Entries Tagged as 'climate change'

Confessions of a Climate Change Convert

April 19th, 2011 at 11:00 am 134 Comments

I was defeated by facts.

It wasn’t all that long ago when I joined others on the right in dismissing concerns about climate change. It was my firm belief that the science was unsettled, buy viagra that any movement associated with Al Gore and Van Jones couldn’t possibly be trusted, recipe that environmentalists were simply left-wing, online anti-capitalist kooks.

It wasn’t until after I read Stanford University professor Morris Fiorina’s book Disconnect (2009) that I started to reconsider things. Fiorina noted that while environmentalism is now considered the domain of the Democratic Party, for many years it was the GOP that was identified with conservationist concerns. I was curious as to how the political climate shifted with regard to environmentalism—and whether there was something to all this talk about climate change.

I’m very fortunate to have acquaintances in the environmentalist movement, and I began discussing my concerns with them last fall. One friend recommended that I read the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, suggesting that it might resolve some of the questions I had about the science behind climate concerns.

I began reading the report with a skeptical eye, but by the time I concluded I could not find anything to justify my skepticism. The report presented an airtight case that the planet’s temperature has increased dramatically (“Eleven of the last twelve years [1995-2006] rank among the twelve warmest years in the instrumental record of global surface temperature [since 1850]”), that sea levels have undergone a dramatic and disturbing increase since the 1960s (“Global average sea level rose at an average rate of 1.8 [1.3 to 2.3]mm per year over 1961 to 2003 and at an average rate of about 3.1 [2.4 to 3.8]mm per year from 1993 to 2003”) and that climate alteration is having an unusual impact on avian and sea life (“…recent warming is strongly affecting terrestrial biological systems, including such changes as earlier timing of spring events, such as leaf-unfolding, bird migration and egg-laying…observed changes in marine and freshwater biological systems are associated with rising water temperatures, as well as related changes in ice cover, salinity, oxygen levels and circulation”).

The report highlighted the key role carbon emissions played in climate alteration, noting, “The largest growth in GHG emissions between 1970 and 2004 has come from energy supply, transport and industry, while residential and commercial buildings, forestry [including deforestation] and agriculture sectors have been growing at a lower rate” and that “[c]hanges in the atmospheric concentrations of GHGs and aerosols, land cover and solar radiation alter the energy balance of the climate system and are drivers of climate change. They affect the absorption, scattering and emission of radiation within the atmosphere and at the Earth’s surface.” I was stunned by the report’s claim that “[t]he observed widespread warming of the atmosphere and ocean, together with ice mass loss, support the conclusion that it is extremely unlikely that global climate change of the past 50 years can be explained without external forcing and very likely that it is not due to known natural causes alone.”

If carbon-fueled climate alteration continues at its current rate, the report noted, we will bear witness to unprecedented health horrors: “The health status of millions of people is projected to be affected through, for example, increases in malnutrition; increased deaths, diseases and injury due to extreme weather events…increased frequency of cardio-respiratory diseases due to higher concentrations of ground-level ozone in urban areas related to climate change; and the altered spatial distribution of some infectious diseases.” In addition, “For increases in global average temperature exceeding 1.5 to 2.5°C and in concomitant atmospheric CO2 concentrations, there are projected to be major changes in ecosystem structure and function, species’ ecological interactions and shifts in species’ geographical ranges, with predominantly negative consequences for biodiversity and ecosystem goods and services, e.g. water and food supply.”

The report did provide some hope, noting that “[s]ocieties can respond to climate change…by reducing GHG emissions [mitigation], thereby reducing the rate and magnitude of change… Policies that provide a real or implicit price of carbon could create incentives for producers and consumers to significantly invest in low-GHG products, technologies and processes.”

I came away from the report convinced that climate alteration poses a critical threat to our health and way of life, and that “policies that provide a real or implicit price of carbon” are in fact necessary, from an economic and a moral standpoint, to mitigate that threat. Such policies—most notably the much-maligned concept of cap-and-trade—should not be considered job-killers but life-savers.

There’s a part of me that understands why libertarian pundits seem to have so much scorn for those who support state action to combat carbon emissions. Modern libertarianism is suffused with skepticism of government, and supporting state regulation of carbon emissions requires, on some level, a belief in government to get things right. Is it even possible to be a libertarian and an environmentalist—or a conservative and an environmentalist, for that matter?

I’m a bit skeptical myself. I’d argue that conservatives and libertarians should strongly support regulation to reduce carbon pollution, since pollution by one entity invariably infringes upon the rights of others (including property rights), and no entity has a constitutional right to pollute. It does not put America on the road to serfdom to suggest that the federal government has a compelling interest in protecting the country from ecological damage. If anything, it puts America on the road to common sense.

