When Coal Cools: a Global Warming Enigma

Candice Gaukel Andrews August 9, 2011 7

The Dallas-Fort Worth area may soon break its record of 42 consecutive days at 100 degrees or above. ©John T. Andrews.

The Dallas-Fort Worth area is currently on its thirty-ninth consecutive day of temperatures in the triple digits. The region might soon break its record of forty-two consecutive days at 100 or above, set in 1980. And according to the Weather Channel, drought now affects over a million square miles of the lower forty-eight states, or 32 percent. Some would say that this is the “picture” of global warming.

But as with most things — especially if you’ve tried to put together a piece of furniture from a two-sided instruction sheet — what would seem to be simple, isn’t. Just recently, scientists from Boston University, Harvard, and the University of Turku in Finland published a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America that showed that the world didn’t warm as predicted between 1998 and 2008. In fact, between 2005 and 2008, global temperatures actually dropped slightly. This absence of warming occurred despite a steady increase in carbon dioxide emissions — which scientists have previously insisted would raise temperatures.

James Delingpole, writing for The Telegraph in London, has said that this damming evidence should finally put an end to what he calls the “Great Global Warming Boondoggle.” Yet, he posits, “the Warmists” have developed a new explanation for the inconvenient truth: sulfur pollutants pumped out from China’s coal-fired power plants are preventing the sunlight from reaching the Earth’s surface, thereby offsetting the warming effect of CO2 emissions. In other words, man-made global cooling is canceling out man-made global warming. Delingpole says that that’s nonsense.

Or is it?

We’re going to need a bigger air conditioner


Whooping crane

Only about 400 whooping cranes are left in the world today. A rise in sea level would threaten their shallow-marsh habitats. ©John T. Andrews.

Actually, the Chinese-coal hypothesis is a valid one, according to Andrew Freedman in a July 5, 2011, article for The Washington Post. China’s coal consumption more than doubled in the four years between 2003 and 2007, causing a 26 percent increase in global coal use. Since air-pollution standards in China are weak at best, the country’s coal burning sent massive amounts of sun-blocking sulfates into the atmosphere.

Freedman notes that there have been other periods in history when sulfur emissions temporarily mitigated global warming caused by greenhouse gases, such as in the aftermath of World War II. During the economic growth from the 1940s to the 1970s, the planet’s temperature seemed to level off, possibly from the cooling effects of aerosols. After the 1970s, however, clean air laws enacted in many industrialized countries curbed such emissions.

That could be what’s going to happen all over again. Recognizing the damage sulfate pollutants visit upon the country’s crops, environment, and the health of its citizens, Chinese leaders have now ordered coal plants to be fitted with sulfur-scrubbing equipment. Once the effects of these cleaning devices have a chance to take hold, the drop in sulfur particles may trigger a sudden and dramatic rise in temperatures around the world, as the rising CO2 levels that have been masked for a decade are unleashed.

Two times the CO2

While the most widely accepted climate-change model predicts that a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere compared with pre-industrial times — which will likely happen before this century’s end — will cause global temperatures to rise by about three degrees Celsius, researchers using an updated model, and who reported their work in a January 2011 paper in the American Journal of Science, found that such a doubling could produce a temperature increase of six to eight degrees Celsius. According to many, that kind of climb in thermometer readings would result in mass extinctions, large-scale desertification, the dying of our oceans, the drowning of our coastal cities, the deaths of billions of people, and other devastating effects.

Last year tied for the warmest year on record. ©John T. Andrews.

But putting all the conjecture aside for a moment, what we do know is that last year tied for the warmest year on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Could what’s going on in Texas be a sign of things to come?

Here’s to finding your true places and — still cool — natural habitats,



  1. Carolynne Woods August 9, 2011 at 1:50 pm -

    Your observations are valid. Good report.

  2. Travis August 9, 2011 at 2:35 pm -

    Never mind the erratic weather, tsunamis, tornados, and hurricanes!

  3. Carlyn Kline August 9, 2011 at 4:16 pm -

    The heat wave that so much of this country has experienced this summer pales in comparison to the temperatures in 1936, for whch no one has seemed to offer an explanation.

  4. John August 10, 2011 at 12:01 pm -

    Entirely plausible. Climate change with peak oil, peak water (already passed) and peak soil. Simple solution though. Just slash consumption.

  5. walt August 12, 2011 at 1:19 pm -

    Global cooling in the 70’s, now global warming, but China’s coal burning is cooling, but don’t worry the temps will still go up. Reminds me of the US government trying to tell people what kind of food is good for them. Changes every decade. Remember the food pyramid? Well, almost all of our problems are caused by “peak people”. The world has hit it’s population “comfortable carrying limit” several billion people ago. Over the next generation, things aren’t going to be pretty. Yes. Technology will allow us to keep upping this limit. But it’s like rolling a ball of snow up a steep hill. At some point, it’s going to roll down hill no matter what is pushing it.

  6. John Williams September 12, 2011 at 5:02 am -

    When the Titanic struck the iceberg most on board didn’t believe there was any cause for concern. Why would they want to leave the comfort of their warm ship and get into a lifeboat? Seems to me that human nature doesn’t change.