Climate Change: Restoring America’s Vision.
Guest Editorial by Ronn Smith
Progress on hotly contested issues requires common ground, which favors truth over ideology. On the question of global warming, a recent Pew Research Center poll shows little sign of common ground in America (Pew 2016). Slightly more than half of U.S. adults do not believe climate change is due to human activity. The pollsters found a strong correlation between popular beliefs about climate change and political orientation. That so many Americans align their view of objective reality with their political views is disturbing. Answers to the pollsters’ questions, however elusive, rest on fact not value. Those who ignore or filter the facts, whether their politics lean to the left or the right, surrender critical thought and invite delusion.
Three years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the Clean Power Plan (CPP) as a hedge against climate change that would cut greenhouse gas emissions from existing fossil-fuel-fired power plants (EPA 2015). The Supreme Court delayed the CPP pending litigation. Under a new Administrator EPA has proposed to repeal the rule. Agency lawyers formerly defended EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act, but now argue the opposite position. How can experts so easily rescind a statutory foundation that took years to construct? The layperson can only conclude that the basis for the proposed repeal, ostensibly legal, is fundamentally political. This comports with the current U.S. President’s broader retreat from confronting climate change, and with EPA Director Scott Pruitt’s steadfast denial that climate change is caused by humans.
In fairness, a reverse bias may have motivated the original CPP. But science also played a role. Another Pew survey suggests that scientific awareness influences how liberals (but not conservatives) view climate change. Nearly all democrats with high levels of knowledge about science, based on a nine-item index, attribute climate change mostly to human activity (93%). By contrast, only 49% of Democrats with low science knowledge hold this view. But Republicans with high levels of science knowledge are no more likely than those with lower levels of knowledge to attribute climate change mostly to human activity (Pew 2017).
The discovery of a political bias in construing the message of climate scientists may shed light on this anomaly. Only 16% of conservative Republicans perceive a widespread consensus among climate scientists on the human contribution to global warming, compared with 55% of liberal Democrats (Pew 2016). Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed, scientific journals show that 97% or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are due to human activities (NASA 2017). In addition, most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position. To any inquiring citizen the case for scientific consensus is even more clear-cut than the case for man-made global warming. Honest skepticism might lead one to disagree with the scientists, but to deny their virtual unanimity reveals mistrust in the very rules of evidence. Without these rules, shared truth becomes impossible.
Politics aside, the science of climate change is compelling. Its dismissal by policy makers reflects a failure of vision. Facing human-caused climate change calls for clarity of vision to see the evidence, depth of vision to foresee the consequences, and imagination to devise a solution. Lacking such vision, America’s current leadership denies the evidence, defies the global community, and decries any remedy as a threat to the country’s economic well-being.
Leaders in a democracy presumably reflect the will of the populace. Beyond mere political identity, Americans seem to struggle more than others in admitting human responsibility for climate change. Unlike contemporary European and Asian societies, the American traditions of unrestrained appetites and rugged individualism have glorified consumption and marginalized science. It seems paradoxical that many of the same people who distrust climate experts do not fully understand the aerodynamics of flight, yet routinely entrust their lives to pilots who do.
Denial of climate change is enabled, not so much by evidence as by the lack of incontrovertible evidence. Skeptics have exploited the complexity and uncertainty of climate science to plant reasonable doubt in the popular consciousness and hence, to rationalize inaction. But like the receding glaciers of Alaska, uncertainty about global warming has steadily diminished since the issue surfaced 40 years ago.
First, no informed person disputes the 50% rise in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) from pre-industrial levels. The concentration of methane, less abundant than CO2 but far more efficient at trapping heat, has increased 150%. Both are easy to measure.
Second, global temperatures continue to rise, persuading even the skeptics. Among them, Berkeley Physics Professor Richard Muller scrutinized historical data sets from 39,000 weather stations around the world (WSJ 2011). His work refuted the accusation that earlier studies had used biased data. Muller summed it up succinctly, “Global warming is real.” Funding from fossil fuel interests made Muller’s conclusion particularly convincing. Recent statistics from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA 2018) validate Muller’s findings. Globally, the last four years were the four warmest on record, and the last 17 years ranked among the 18 warmest. Ocean heat content in 2017 reached the highest level ever recorded and all five of the highest years on record occurred during the last five years (Cheng 2018). This has relevance because 93% of the increase in heat from greenhouse gases goes into the oceans (IPCC 2013).
Third, no reputable scientist any longer denies the anthropogenic cause of CO2 buildup. A simple carbon balance, knowing the mass of the atmosphere, its annual gain in CO2 fraction, and the annual carbon emissions from humans, removes any doubt. The two greatest sources of manmade CO2 are fossil fuel combustion and deforestation. Water bodies and terrestrial sinks like plants and soil absorb roughly half the CO2 emitted by these sources. The other half stays in the air and fully accounts for the measured increase. The rise in methane also implicates human activity.
