This week, the New Yorker magazine glowingly profiled Jon Leland, who is “scaring people about climate change” by placing “This Place Will Be Water” stickers on buildings in Manhattan. Leland is obviously claiming that industrial, noncontaminant warming gasses will warm the air, melt the ice, and expand the water in the seas enough to inundate the Big Apple.
Before he starts his new “This Place Will Be Desert” campaign in the Midwest, I’d like to warn him that his stickers make claims that are scientifically dubious. They’re right up there with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and her recent claim that “the world’s going to end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change.”
As to Leland’s current campaign, there isn’t much to it. After a dramatic 130-yard increase from the cyclical ice age that earth goes through every 120,000 years, sea level has been stable for the past 8,000 years, rising and falling only slightly as temperature changes. In the past century, the rate of increase has fluctuated between half an inch and an inch per decade.
Land use and natural land changes are as important in the equation today as the expansion of oceans. And the predictions of disappearing islands that motivated the stickers have proven to be as groundless as predictions of disappearing polar bears.
As to his new campaign, the 50 percent increase to date in the concentration of carbon dioxide has actually fertilized the planet. Crops are now about 15 percent more productive and deserts are receding. Field experiments predict that this greening effect will increase by another 30 percent as carbon dioxide levels rise another 50 percent over the next 100 years, from today’s 4 percent of one percent to 6 percent of one percent. While the experiments also predict that some nutrients will be reduced by about five percent in some crop varieties, this would be more than offset by changes in growing techniques, increased yields, and, most importantly, increased income from fossil-fueled economic growth.
Finally, although global temperature has risen about one degree Celsius since the start of the industrial revolution, this has not wholly been caused by industrial warming gasses linked to the economic growth that has increased the world’s wealth, health, and life expectancy so dramatically. Atmospheric physicists on both sides of the debate over potential climate catastrophe agree that the first half of the rise, before 1945, was largely caused by natural sources like long-term cycles or solar fluctuations. At that point, emissions were too low to have much impact. The substantial “feedback” warming that many climate models have predicted from fossil-fueled heat in the form of increased humidity and hence water vapor, the primary natural warming gas, has not yet been observed.
Only a quarter of Africans have electricity in their homes, and businesses across the continent suffer from interruptions, stalling economic growth and the access to the clean water that increases life expectancy. There’s a cause I hope Leland and the Ocasio-Cortez can take up with me: backing African plans to build fossil-fueled power plants equipped with the scrubbing technology that takes out the real pollutants.
Caleb Rossiter is executive director of the CO2 Coalition.