woody zimmermann 120As the astronauts of Apollo XIII may (or may not) have said, “Houston, we have a problem…”

Today we are in the midst of a furious national debate – occasionally bordering on actual violence – over claims by environmentalists and politicians that Earth’s climate is headed for catastrophic changes that may (or may not) be manifest until a century or more hence. These dire changes – the only “evidence” of which is a body of predictions from computer-based models of questionable accuracy – are being posited as the rationale for draconian measures on energy production and use that would inflict serious harm on the American people’s lives and economy.

The climate-issue, as currently framed, is confusing on at least two counts. First, because the name of the crisis keeps changing. The term “climate-change” is a replacement the earlier scare-term, “global warming,” which was a replacement for the 1970s scare-term, “global cooling.” You have to have lived to at least age 60 to recall that the looming cataclysm of the ‘70s was a “new ice-age” that we were inexorably sliding into. The prospect was dire: the earth was cooling – some said “dramatically” – and we would probably all freeze to death in a few years, or decades at most. The tropics would ice over, and most of the Continental USA would become uninhabitable. Beach-front property would become worthless. In the winter of 1979-’80, daredevils were driving cars across the ice on the frozen Potomac River, and an iceberg was spotted in the Chesapeake Bay for the first time in recorded history. So the inside-the-Beltway crowd, at least, were convinced that cooling was happening. Something had to be done.

There was no consensus on why the earth was cooling, but reporters, politicians, and university profs on the scout for federal funds were pretty sure humans were the culprits. Dark suggestions were starting to emerge that the burning of hydrocarbon fuels was the primary cause. Some scientists believed carbon dioxide from excessive fuel-combustion was blocking the sun’s rays, thereby causing the cooler temperatures. Skeptics noted that earlier ice-ages covering large parts of the earth had occurred when humans numbered only a small fraction of today’s population and before oil had even been discovered, but they were either ignored or shouted down.

Modelers, scientists, politicians and others were just starting to solidify their theories about the great cooling when the earth took a perverse turn and began to warm. (Don’t you just hate that?) With no visible trace of embarrassment, the global-cooling crowd (including Big Media) switched sides, word-smithed their theories, and began to denounce fossil-fuel consumption as the cause of global warming. We were going to be cooked, they warned. Polar ice would melt, oceans would rise, and coastal cities would be flooded. Al Gore said we had a window of just ten years to take action before it would be too late. Spurred on by Dr. Gore’s (now-debunked) film, An Inconvenient Truth, the warming-movement quickly grew in strength until it gained the support of a significant scientific/political community. Many scientists and environmental activists have benefitted from federal funding of over $32 billion since 1989.

Inconveniently, though, the story had to change again, around 2010, when it became clear that the earth’s temperature had not warmed since 1998. The non-warming streak has now continued for nearly 20 years, and there are troubling indications – mostly suppressed by media wedded to the cataclysmic warming story – that we may be entering another cooling-period. Aware that this kind of whipsaw effect could turn their scare-stories into comedy-fodder, environmentalists renamed their disaster-theme “climate-change.” It was a stroke of political genius.

Henceforth, whatever direction temperatures go can be attributed to climate-change. Very hot summer days and droughts are cited as products of climate-change. Exceptionally cold winters or big snowstorms: also due to climate-change. Hurricanes, ditto – especially if they make landfall in the Eastern USA. Heavy rains, drought, wildfires – all can be marked down to changes in climate that will end life as we know it unless we take drastic action by (you guessed it) reducing the amount of carbon dioxide generated by burning hydrocarbon fuels.

This reduction can be achieved only by paying massive taxes and converting our economy to expensive “renewable” means of generating power – e.g., solar panels, windmills, treadmills, perpetual motion machines (not yet perfected), etc. Modernization of undeveloped regions, like Africa, must be blocked to preserve their primitive environments. The prospect that this will shorten life-expectancies, due to disease fostered by unhealthy living-conditions, is shrugged off as an unfortunate casualty of our noble crusade to “save the earth.” (No one advocating these measures, however, would put up with Africans’ dirt-poor living conditions for ten minutes.)

The easy conversion of the cooling/warming story to “climate-change” has been enabled by a second major point of confusion – now widely reinforced by the media – over the terms weather and climate. Currently, these words are routinely interchanged by reporters, pundits, politicians and even some scientists.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

Weather = the state of the atmosphere at a place and time as regards heat, dryness, sunshine, wind, rain, etc.

Climate = the weather conditions prevailing in an area in general or over a long period.

Thus, weather is a component of climate, but they are not the same thing. Regions closer to the equator have warmer weather, while regions closer to the poles have colder weather. Some regions tend to be dry; others are normally very wet. The aggregate of weather for a certain region of the earth, over many decades or even centuries, is called its climate. Weather for any region varies within certain bounds – day to day or year to year – but it tends to be constant, overall. Schoolchildren once understood all this, but not so much now.

Today, even adults – especially reporters and politicians – are confused about this fundamental distinction. Every time a big storm sweeps in or we have some really hot days, we’re blitzed by ominous reports on how the “climate” is changing. Yes, these are fluctuations in the weather, but they are entirely normal. I’ve lived long enough to have seen some pretty bad hurricanes, snowstorms, floods, etc. Is weather more severe now than in the 1940s or ‘50s? Politicians say Yes, but students of scientific data disagree.

In a 2015 article, noted columnist George Will wrote: “…something about which everyone can agree is that of course the climate is changing – it always is.” But this almost-plausible-sounding claim betrays Dr. Will’s confusion of “weather” with “climate.” Yes, the weather is always changing – rain one day, sunny the next, etc. But is the climate “always changing?” Well, yes and no. Clearly it has changed, from time to time, over spans of many centuries. But whether it is changing now – how much, how rapidly, and by what means – is not established because our time-sample of data is too small. We’re micro-analyzing small time-segments and extrapolating them out a century or more. This serves a political purpose, but it is not sound science.

Given these uncertainties, we shouldn’t rush into radical changes in how we live and work just because a few people – who are no surer about any of this than you or I – believe we are causing the earth’s climate to change more quickly than it normally does. Last I checked, “belief” was not listed in the scientific lexicon. So until a real trend becomes clearer, over perhaps a century or so, we ought to resist any drastic measures. Then, after studying the problem properly, we’ll have confidence that what we do (if anything) will be effective. Half-baked “solutions” now – based on incomplete data – offer no such assurance. Measures proposed by the Paris Climate Treaty, for instance – from which President Trump has mercifully delivered us – would have lowered global temperatures by a fraction of a degree, while costing hundreds of billions in lost jobs, crippled competitiveness, and degraded economic growth.

Americans will do well to remember that liberal politicians’ figurative Holy Grail, for which they ceaselessly search, is a problem that defies solution, or even improvement, no matter how much money is thrown at it. Climate is that “problem” – if it is a problem. It has changed, to some extent, several times during man’s recorded history without any help from us. Greenland was warm enough to be farmed for several hundred years, before it suddenly got too cold. Scientists have theories for why that happened – sunspots, asteroids, seismic activity, supernovae, extra-terrestrials, etc. – but no one really knows. Human activity could neither have caused nor prevented the Medieval Warm Period (AD 900-1300) or the Little Ice Age (AD 1300-1850).

So when a politician tells you that he’ll stop changes in the climate if we send in all the money we have, move into grass huts, and start cooking over fires of dried buffalo-dung, keep a tight grip on your wallet and recall three important nuggets of wisdom:

  1. Common sense is not a requirement for public office.
  2. Politicians are not necessarily smarter than the average bear.
  3. A fool and his money are soon parted.