Given solid proof of increasing, human-caused greenhouse gases and rising global temperatures, the popular debate now centers on whether the two are connected. Has the increase in greenhouse gases caused global temperatures to rise? Scientists know that greenhouse gases like CO2 trap heat in the atmosphere, but computer models differ on the precise amount of warming to expect. Muller addressed this question in a follow-up study (NYT 2012). He concluded, “It appears likely that essentially all of this [temperature] increase results from the human emission of greenhouse gases.” Muller’s approach did not rely on atmospheric physics, complex modeling, or questionable assumptions that have clouded other studies. He simply performed a 250-year regression analysis between global temperatures and potential causal factors. He cited a “clear fingerprint” of volcanic activity which coincides with short-term cooling, and CO2 concentration which parallels long-term heating. Concluding that no other explanation comes close to matching the data, he wrote, “I hope [this] analysis will help settle the scientific debate regarding global warming and its human causes.”
While the scientific community has all but extinguished the fires of disagreement, a sliver of doubt still keeps the embers alive. The “negative feedback” theory affords a last refuge for skeptics. It holds that global warming will correct itself through offsetting decreases in the solar energy absorbed by earth’s atmosphere. But most atmospheric scientists now believe the net feedback to be positive (IPCC 2013), amplifying rather than dampening the temperature rise. This may explain why the earth has warmed faster than many of the initial models predicted. As an example of positive feedback, the decline in ice cover near the North Pole has reduced the amount of solar radiation reflected into space. This previously reflected energy, now absorbed by exposed land and sea surfaces, compounds the warming and accounts for the more rapid temperature rise in the extreme northern latitudes.
Increased water evaporation, a consequence of global warming, creates another form of positive feedback. Water vapor, like other greenhouse gases, traps heat in the atmosphere by permitting incident solar radiation to reach the earth while partially blocking infrared radiation reflected back to space. Skeptics have suggested that more water vapor would produce more cloud cover to shield the earth from some of the sun’s energy, generating negative feedback. However, clouds can also inhibit reflected radiation. Either way, experts have shown no definitive increase in cloud cover over the past 40 years (IPCC 2013). Warmer air will hold more water vapor before condensing it to form clouds, making it likely that rising dew points counteract rising temperatures. At the very least, escalating global temperatures during the last several decades do not support the theory of negative feedback.
Apart from theories that dispute climate change, the non-scientist may disbelieve based on sheer intuition. The current pace of global warming, while unprecedented in the last 65 million years (UCS 2018), remains imperceptible to the average human. Through a process of “creeping normality,” people can accept a major change as normal if it happens slowly, in unnoticed increments. They might object to the same change if it took place in a single step or short period.
But is climate change really objectionable? The World Health Organization calls it the 21st century’s greatest threat to global health (WHO 2015). Some scientists like Muller remain ambivalent about the risks posed to the earth’s climate and biosphere. Sophisticated models disagree on specifics like how much the temperature, sea level, and storm severity will increase. Skeptics ask, if science can’t forecast the weather more than a few days ahead, how can it possibly predict atmospheric conditions decades in advance? Climatologists would reply that predicting what will happen on average is far easier than forecasting events for a specific time and place.
But the real fallacy in betting on uncertainty is that the modeling details matter less in the presence of large driving forces and long time frames. The 30 most widely accepted computer models may differ on the details, but all of them predict dramatic, long-term climate impacts if carbon emissions continue unabated (IPCC 2013). Global temperatures have risen 1.5 °C since the pre-industrial era, and will most likely rise another 1.5 °C by the year 2100 (EPA 2017). Sea level has risen 8 inches since pre-industrial times, and will likely rise another 2 feet by the year 2100 (EPA 2017). Muller recently warned that although some may overstate the consequences, it would be wise to slow or halt global warming (Muller 2017). The threat of increasing weather severity, rising sea levels, and ocean acidification warrants pre-emptive action.
How should Americans respond? Whether arresting climate change or merely adapting to its worst effects they must first acknowledge it, as other countries have done. Facing the problem squarely can unleash a host of solutions. Many public and corporate institutions in the U.S. have already acknowledged climate change and initiated programs to mitigate it. In cooperation with several Canadian provinces, California implemented a carbon cap-and-trade program that set ambitious goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions (ARB 2018). Ten northeastern states formed the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative using an allowance trading system similar to California. So far they have exceeded the emission reduction goals of the CPP (RGGI 2018). Under these programs both regions have thrived economically.
