Politics & Policy

Leonardo Di Caprio, Climatologist

Earth Day is a festival of bad science.

Leonardo Di Caprio is one very busy guy. Besides starring in a recent box-office bomb (The Beach), the filming of which — according to activists — destroyed a pristine Thai beach, Di Caprio also is chairing the official Earth Day celebrations on the Washington Mall, working as a part-time ABC television journalist whose 20/20 special, including his interview with President Clinton, will air this Saturday night, and is an essayist in the Time magazine “How to Save the Earth” special edition.

What’s bugging him most? Global warming, of course. “The predicted effects of greenhouse gases on the atmosphere include climate changes that will cause more severe typhoons, hurricanes and floods, plus the bleaching of coral reefs, the melting of polar ice caps, an increase in insect-borne tropical diseases and much, much more,” warns Di Caprio in Time.

He further advises his fans that “one of the most important things we can do is drive fuel-efficient, high-gas-mileage cars.” By the way, what does Di Caprio drive? A black Chevy Tahoe, according the entertainment webzine, E! (Also according to E!, his nickname in high school was “Leonardo Retardo” because he cheated on his tests — but that’s just a cheap shot, so let’s get back to his “serious arguments.”)

So what is going on with the climate? It is true that the global average temperature has gone up by about 1 degree Fahrenheit over the last century, and it is likely that a small portion of that increase is the result of warming caused by humanity putting carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. The vexed question is, How much more warming is likely in the 21st century? A preliminary draft report of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that the Earth’s surface is likely to warm at least 2 degrees and as much as 9 degrees Fahrenheit, and that sea level could rise between 4 inches and 3 feet by the end of this century. Keep in mind that the past century saw a temperature increase of 1 degree Fahrenheit and 8 inches in sea level rise, without causing global disaster. If the lower temperatures and lower sea level rise occur over the next one hundred years, then there’s not much of a climate emergency. It’s no wonder that those huge IPCC ranges cause a lot of sincere disagreement on the seriousness of the issue.

But is Di Caprio right about increasing floods, typhoon, and hurricanes right now? No. “Climate scientists have seen no trend involving an increase in the number or severity of hurricanes, tornadoes, big floods or wind storms,” reported the Washington Post earlier this week. “Apparently, this is the case not only in the United States but worldwide as well. Many experts have warned for years that increased warming of the air at the Earth’s surface could lead to a dramatic rise in the frequency and intensity of catastrophic weather events. So far, that has not occurred.”

In recent years, the public has been treated to headlines like “Warmest Year on Record” and “Warmest Winter Ever.” Critics of the global-warming apocalypse, such as University of Virginia climatologist Patrick Michaels, have maintained for more than a decade that most of any man-made global warming is likely to be channeled into winter nights. Why? Summertime highs don’t seem to be going up much, but winter lows are rising (which explains the warm-winter headlines). The feedback mechanism may be clouds. The idea is that a warmer world is a slightly wetter world, which consequently produces more clouds. Clouds may be shielding the earth during hot summer days, keeping temperatures moderate and, conversely, acting like blankets during cold winter nights, keeping the earth a bit warmer.

Setting aside the question of whether or not global warming is a problem, let’s look at the “clean energy” nostrums being peddled by the organizers of Earth Day 2000. Humanity is supposed to abandon “dirty” fossil fuels and make “a faster shift to nonpolluting, renewable solar, wind, and hydrogen energy systems” according to the Worldwatch Insitute’s Earth Day 2000 Report Card. This is, pardon the expression, just so much hot air

In a delightful break from the conventional green wisdom often credulously reported in the press, PBS producer Jon Palfreman’s Frontline/Nova special, “What’s up with the Weather?,” which aired on PBS on Wednesday night, gets it right. Current versions of solar, wind, and biomass sources of energy simply cannot power the 21st century. On the Frontline/Nova special, New York University energy expert Martin Hoffert dismisses biomass as a viable source for the world’s energy: “You would need an area equal approximately to 10 percent of the Earth’s land surface area. That’s equal to all the land that’s used in human agriculture right now. If you needed 30 terawatts generated by biomass, you would need three times as much land.” Plowing down rainforests to produce corn to burn is not very environmentally sensitive, is it?

What about wind and solar? Richard Rhodes and Denis Beller show in a brilliant article in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs that wind and solar are equally as bad as biomass for the natural world. They calculate that a global solar-energy system would cover 500,000 square miles and use up 20% of the world’s known iron resources, plus vast amounts of toxics, to maintain. And wind power is no better. A 1000-megawatt wind farm (equivalent to a moderate-sized conventional power plant) would occupy 2,000 square miles of land and produce electricity at double or triple the cost of fossil fuels, conclude Rhodes and Beller. There is, however, another non-greenhouse gas producing alternative.

At a luncheon some years ago, then-under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Timothy Wirth (now head of Ted Turner’s U.N. Foundation) told an astonished audience that environmentalists ought to think seriously about the “N” word — Nuclear. “Nuclear energy has no role in this debate,” primly declared the Greenpeace spokeswoman in the Frontline/Nova special. But why not? Nuclear power plants produce no carbon dioxide or other noxious gaseous emissions like sulfur and nitrogen dioxides, and the electricity they produce is far less costly than renewables. Environmentalists will one day have to do what they hate to do — make a tradeoff. They will have to decide whether they fear global warming more than they fear disposing of nuclear wastes. Or do they really want to pave the planet with solar cells and wind farms?

Finally, there is an air of unreality about this whole debate. To counteract the threat of global warming, environmental activists essentially want to plan the energy future for the entire world over the next 100 years. They are enacting the centralized energy plan through the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol. The arrogant absurdity of this type of planning becomes clear when one considers that trying to plan now on a global scale the energy mix for the next hundred years is as silly as someone in 1900 trying to plan for our current energy mix. A person in 1900 would simply not have been able to plan for hundreds of millions of automobiles and trucks, electric lighting in hundreds of millions of houses and office buildings, fuel for thousands of jet planes, scores of millions of refrigerators, air-conditioners, etc. None of the devices on this nearly endless list had been invented. Given the current rate of technological innovation, we undoubtedly stand in an even worse situation with respect to trying to foresee the developments in the next 100 years than the person in 1900 would have stood with respect to our world.

As for Mr. Di Caprio, want to bet that he doesn’t drive to the big Earth Day rally on the Mall this Saturday in his Chevy Tahoe?

Ronald BaileyRonald Bailey is science correspondent for Reason magazine and the author of Liberation Biology: The Moral and Scientific Case for the Biotech Revolution.


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