State of the climate debate in the U.S.
by Judith Curry
I am just about to head to London, to make my presentation in the House of Lords: State of the Climate Debate in the U.S.
Good evening everyone, it’s a great pleasure to be here, and I would like to thank the GWPF for inviting me. Tonite I will be talking about the state of the climate debate in the U.S. This is a story of a sharp partisan divide between the Democrats and Republicans regarding what, if anything, we should do about climate change. Unfortunately, climate science is caught in the crossfire.
President Obama and climate change
President Obama has made very strong statements about climate change.
“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”
“No challenge–no challenge–poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.”
“There’s one issue that will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other, and that is the urgent and growing threat of a changing climate.”
The basis for these strong statements has evolved from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Treaty, which established a goal of stabilization of atmospheric greenhouse gases to prevent dangerous climate change.
For the past 25 years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been conducting comprehensive assessments, that have successively increased in confidence that
- Human caused climate change is real
- Human caused climate change is dangerous, and
- Action is needed to prevent dangerous human-caused climate change
In its current round of negotiations, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is seeking to limit emission through voluntary Intended National Determined Contributions, or INDCs. The key elements of the U.S. INDC are
- Reduce emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025
- Economy-wide emission reductions of 80% by 2050
President Obama is coordinating the U.S. response through the Environmental Protection Agency, or the EPA. The Clean Power Plan has the following elements:
By 2030, the U.S. will:
- Cut carbon power sector emission by 30% nationwide below 2005 levels
- Cut particle pollution, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide by more than 25%
- Avoid asthma attacks in children;
- Shrink electricity bills 8% by increasing energy efficiency and reducing demand.
The basis for these actions under the EPA is the Endangerment finding, which found that greenhouse gas pollution endangers public health. In 2007 the U.S. Supreme Court, held that greenhouse gases are pollutants under the Clean Air Act.
Now President Obama can’t accomplish all this on his own, he needs the cooperation of the states. This figure from ClimateProgress illustrates the commitment to acting on climate change from various states. The green states are on board with President Obama’s plan, and already making significant headway with emissions reductions. The yellow states have a mixed record, and the red states are not making progress, with the black striped states characterized as ‘denier’ states. My home state of Georgia is in the middle of denier land.
So President Obama clearly has his work cut out for him, he needs to build political support to actually implement his plan and realize emissions reductions. President Obama has tried several different arguments for building political and public support for his plan.
The first argument was the Social Cost of Carbon, which is an economic argument that assesses the cost-benefit of regulatory actions that impact CO2 emissions.
This argument has been challenged because the costs and benefits, estimated over 300 years, are highly uncertain and contested. High costs now will damage the economy and development, and make us more vulnerable to climate surprises. At the heart of this debate is the social discount rate: how much should we value potential damages to future people?
The second argument that President Obama has been using relates to extreme weather. Particularly following Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, the U.S. public was more concerned about climate change if it was making storms worse or more frequent.
At the start of this year’s hurricane season, President Obama made the following statement:
“The best climate scientists in the world are telling us that extreme weather events like hurricanes are likely to become more powerful. Climate change didn’t cause Hurricane Sandy, but it might have made it stronger.”
Chris Landsea, a hurricane expert at the National Hurricane Center, retorted with the following statement:
“How is it that the White House links changes in hurricanes today to global warming when WMO, NOAA, and IPCC cannot?”
While extreme weather is an argument that seems to work in terms of influencing public opinion on climate change, however it isn’t supported by research and the main assessment reports.
The 3rd argument that President Obama has been using is the public health benefits of reducing carbon pollution. President Obama recently stated:
“Carbon pollution causing climate change is contributing to health risks for many children. Over the past 3 decades, the % of Americans with asthma has more than doubled and climate change is putting those Americans at greater risk of landing in the hospital”.
However, the fact of the matter is that carbon dioxide does not impact air quality and breathing. U.S. air quality (ozone and particulates) has improved substantially over the past 3 decades.
President Obama made this issue personal, since his daughter suffers from asthma. However, this rather backfired on President Obama, who is a smoker, since 2nd hand smoke is more likely to exacerbate asthma than is carbon dioxide.
The 4th argument that President Obama has been using is related to national security. President Obama recently stated:
”Climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to our national security, and, make no mistake, it will impact how our military defends our country.”
