21st Century

Global Warming: More Hot Air
by Howard Hayden

Reprinted from the Spring 2004 issue

The Discovery of Global Warming
by Spencer R. Weart
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003
Hardcover, 91 pp., $24.95

An End to Global Warming
by Laurence O. Williams
New York: Pergamon Press (Elsevier Science), 2002
Hardcover, 209 pp., $78.00

Thermometers at the surface of the Earth, sometimes correctly placed in clean, standardized white, louvered boxes with good air circulation, somewhat more than a meter above ground, measure the ambient air temperature. They do so where there are people to read the thermometers. A small fraction of the globe is accurately measured by such thermometers, and there is little reason to conclude that the readings are actually representative of the Earth’s average temperature. Moreover, year-to-year changes in the thus-averaged temperature may or may not reflect year-to-year changes in the average temperature of the entire Earth.

Microwave Sounding Units (MSUs) in weather satellites measure temperature remotely, but do so for the entire Earth’s surface, giving equal weight to every square kilometer. The record spans a relatively short time—since 1979.

Whatever the relative qualities of the two types of measurements, they do not agree on the recent temperature history of the Earth. The National Academy of Sciences investigated the problem, and could find no fault with the satellite data or interpretation. Moreover, the MSU data are in close agreement with data from weather balloons.

That much said, let us take a look at these two recent books about global warming. It is hard to take any book on global warming seriously, if it does not even mention the disparity between satellite data and the surface temperature record. Neither of these two books makes any reference to the satellite or the balloon data. If they can’t even identify the controversy, they can’t offer any insight into the controversy. Each book, however, does have something to offer, even if the current situation is not included.

From History to Polemics
Spencer Weart is a historian of physics at the American Institute of Physics. His book is about the history of the idea of global warming, including interesting data about Milankovitch cycles (cyclical variation in the solar irradiance as a result of regular periodic changes in the Earth’s orbital inclination and distance from the Sun). First, these cycles were interesting, then they were pooh-poohed, because they did not explain the (then-believed) four ice ages in the history of the Earth. When ice-core data revealed many climatic oscillations, the Milankovitch cycles began to agree far better.

About halfway through the book, Weart’s presentation changes from a dispassionate history of science into a polemic, arguing that global warming is a human-caused reality, and implying that everybody who says otherwise is a shill of the coal and oil industries.

To give some idea of Weart’s bias, note that there is no mention of weather satellites, or of weather balloons. Global warming promoter Stephen Schneider has precisely ten index entries, versus only one for S. Fred Singer, the first head of the U.S. Weat’er Satellite Service. Weart does not mention that the Executive Summary of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control (IPCC) bears little resemblance to the actual findings of IPCC’s scientists, nor does he mention that most participants were not scientists at all. He makes no mention of global warming advocate Ben Santer’s famous rewriting of the Executive Summary.

Weart shows what has come to be known as Mann’s “hockey stick graph” showing a nearly constant temperature for the last millennium, but rising dramatically in the last century. He says not a whit about data from hundreds of papers of historical temperature proxies that argue to the contrary. One should expect better from a serious historian of science.

Since Weart’s book was published, Canadian scientists Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick discovered that Mann’s underlying data had been “manhandled”; their re-analysis yields the result that the 20th Century was not the warmest in the past 1,000 years. Also S. Baliunas and W. Soon at Harvard-Smithsonian, have compiled the data on temperature proxies and showed that, contrary to Mann’s assertions, the climate has varied widely during the last millennium.

On his website (http://www.aip.org/history/climate/20ctrend.htm, reference 47), Weart makes the following claim, which is simultaneously false and irrelevant: “In debates during 2001-2003, after the period covered by these essays, this conclusion came under attack by a few scientists. Nearly all other experts found the criticism groundless, based on grossly improper statistical methods.”

Weart’s claim is false, because no poll was ever taken. It is irrelevant, because science is decided by experimental facts, not by consensus.

Weart mentions Carl Sagan’s prediction that so-called “nuclear winter” would follow a nuclear war. He does not mention that Sagan predicted, in a debate on “Nightline” with Fred Singer, that the Earth would turn into an ice ball after Saddam Hussein set fire to oil wells as his troops were driven from Kuwait.

It is difficult to attribute such omissions to mere ignorance.

A Lack of Understanding
Williams’s understanding of the controversies about global warming is no better than Weart’s. He has the obligatory doomsday chapter about global warming, complete with silly statements like: “Plants will not be able to take advantage of the extra carbon dioxide.” “The weather has been unusual for the last 5 to 10 years.” “If it [the ice at the poles] all melted it would raise sea level by 80 to 120 meters.”

(The amount of snow and ice in glaciers, in fact, is determined by the balance of processes that bring snow, and those that remove it. For example, the loss of glacial ice on Mount Kilimanjaro is the result of a decrease in snowfall, not a change in temperature. The South Pole is rising because of increasing snowfall, not because of a decrease in temperature.)