Since reconsidering climate science, I’ve had a number of debates with conservative and libertarian friends, who oppose government regulation of carbon emissions in part because they believe those regulations will cost too much. Of course regulations cost; limiting ecological damage and preserving public health requires money. The issue is whether those costs are moral to impose. If no entity has a constitutional right to pollute, and if the federal government has a compelling interest in reducing carbon pollution, then how can those costs not be moral?

In the months following my acceptance of the conclusions in the IPCC report, I’ve had a change in my emotional climate. I go back and forth between disappointment and hope—sadness over seeing Republicans who once believed in the threat of climate change (such as Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty) suddenly turn into skeptics; optimism about efforts by such groups as Republicans for Environmental Protection and Citizens Climate Lobby to sound the alarm about the need to combat climate pollution. I struggle with the urge to give in to cynicism and bitterness, to write off the American right for its refusal to recognize scientific facts. Thankfully, there’s a stronger urge—an urge to keep working until the American right recognizes that a healthy planet is required to have the life and liberty that allows us to pursue happiness.


Inhofe’s Wild Flying

April 17th, 2011 at 7:31 am 35 Comments

Ever wonder why Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) is so intractable in his insistence that global warming is a hoax?

Thanks to a revealing incident that took place in Texas last fall and whose details were made public this week, the answer could be that Inhofe is either incapable of perceiving the obvious or chooses to ignore it.

Inhofe is a licensed pilot who owns a twin-engine Cessna. Seems that the Oklahoma Republican was flying his plane into the Port Isabel-Cameron County Airport, a small, general aviation facility near the southernmost tip of Texas, last October 21. Inhofe approached a runway that had a big yellow X painted on it. Every licensed pilot knows that a big yellow X painted on a runway means “THIS RUNWAY IS CLOSED. DO NOT LAND HERE.”

Inhofe landed anyway, forcing workers doing a construction job on the runway to run for their lives and nearly barreling into a work truck whose driver apparently soiled his trousers in fright. “He just went right over a huge yellow X,” construction supervisor Sidney Boyd told the Federal Aviation Administration, according to audio of Boyd’s call to the FAA that was released by TheSmokingGun.com web site on April 13. “He was determined to land on that runway, come hell or high water, evidently.”

The airport manager, Marshall Reece, told the FAA, according to the released audio, that in his long years of flying experience, “I have never seen such a reckless disregard for human life in my life.”

According to Boyd’s call, Inhofe stormed around after his landing, insisting he should have had “unlimited airspace” – as if he were President Inhofe.

Check out audio samples here.

Oh, and according to the FAA incident report, Inhofe hadn’t bothered to check relevant Notices to Airmen indicating that the runway was off limits.

In lieu of getting a fat FAA ticket, Inhofe agreed to the aviation equivalent of traffic school – four hours of remedial classroom training, which covered basics like preflight planning, operating at uncontrolled airports, and runway signs, and three hours of flight instruction, including cockpit management.

Too bad that Inhofe hasn’t been required to get remedial training from the National Academy of Sciences after taking off on his scientifically illiterate flights of fancy about the supposed global warming hoax.


Natural Gas: Not as Green as We Thought?

April 12th, 2011 at 6:54 pm 10 Comments

A forthcoming paper from Cornell University researchers suggests that gas is more of a bad actor in climate change than coal. The gas industry is not taking kindly to the suggestion.

It’s the latest PR challenge for the industry and one more reason why gas producers need to get ahead of the curve on environmental issues if gas is to fulfill its promise as a clean, diagnosis secure energy source.

Gas, medicine for decades the quiet little brother of oil and coal in the fossil fuel family, diagnosis has come out from beneath its siblings’ shadows with a reputation as an environmentally friendlier, domestically abundant energy source that could serve as the foundation for America’s energy economy for decades to come.

Gas is feeling its oats. Thanks to expanding discoveries in deep shale formations, the industry is boasting that a century’s worth of clean burning fuel is available securely within U.S. borders. Take that, dirty coal! Take that, scheming OPEC oil barons!

Now, along comes the Cornell study, which suggests that shale gas production has a bigger carbon footprint than coal because of fugitive methane releases from production. Molecule for molecule, methane packs a bigger heat-trapping punch than carbon dioxide.

Whoa, Nellie, says the gas industry, pushing back with castigations of what industry spokesmen call errors of fact and methodology in the study.

This, along with continuing controversy over the feared impacts of hydraulic fracturing chemicals on drinking water aquifers and the divisions among townspeople that gas drilling has spawned in production areas, is keeping the gas industry’s PR mavens working overtime.

Time for the gas industry to do more than play defense in a battle of press releases.

First, the methane issue. Leaving aside the issue of whether the Cornell study has merit, there is no reason not to minimize fugitive methane emissions, if only to maximize product in the pipeline. As EPA’s deputy administrator testified today at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, there are practical technologies available today to keep methane releases to a minimum, and many gas producers already employ them. Those that don’t ought to take a look.

