace Broecker observes that such sudden cooling as portrayed in the movie, and in an earlier Pentagon report is quite unlikely: “there is no reason to believe the impacts [shown in the movie] could occur in a mere decade, nor would they be so awesome.” Andrew Weaver, of the University of Victoria wrote, also in Science, “it is safe to say that global warming will not lead to the onset of a new ice age.”

But the real problem isn’t the inaccuracy of the movie -- after all, it’s just a movie -- the problem is in the inaccuracy of the science behind the entire endeavor of understanding climate change. The sad reality, despite billions of dollars spent digging into the science of climatology, and chasing the wild goose of Kyoto, is that nobody knows how much the earth is likely to warm, where it will warm, where it will cool, or what the impacts of that warming or cooling might be. That’s because, for want of decent long-term data, much of climate change science is the product of overly simplistic models of how the climate works, paired up with even more simplistic assumptions about what human society will be like in the future.

Let’s put things in perspective. We have about 150 years of surface temperature recordings, and only about 25 years of satellite records. Neither data set was gathered with forethought toward trying to observe the impacts of human activity on the climate. And the records are imperfect. Some were taken with inaccurate hand-painted thermometers that moved around a lot. Some were taken in the sun, some in the shade, some over land, some over water, some at higher altitudes, some at lower altitudes, some in high solar-activity years, and some in low-solar activity years, some on tall boats in high wind, some on low boats in low wind, the list of data problems is endless.

But even if we assume we’ve adjusted for all that? How much information is really in 150 years of data about Earth’s four billion years of post-formation climate? Well, if you lived to be 100, you could derive as much information about your average pulse rate over your entire life by measuring your heartbeat every few seconds for…two minutes. That’s right, two whole minutes. You see, two minutes out of the 53 million minutes of your hundred-year life is the equivalent of 150 years of temperature readings out of Earth’s four billion year history. So, what does it mean that the last 10 have been warmer than average compared to the last 150? Nobody knows. What would it mean if your pulse was a teeny bit faster than average for the last few seconds in your two minute pulse experiment?

The lack of meaningful, accurate, long-term data on global and regional temperatures leaves us dependent for understanding on computerized models of the climate. But such models are plagued by a host of problems such as incomplete understanding of many physical climate processes, dubious assumptions about the reaction of climate systems to either greenhouse gas levels or additional warming, still more dubious assumptions about the future of greenhouse gas emissions, technological development, world economic growth, and more. Richard Lindzen, a respected meteorologist with MIT, finds so little merit in modeled predictions of future climate that he has likened them to “children’s exercises.”

It’s time that climate alarmists stopped trying to abuse the science of climate change to scare up a global energy-rationing scheme that offers little gain, for a lot of pain. The reality is the Day After Tomorrow is more likely to be just like every other day, and not some Made-in-Hollywood Armageddon.

Subscribe to the Fraser Institute

Get the latest news from the Fraser Institute on the latest research studies, news and events.