“Large-scale solar energy collectors will change the albedo of the Earth, which is the amount of radiant energy the Earth adsorbs [sic] or reflects,” he writes. “So Arizona will become cooler and the rest of the country will become warmer.” (Albedo is the fraction of incident sunlight that is reflected, not the amount of radiation that is absorbed.)

“Solar photovoltaic collectors will require little mechanical maintenance but will require some method of regular cleaning.” (Hmm.)

As a book of science, Williams’s book is far better than Weart’s. After the first chapter, he proceeds to discuss how to handle the “problem.” He is, after all, an analytical chemist with numerous inventions to his credit.

The ‘Solutions’ That Won’t Work
Williams methodologically and carefully shows that the standard solutions to global warming won’t work. He shows that the Kyoto Protocol would be about as effective as a Band-Aid on cancer. In enough detail to be convincing, he shows that the answer doesÌnot lie in solar power, biomass, hydropower, geothermal power, solar satellites, tidal power, wave power, solar/thermal/electric power, wind, ocean thermal energy conversion, or any combination thereof.

Williams concludes that the only option is to use thermonuclear fusion to generate electricity, and to use electrolysis to produce hydrogen, which will serve as an energy carrier. In that sense, his book conveys ideas that have been around for at least 50 years. He does a very creditable job in his presentation.

But Williams is very naive about radioactivity in nuclear fusion machines. Every fusion device being investigated intends to fuse deuterium and tritium in a vacuum system to produce helium, which is not radioactive. However, the neutron flux would be extremely intense, and there is nothing in the vacuum system to keep the neutrons from hitting the walls, where they will transmute nuclei to radioactive species. One visit to a fusion lab just after a run is completed should disabuse him of his delusion.

What does Williams say about nuclear fission? He claims that breeder technology could last civilization a few hundred years, which is admittedly a very short time on the scale of human civilization. But there is a flaw, an unfortunately common one, in his argument. There are various estimates around about the amount of uranium in the Earth’s crust. If we extract only the 1 percent of the energy that comes from U-235, the uranium will last for (choose a number) 50 years. If we extract the energy available in the U-238 (through the breeding process), we get 100 times as much energy. By simple arithmetic (but flawed reasoning), the uranium should last for 5,000 years, far more than Williams suggests.

At a price of $300 per Troy ounce of gold, I would lose money filtering through the soil in my back yard in quest of microscopic amounts of gold. If the price were 100 times as high—$30,000 per Troy ounce—the trace amounts of gold in the soil would possibly pay for the mining work. In many places, the payoff would be tremendous.

The situation is no different with uranium. If we can use all of the energy in the uranium, rather than only 1 percent, the uranium in the ground has an inherent worth that is 100 times greater. That is, we could afford to mine uranium that is 100 times less concentrated. It’s pointless to do so at the present time, because uranium is readily available, and actually pretty cheap.

In the future, when the highly concentrated uranium is used up, society can use ores that are not as concentrated. As it happens, there is about 300 times as much uranium worldwide at only 10-times lower concentration as there is at the now-mined concentration. And there is yet another factor of 300 in quantity for the next lowering of concentration by a factor of 10.

The upshot is that the factor of 100 in energy retrieval begets two factors of 300 in quantity of uranium. That is, the amount of energy we can get out of uranium through breeder technology is multiplied by 100, then by 300, and again by 300, for a factor of about 9 million. Multiply that number by the 50 (again, choose your number) years that we would get from U-235 alone. During the next half-billion years, perhaps society can learn how to use the more abundant thorium as a nuclear fuel.

Even though Williams seems to have gotten his information about global warming from the unenlightened press, his subsequent arguments are largely beyond reproach. He does a masterly job of demolishing the Kyoto Protocol, and of showing why renewable energy sources will utterly fail. The disagreement I have with him lies with his faith in nuclear fusion and his too-easy dismissal of nuclear fission.

Howard Hayden, Ph.D., is the publisher of The Energy Advocate newsletter (P.O. Box 7595, Pueblo West, CO 81007), and is the author of The Solar Fraud.


The thin line is the “hockey stick” curve, allegedly showing recent temperatures (the handle of the stick is at right) as the highest since 1400. Authors of the curve, M.E. Mann et al., claimed that “temperatures in the latter half of the 20th Century were unprecedented,” and that the 1990s was “likely the warmest decade.” The IPCC adopted the Mann et al. analysis, calling 1998 the “warmest year” of the millennium.

The bold line is the corrected curve, which is derived from the same data set, showing the 20th Century temperatures to be colder than those of the 15th Century.

Source: Adapted from S. McIntyre and R. McKitrick, 2003. “Corrections to the Mann et al (1998) Proxy Data Base and Northern Hemispheric Average Temperature Series,” Energy & Environment, Vol. 14, No. 6, pp. 751-771.