The challenge to this argument is that the main security issue is the impact of extreme weather events, which is better addressed by adaptation. CO2 mitigation is an ineffective national security tool. And more significantly, President Obama’s opponents criticize him for focusing on climate change while ISIS is on the march.
One argument that President Obama HASN’T tried to make explicitly is that theU.S. commitments to emissions reductions will actually slow down warming in a meaningful way. If you believe the climate models, the U.S. emissions reductions would reduce the warming by a fairly trivial amount, that would get lost among the natural variability of climate.
President Obama’s opponents
So President Obama has been rather frustrated in his attempts to build political and public support for his Climate Action Plan. He has taken to labeling his opponents as ‘deniers’, and earlier this year, his website barackobama.com organized the Climate Change Fantasy Tournament: Who will be crowned the worst climate change denier? A bit unseemly, particularly since the candidates for this are his opponents in Congress.
The award for worst climate change denier goes to Senator James Inhofe, Chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Senator Inhofe is author of the book The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. Senator Inhofe’s main concern is over regulation of business. Last year the Republican members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee issued a report on climate change, subtitled ‘Empirical Evidence to Consider Before Taking Regulatory Action and Implementing Economic Policies.’ This is actually a pretty good report.
The most influential of President Obama’s foes in the House of Representatives on the climate change issue is Representative Lamar Smith, Chair of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee. He has recently written two influential op-eds:
- Overheated rhetoric on climate change hurts the economy
- The climate-change religion
His main point:
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.
What the Senate thinks about climate change and the proposed polices is of great relevance to the fate of President Obama’s efforts, particularly in context of the United Nations. The U.S. Constitution includes the Treaty Clause:
“The President shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur . . . “
What the Senate thinks about climate change was clarified last January by the Sense of the Senate Resolution. The first resolution was “Climate change is real and not a hoax”, which received only one no vote. The second resolution “Climate change is real; and human activity contributes significantly to climate change” received a split vote – where the vote was almost, but not quite, strictly along party lines.
The media portrayed this as a schizophrenic, anti-science vote. Actually, the Senate resolutions highlighted the differences and confusion between the scientific and political definitions of climate change. The scientific definition emphasizes that climate change can be due to natural processes, or persistent human caused changes. The political definition of climate change is that it is human caused climate change. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change established the political definition in the 1990’s, which is the definition that also seems to have been adopted by the Obama administration.
The political definition effectively defines naturally caused climate change out of existence. However, natural climate change versus human caused climate change is at the heart of the scientific and policy debate surrounding climate change.
Recall that approving a treaty requires a supermajority of 66%. It is clear from the recent Senate Resolution that there is no supermajority in the Senate in support of climate change policies.
So President Obama apparently intends to sign a UN climate agreement without Senate approval. This lack of Congressional support is influencing the strategies being undertaken by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The issue was succinctly stated at the recent G7 meeting in Bonn by the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius:
“We must find a formula which is valuable for everybody and valuable for the U.S. without going to the Congress”
The key concern of the UNFCCC is to what extent is President Obama’s climate commitment enforceable.
In the absence of state and Congressional support, the Plan is being enforced through the Executive Branch via the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
- Ongoing legal challenges, but so far the Supreme Court has supported President Obama
- The next President may choose not to enforce, or even to abolish the EPA. During the recent Bush administration, the Enforcement Division of the EPA was largely unfunded.
President Obama has about 18 months remaining in his term as President.
The Democratic Party candidates, dominated by Hillary Clinton, are expected to generally support President Obama’s strategies regarding climate change.
The Republican candidates for President are quite a different story. There are currently 14 candidates that are expected to run and the number may rise to 20. Several of the candidates have recently made statements about climate change, these excerpts illustrate the range of positions among the candidates on climate change.
Jeb Bush: “I don’t think the science is clear of what % is man-made and what % is natural. It’s convoluted. For the people to say the science is decided on this is really arrogant. The climate is changing. We need to adapt to that reality.”
Ted Cruz: “Specifically, satellite data demonstrate there has been no warming over the past 17 years. And I would note whenever anyone makes that point, you immediately get vilified as a ‘denier’ without anyone actually refuting the facts.”
Marco Rubio: “The question is, what percentage of that is due to human activity? If we do the things they want us to do, cap-and-trade, you name it, how much will that change the pace of climate change versus how much will that cost to our economy? “
Carly Fiorina: “The only answer to this is innovation, and in that America could be the best in the world.”
