June 4, 2002
Blame Sun For Global Warming
The weekend line-ups at nursery outlets signal our relief after one of the coldest springs ever recorded, which followed on the heels of the 2001 winter, one of the coldest in history. If the public fails to be sufficiently alarmed about manmade global warming, it is therefore understandable.
We are all creatures of the ecosphere. But in his topical book on environmental myths, Bjorn Lomborg (recently appointed Director of Denmark's new Institute for Environmental Assessment) points out that the science to support claims the human race is affecting the weather is far from conclusive. Scientists from several countries describe a more credible scenario, which some will narrowly dismiss as propaganda. They attribute climate trends to fluctuations in the sun’s output of heat.
According to Theodor Landscheidt at Nova Scotia's Schroeter Institute for Research in Cycles of Solar Activity, "a change of 0.1 per cent [in solar energy] effective during a very long interval can release a real ice age." Columbia University’s new study of icebergs conclusively ties global warming periods to increased solar activity. The solar theory, says one scientist who used to blame industrial activity for global warming, is “now the leading hypothesis.” Even the validity of our perception that the world is warming at all is in doubt; monitors in remote locations show little or no change, only those skewed by expanding urban heat islands.
Seventeen of the last 19 periods of intense global warming, looking back tens of thousands of years, such as the Medieval Warm Period, almost precisely match periods of equal intense solar activity. And the coldest trough of the Little Ice Age, from which the Earth only began to emerge 150 years ago, corresponds with what is known as the Maunder Minimum, a stretch of 70 years in the 17th and 18th Centuries when astronomers observed almost no sunspots.
There has been enough solar brightening, and increases in solar wind and sunspot activity over the past 100 years to account for all the global warming observed to date, even at the surface. The almost religious belief that human activity is radically affecting climate is bound to fade when the cosmic forces that control these matters are fully appreciated.
We’re going to be stuck with winters for a very long time, as our chilly spring experience with the shivers indicates. But a recent analysis of the connection between cold climates and economic prosperity casts that burden in a new light. Two American economists have described a compelling link between frost and national wealth. It appears that the world’s most productive countries are the ones that experience winters.
Last year the Journal of Economic Growth published a study by William Masters of Purdue University and Margaret McMillan of Tufts that convincingly describes the benefits of an annual hard frost for humans. It’s pretty commonsensical. Cold weather kills the insects that carry disease and, by checking the growth of microbes in soil, allows more of its nutrients to end up in crops. Scott Hartley, an insect specialist in the Saskatchewan government, is a big fan of cold winters precisely because they kill off wheat midges, flea beetles, sawflies and grasshoppers.
Winter also traps moisture and therefore makes us less dependent on seasonal rainfall. Despite our short growing season, Canada produces the highest quality of food grains in the world and it doesn’t hurt us, either, that our farmers are less likely to drop dead from malaria.
Masters maintains that “frost counteracts one of the main problems of tropical agriculture, the rapid breakdown of topsoil. . . . In the tropics that matter is broken down by insects and microbes very quickly. In a temperate zone, nitrogen and carbon builds up and remains in the soil in the form of organic matter."
Using data from 1960 to 1990, Masters and McMillan correlate economic growth rates with climate in the 28 countries that the World Bank deems to be “rich”. With the exception of Hong Kong and Singapore, whose wealth is more dependent on trade than on resources, the pattern holds. Economies that experience frost expanded at rates between one percent and two percent faster than those which didn’t.
In the end, we will continue to live in a cold place and this will not change. Solar activity will continue to fluctuate. Eventually talk of the next ice age will emerge as happened in the 1970s.
Spring has been something of a bust. Enjoy our short summer while you can. But remember we are still richer for having winter.
The Frontier Centre for Public Policy
is an independent public policy think tank whose mission is "to broaden the debate on our future through public policy research and education and to explore positive changes within our public institutions that support economic growth and opportunity."