L.A. Warming
Jude Wanniski
November 9, 1999


I happened to be in Los Angeles Saturday and naturally bought the Times. When I saw your editorial was about global warming, with a headline that indicated you had made up your mind, I read on to find out what it was you were asking your readers to "face up to." It was actually a pleasant surprise to find you making small recommendations about how California could prepare for unpleasant discoveries, or take small steps in the direction of facing them if and when they occur. Your last paragraph summed it up nicely: "California's historical failures to anticipate ecological problems have been expensive. To this day, for instance, the excessive recovery of underground water early in this century makes dome agricultural lands too salty to plant. Ecologically and economically, planning for climate change makes sense."

One caution I would note for you is in your acceptance of the global warming concept based upon your finding that "climatologists have come to agree that global warming is a certainty." I'm afraid that "climatologists" are not prepared to make such findings of certainty unless they satisfy physicists that carbon dioxide emissions are not "linear," which is what physicists believe them to be. I'm not a scientist, but because I have to deal with so many scientific issues, I try to make sure the things I read about in the newspapers that are "scientific" really have solid foundations in the fundamental sciences -- which climatology is not. After I read your editorial, I put the question to Dr. Gordon Prather, an old friend who is a nuclear physicist. Here was his e-mail reply:

* * * * *

What I said was that in linear systems, small causes can only have small effects. Linear systems are no good for Al Gore and the Greenies. However, in non-linear systems (particularly those with positive feedback mechanisms, wherein part of the output of the system is reintroduced as input to the system) small causes can have large effects. But in the real world, even though the cause increases indefinitely, the effect cannot increase indefinitely. Some other mechanism intercedes to quench the exponential growth. It only takes one neutron to start a chain reaction in a critical mass of fissile material, and since 2.5 neutrons and about 200Mev of energy are produced in every fission and these 2.5 neutrons produce several new fissions, the cause [neutrons] increases exponentially as does the effect [energy release]. However, in the real world, there comes a point when the energy released blows apart the critical mass, quenching the chain reaction.

In the Ozone Layer Destruction Caper, the Greenies posited a chemical reaction in the upper atmosphere that was "catalyzed" by a catalyst (the chloro-fluoro carbons as I recall -- freon and hairspray -- but look it up) uniquely manmade, a catalyst which only worked in only one direction, to destroy ozone.

However, in the Global Warming Caper, the Greenies have not posited a uniquely manmade mechanism. Some percentage of the Stefan-Boltzman radiation (which is a function of the Earth's surface temperature) emitted by the Earth's surface is absorbed by "greenhouse gases" in the atmosphere, and about half of that energy absorbed in the "greenhouse gases" is then re-radiated back to the Earth's surface, further increasing the surface temperature. This is the positive feedback mechanism the Greenies have seized on. The feedback mechanism they selected had been operating that way for hundreds of millions of years and may, or may not, have resulted in increased surface temperatures on Planet Earth. The operation of the sun-earthsurface-atmosphere-earthsurface radiative feedback mechanism over hundreds of millions of years has evidently left us with a slowly varying system that can not be terribly far from equilibrium.

But the Greenies argue that the Planet is dangerously far from equilibrium; "Earth in the Balance," on a knife edge, and that mankind merely needs to nudge it to start an uncontrolled chain reaction that will destroy all life on earth. When the Greenies pick the sun-earthsurface-atmosphere-earthsurface feedback mechanism for their "End of the World" scenario, they ought to have to show how their chosen feedback mechanism, operating on the levels of greenhouse gases that have existed for hundreds of millions of years, did not destroy all life on earth long before now.

* * * * *

In an earlier discussion, Dr. Prather pointed out how some physicists in 1945 worried that a nuclear explosion might blow up the planet... that it would continue reacting until it split all the atoms. Even a nuclear explosion -- which is non-linear -- burns itself out. Climatologists may agree that global warning is a certainty, but if they cannot persuade a physicist that their "certainty" is even a tiny possibility, you might take that into account as well.