Chris Christie: “when you have over 90% of the world’s scientists who have studied this stating that climate change is occurring and that humans play a contributing role, it’s time to defer to the experts.”
John Kasich: “I am just saying that I am concerned about it, but I am not laying awake at night worrying the sky is falling.”
Rick Santorum: “I for one never bought the hoax. To suggest that man’s contribution is the determining ingredient in the sauce that affects the entire global warming and cooling is just absurd on its face.”
I don’t think any of the Republican candidates would support the extent of President Obama’s climate change agenda, with the possible exception of Lindsay Graham, a longshot candidate.
The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is correct to be concerned about whether the U.S. commitment to reduce emissions will be met.
The Republican candidates are all portrayed as ‘deniers’ by the Democrats and by the liberal media. But this portrayal of the Republicans as deniers is a cartoonish one.
Science in the crossfire
There is widespread agreement on these basic tenets:
- Surface temperatures have increased since 1880
- Humans are adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere
- Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have a warming effect on the planet
However, There is disagreement about the most consequential issues:
- Whether the warming since 1950 has been dominated by human causes
- How much the planet will warm in the 21st century
- Whether warming is ‘dangerous’
- Whether we can afford to radically reduce CO2 emissions, and whether reduction will improve the climate
In the midst of all this disagreement among policy makers, U.S. climate research has been caught in the crossfire. Congressional Republicans have been pushing for substantial reductions to funding for climate research. President Obama and the Democrats are not much better. The President’s Climate Action Plan is pushing for more research on climate impact assessments and new energy technologies. Since they regard climate dynamics as essentially settled science, the funding is not very good for basic research in climate dynamics and data set building and quality assessment. Funding goes into climate modeling to better understand human caused climate change; there is very little funding for understanding natural climate variability.
I am very concerned that climate science is becoming biased owing to biases in federal funding priorities and the institutionalization by professional societies of a particular ideology related to climate change.
Many scientists, and institutions that support science, are becoming advocates for UN climate policies, which is leading scientists into overconfidence in their assessments and public statements and into failures to respond to genuine criticisms of the scientific consensus. In short, the climate science establishment has become intolerant to disagreement and debate, and is attempting to marginalize and de-legitimized dissent as corrupt or ignorant.
Uncertainty and disagreement drive scientific progress. Stifling uncertainty and disagreement stifles scientific progress.
A majority of climate scientists seem to support the IPCC perspective, with recent surveys of scientists suggesting 52-85% of climate scientists agree with the IPCC. Nevertheless, a great deal of uncertainty remains, and there is plenty of room for disagreement. So why do scientists disagree?
- Insufficient observational evidence
- Disagreement about the value of different classes of evidence
- Disagreement about the appropriate logical framework for linking and assessing the evidence
- Assessments of areas of ambiguity & ignorance
- And finally, the politicization of the science can torque the science in politically desired directions.
None of the most consequential scientific uncertainties are going to be resolved any time soon; there is a great deal of work still to do to understand climate change. And there is a growing realization that unpredictable natural climate variability is important.
Is climate change dangerous?
I think most important looming issue in the climate debate is understanding to what extent climate change is ‘dangerous’.
Whether or not something is dangerous is a value issue, not a scientific issue. But depending on how you define ‘dangerous’, different scientific analyses come into play, and also different decision-analytic frameworks.
In 2010, the UN negotiators determined that an increase of 2 degrees Celsius over preindustrial temperatures was the danger threshold, beyond which there was the possibility of consequences that are largely uncontrollable and beyond our management. The 2 degree threshold remains very controversial, and there is a movement afoot to drop the threshold to 1.5 degrees.
So how should we respond to the threat of climate change, given the uncertainties?
- There is increasing evidence that the threat from global warming is overstated
- However, if the threat is not overstated, there are major shortfalls in current and proposed solutions.
My concern is that we have oversimplified by the climate change problem and its solutions. This oversimplification has
- undercut the political process and dialog necessary for real solutions in a highly complex world
- torqued scientific research through politicization and funding priorities
I’m seeking to open up the dialogue on climate science and solutions to the perceived threat of climate change. I encourage you to join the dialogue at my blog Climate Etc., which provides a form for technical experts and the interested public to engage in a discussion on topics related to climate science, its impacts and policy options.