by Judith Curry
Last week, Rep. Lamar Smith wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post entitled Overheated rhetoric on climate change doesn’t make for good policies. Critics are responding with . . . overheated rhetoric.
Lamar Smith is a Republican representing Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives and is chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. I reproduce his op-ed in its entirety:
Climate change is an issue that needs to be discussed thoughtfully and objectively. Unfortunately, claims that distort the facts hinder the legitimate evaluation of policy options. The rhetoric has driven some policymakers toward costly regulations and policies that will harm hardworking American families and do little to decrease global carbon emissions. The Obama administration’s decision to delay, and possibly deny, the Keystone XL pipeline is a prime example.
The State Department has found that the pipeline will have minimal impact on the surrounding environment and no significant effect on the climate. Recent expert testimony before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology confirms this finding. In fact, even if the pipeline is approved and is used at maximum capacity, the resulting increase in carbon dioxide emissionswould be a mere 12 one-thousandths of 1 percent (0.012 percent). There is scant scientific or environmental justification for refusing to approve the pipeline, a project that the State Department has also found would generate more than 40,000 U.S. jobs.
Among the facts that are clear, however, are that U.S. emissions contribute very little to global concentrations of greenhouse gas, and that even substantial cuts in these emissions are likely to have no effect on temperature. Data from the Energy Information Administration show, for example, that the United States cut carbon dioxide emissions by 12 percent between 2005 and 2012 while global emissions increased by 15 percent over the same period.
Using data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a Science and Public Policy Institute paper published last month found that if the United States eliminated all carbon dioxide emissions, the overall impact on global temperature rise would be only 0.08 degrees Celsius by 2050.
Further confounding the debate are unscientific and often hyperbolic claims about the potential effects of a warmer world. In his most recent State of the Union address, President Obama said that extreme weather events have become “more frequent and intense,” and he linked Superstorm Sandy to climate change.
But experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have told the New York Times that climate change had nothing to do with Superstorm Sandy. This is underscored by last year’s IPCC report stating that there is “high agreement” among leading experts that trends in weather disasters, floods, tornados and storms cannot be attributed to climate change. While these claims may make for good political theater, their effect on recent public policy choices hurts the economy.
Rep. Smith attended the recent Congressional Hearing on Policy-Relevant Climate Issues in Context where I presented testimony. Rep. Smith’s op-ed touches on some of the main themes included in my testimony, including global temperatures have held steady over the past 15 years, there is a great amount of uncertainty associated with climate science, climate models have overestimated recent warming, Hurricane Sandy can’t be attributed to global warming.
There has been considerable backlash against Smith’s op-ed. Some examples:
Eugene Robinson of WaPo writes a response in the San Antonio Express News (behind paywall):
Only someone who was ignorant of basic science — or deliberately being obtuse — could write a sentence like this one: “Contrary to the claims of those who want to strictly regulate carbon dioxide emissions and increase the cost of energy for all Americans, there is a great amount of uncertainty associated with climate science.”
Oh wait, that’s a quote from an op-ed in the Washington Post by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Yes, this is the officially designated science expert in the U.S. House of Representatives. See what I mean about President Obama likely having to go it alone?
For the record, and for the umpteenth time, there is no “great amount of uncertainty” about whether the planet is warming or why. A new study looked at nearly 12,000 recently published papers by climate scientists and found that of those taking a position on the question, 97 percent agreed that humans are causing atmospheric warming by burning fossil fuels, which releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
The mechanism by which carbon dioxide traps heat is well understood and can be observed in a laboratory setting. If Smith and other deniers wish to create the impression that there is an “on the other hand” argument to be made, they’ll need to come up with a radical new theory of physics.
Ryan Koronowski at ThinkProgress, some excerpts:
Rep. Smith made the case that “global temperatures have held steady over the past 15 years, despite rising greenhouse gas emissions.”
This is simply not the case. The overall trend line shows continued warming. 2010 was the hottest year on record. Every year of the decades of the 2000′s was warmer than the average temperature in the ’90s.
However, experts in the field explain that climate change makes hurricanes and Nor’Easters like Superstorm Sandy more powerful and more destructive. The experts that Rep. Smith tried to cite mainly focused on research saying that climate change has not increased the frequency of hurricanes. Climate scientists pointed to the link between climate change and the increased strength and intensity of storms.
Smith said that the EPA “proposed emissions standards that virtually prohibit new coal-fired power plants.” He goes on to say that regulating carbon emissions from power plants will “raise both electricity rates and gas prices — costing jobs and hurting the economy.”
The Environmental Protection Agency is required to regulate carbon because the Supreme Court ruled that carbon dioxide is a pollutant. EPA regulations actually help the economy and create jobs. Every $1 invested in the economy yields $10 in benefits.