In many states, free markets have already prompted shifts in the nation’s power generation mix comparable to those expected to occur under the CPP. As the nation’s largest coal producer, Wyoming’s output dropped 25% from 2012 to 2016 (WSGS 2017), a faster decline than predicted over a 10-year period by opponents of the CPP. Aided by low natural gas prices and carbon trading systems, economic forces nationwide have simulated in advance the impacts of the CPP. While some coal industry jobs have been lost, these losses have been recouped many times over in the natural gas and renewable energy sectors. Solar and wind energy added 100,000 jobs in 2016 alone (Forbes 2017). The U.S. economy is stronger than it has been in decades, showing no ill effects from power generation shifting and reduced carbon emissions. This contradicts the economic disaster envisioned by CPP detractors.
Opposition to carbon regulation by business has been mischaracterized or exaggerated. BP, a global producer of fossil fuels and other forms of energy, recently called for “downward pressure” on carbon emissions (BP 2018). BP cited carbon pricing as a “key element” that would provide incentives for producers and consumers alike. The CPP garnered support from a diverse representation of corporate America. Technology companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft voiced their endorsement of the CPP and their concerns about the threats of climate change (Atlantic 2017). A consortium of large utilities, including Dominion Resources, Calpine, PG&E, Southern California Edison, New York Power Authority, and many others, supported the legality of the CPP and the concept of emissions trading (Ceres 2016). Many companies have made sustainable practices a priority. They argue that the CPP would provide predictability while expanding the array of options available to accomplish goals they would pursue anyway.
The upward trajectory of human civilization has always demanded adaptability to a changing physical and social environment. Those who embraced change generally rose to prominence while those who resisted it lapsed into obsolescence. Today America stands at a crossroads, called to action on climate change by the international community and by progressive factions within her own borders, while at the same time lulled into complacency by protectors of the status quo. The CPP represents a measured response to climate change that could restore America’s leadership role in the world and signal her commitment to future generations.
ARB 2018, California Air Resources Board Cap-and-Trade Program, February 2018, https://www.arb.ca.gov/cc/capandtrade/capandtrade.htm
Atlantic 2017, The Myth That ‘Business’ Hated Obama’s Clean Power Plan, The Atlantic Daily, October 10, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/10/business-clean-power-plan/542529/
BP 2018, BP Energy Outlook, 2018 Edition, BP Energy Economics, February 2018, https://www.bp.com/content/dam/bp/en/corporate/pdf/energy-economics/energy-outlook/bp-energy-outlook-2018.pdf
CERES 2016, Statements from Companies and Investors in Support of EPA’s Clean Power Plan in Wake of Supreme Court Ruling, February 11, 2016, https://www.ceres.org/news-center/press-releases/statements-companies-and-investors-support-epas-clean-power-plan-wake
Cheng 2018, 2017 Was the Warmest Year on Record for the Global Ocean, Lijing Chang & Jiang Zhu,. Advances in Atmospheric Science, March 2018, https://doi.org/10.1007/s00376-018-8011-z
EPA 2017, Future of Climate Change, https://19january2017snapshot.epa.gov/climate-change-science/future-climate-change_.html
EPA 2015, Carbon Pollution Emission Guidelines for Existing Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units, August 2015.
Forbes 2017, Solar Employs More People in Electricity Generation than Oil, Gas and Coal Combined, January 25, 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2017/01/25/u-s-solar-energy-employs-more-people-than-oil-coal-and-gas-combined-infographic/#42ebcf932800
IPCC 2013, Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Technical Summary, 2013, https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/wg1/WG1AR5_TS_FINAL.pdf
Muller 2017, A Second Half Dip, But 2016 Hottest on Record, Richard Muller, Berkeley Earth, January 2017, http://berkeleyearth.org/a-second-half-dip-but-2016-hottest-on-record/
NASA 2017, Scientific Consensus: Earth’s Climate is Warming, https://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/
NOAA 2017, What is Ocean Acidification?, Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, https://www.pmel.noaa.gov/co2/story/What+is+Ocean+Acidification%3F
NYT 2012, The Conversion of a Climate-Change Skeptic, Richard Muller, New York Times, July 28, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/30/opinion/the-conversion-of-a-climate-change-skeptic.html
Pew 2017, How much does science knowledge influence people’s views on climate change and energy issues?, The Pew Research Center, March 22, 2017, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/03/22/how-much-does-science-knowledge-influence-peoples-views-on-climate-change-and-energy-issues/
Pew 2016, The Politics of Climate, The Pew Research Center, October 4, 2016, http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/10/04/public-views-on-climate-change-and-climate-scientists/
RGGI 2018, Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, An Initiative of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic States of the US, February 2018, https://www.rggi.org/program-overview-and-design/elements
WHO 2015, World Health Organization, 2015, http://www.who.int/globalchange/global-campaign/cop21/en/
WSJ 2011, Wall Street Journal, The Case Against Global-Warming Skepticism, Richard Muller, October 21, 2011, https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052970204422404576594872796327348
WSGS 2017, Wyoming State Geological Survey, http://www.wsgs.wyo.gov/energy/coal-production-mining