Smith concludes that we are “pursuing heavy-handed regulations” on climate change and urges everyone to “take a step back from the unfounded claims of impending catastrophe and think critically about the challenge before us.”
There have been thousands of experts thinking critically about the reality of climate change, and their overwhelming conclusion is that emissions need to be reined in. Not eventually, but right now.
A discussion at MasterResource points to an essay published in the Houston Chronicle by by Ronald Sass, Fellow in Global Climate Change at Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy. Excerpts:
Smith purports to address the ill effect of “overheated” rhetoric about climate change on policy decisions. In fact,Representative Smith is more heavily invested in promoting the Keystone XL pipeline than he is in policy for climate change. He began his campaign promoting the Northern Route Approval Act (HR 3) when his Energy and Environment subcommittees recently held a joint hearing examining the science and environmental issues of the proposed pipeline.
Climate Science Watch responds:
Overall he claims we know little about what influences the climate or what can be done to stop climate change. However:
- Increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes warming. There is no uncertainty in this fact. Even if the lowest warming estimates turn out to be correct, we will still experience ruinous impacts that go far beyond the current costs unless we start acting soon to reduce emissions.
- Extreme weather has already increased measurably due to warming, and scientists project this will continue.
- The United States has emitted the most carbon pollution of any country, and if we act on emissions reductions, we can change our climate fate as part of a global effort.
Smith’s op-ed tries to raise several claims: Uncertainties “undermine” and limit our understanding of the causal connection between warming and carbon dioxide, both in the past and future; Models have “greatly” overestimated warming, as shown by the “fact” that there has been no warming for 15 years; Extreme weather events have no connection to global warming; Regulations to reduce carbon emissions have no impact on the climate, kill jobs and hurt the economy, which is why we shouldn’t hesitate to build the Keystone XL pipeline.
- Physicists have known of the warming effects of CO2 for more than one hundred years. Scientists are only uncertain about how exactly much warming each doubling of CO2 causes, and they have that question narrowed down to a range of a few degrees (2-4.5 ºC). While that range has recently narrowed, there has been little change to the bottom of the range, which is still way above what could possibly be considered “safe.”
- Our understanding of the climate of the past informs our knowledge of the magnitude of the risks we face today. The last time the world experienced our current concentration of 400 ppm of CO2, temperatures were so warm that now-extinct mammals roamed aforested, ice-free Arctic. That was over three million years ago; humans have never experienced such conditions.
- Warming has continued to increase, and models have predicted warming accurately. Current atmospheric temperatures are on the lower end of projections but still within the bounds of variation predicted by modeling. Furthermore, ocean warming has continued unabated, and sea level rise and Arctic ice melt have exceeded estimates. To say that “global” warming has stopped or stalled is simply wrong.
- Many types of extreme weather have been connected to climate change. It’s no surprise that Smith references the IPCC Special Report on Extremes, yet doesn’t link to it. That’s because the report makes the opposite point he describes: it connects extreme precipitation, heat waves, and droughts with human-caused climate change.
- Regulations to reduce pollution have historically been found to be good for the economy, despite hyperbolic claims of imminent doom from industry groups (and, in the case of the Keystone XL pipeline,inflated job creation statistics). The United States has emitted the most cumulative CO2 of any country, and as such should take a leading role in reducing emissions.
JC comments: The theme of Rep. Smith’s op-ed is overheated rhetoric; he selected topics to discuss where he views the rhetoric to be overheated. Rep. Smith’s statements about climate science itself are defensible, in fact support for these statements is provided in my testimony. Criticisms of the ‘science’ were either:
- factually incorrect (warming has continued to increase and models have predicted warming accurately)
- appeal to consensus (the infamous 97%)
- attack a statement that was not made (carbon dioxide does not trap heat)
- appeal to motive attacks (Smith is more interested in Keystone than in climate change policy)
- confuse science and politics (decisions surrounding keystone are about politics, not about science)
These criticisms of Rep. Smith’s op-ed make Rep. Smith look like more of a defender of science than his critics, which is not a good place for these critics to be.
Apart from the ineptness of the responses to Rep. Smith’s op-ed, there remains genuine disagreement about aspects of climate science and acknowledged uncertainties.
With regards to political issues such as the Keystone pipeline and EPA regulations on emissions, these are political and economic issues, and there is of course disagreement on these issues.
I find the response to Rep Smith’s op-ed to be unfortunate, since he seems to be generally a supporter of science (particularly NASA) and he does not hold scientifically irrational opinions or positions regarding climate change. When compared with say Senator Inhofe, it seems that Rep Smith is someone that the Democrats should be able to work with. In closing, I will repeat Rep. Smith’s opening statement:
Climate change is an issue that needs to be discussed thoughtfully and objectively. Unfortunately, claims that distort the facts hinder the legitimate evaluation of policy options.