Next, the water issue. The gas industry and its regulators at the state level argue that hydraulic fracturing, “fracking” for short, poses little danger to drinking water supplies. At today’s EPW hearing, Senator James Inhofe hoisted a chart showing more than a mile of solid rock separating Marcellus shale gas formations in the Northeast from aquifers that supply domestic water wells.

“The fluid migration can’t happen and it doesn’t happen,” Inhofe declared. Perhaps he’s right. Still, worries about surface spills of fracking chemicals and handling of produced water drawn from gas wells should not receive a brush-off that sounds too much like “we’re the experts, you’re not, so keep quiet and go away.” Intended or not, when such a high-horse message goes out, people worried about their drinking water are not inclined to keep quiet and go away.

The gas industry could do itself a favor by agreeing to full disclosure, well by well, of all fracking chemicals. Transparency helps build trust, and trust is a tool that is just as essential for the gas industry as drill bits and tubing tongs.


Pawlenty’s Cap and Trade About-Face

David Frum March 30th, 2011 at 7:52 am 16 Comments

Here is what I don’t understand about Tim Pawlenty’s reversal – not only on cap-and-trade – but also on any concern for climate change whatsoever:

It would make sense to say:

“Back in 2007, I supported cap-and-trade. That was before the recession. In these difficult times, our economy cannot support an additional burden. Let’s get back to full employment and strong economic growth. Once our economy is prospering again, it will be time to decide what to do to protect our environment.”

Or else:

“Cap-and-trade is a conservative idea, originating with free market economists, that was successfully used by the first Bush administration to stop acid raid. But the actual cap-and-trade bill that emerged from the Democratic House of Representatives was stuffed with gimmicks and giveaways to Democratic constituencies. I could not support that. So as president I’ll be looking for other ideas to protect our environment.”

But whoever is president after 2013 will inherit both an improving economy – and also an accelerating climate-change problem. Why put yourself on record now in ways that will inhibit responding to environmental challenges in the future?


The Dems’ Climate Change Dodge

March 25th, 2011 at 3:10 pm 4 Comments

Leave it to the Democrats to come up with weasly alternatives to Senator James Inhofe’s bill that would prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions and repeal a scientific determination on which regulations would be based.

Instead of pushing back against the Inhofe bill by calling it what it is – a crass attempt to substitute a political agenda for science – the Democrats are likely to allow a Senate vote on two alternatives to Inhofe’s bill – Jay Rockefeller’s legislation to delay regulations for two years and Max Baucus’ amendment that would exempt agriculture and small industrial facilities from greenhouse gas emissions rules.

While Inhofe and others are hell-bent on swimming upstream against science and the laws of physics, cure Rocky and Baucus are simply content to dig up some cover for themselves and the other coal-state Democrats who fret that Mr. Peabody’s coal train will haul away their political careers.

Instead, remedy the weaving and dodging Democrats who purport to support the Clean Air Act should take the dose of calcium offered by former EPA Administrator Russell Train, whose March 16 letter to Senate leaders bluntly said, “Arguments that it should be left to Congress solely to decide how to regulate greenhouse gas pollutants ring hollow, since Congress has consistently failed to take meaningful action in spite of the clear scientific evidence of the dangers these pollutants pose.”

Further, Train continued, arguments that the Clean Air Act was not intended to regulate greenhouse gas emissions “misrepresent Congress’ original intentions in passing the act. Precisely because existing knowledge of air pollutants and their potential effects was so limited at the time, Congress did not enumerate the pollutants that should or should not be regulated under the Clean Air Act.” Instead, the term was defined broadly and discretion was left to EPA scientists to evaluate pollutants and determine whether regulation was necessary.

Train, who headed EPA during the Nixon and Ford years, was present at the Clean Air Act’s creation. He has no patience for the revisionist historical smog that the climate change denial crowd is spewing about the Clean Air Act, and neither should the law’s supporters in Congress.


GOP Votes Against Climate Change Reality

March 15th, 2011 at 4:45 pm 70 Comments

Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee have just voted to deny reality. In particular, they voted against an amendment offered by ranking Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman that stated the following:

Congress accepts the scientific finding of the Environmental Protection Agency that ‘warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level.’

This amendment, failing on a party-line vote of 21-30 on March 15, was one of three amendments proposed by Democrats in a wrangle over Republican-backed legislation that would block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases.

The other two amendments affirmed that human-caused emissions are causing climate change, and that such climate changes poses threats to human health and welfare. Both of these too failed on party-line votes. Of course, worrying about whether climate change is anthropogenic or harmful makes little sense if you don’t believe climate change is occurring at all.

However, the position that climate change isn’t occurring is utterly untenable. The positions that it isn’t anthropogenic or harmful aren’t much better, but at least on those you could find small minorities of scientists who agree with you.

But outright denial that warming is taking place is a position that has virtually no support among scientists anywhere. It’s a position that puts one at odds not just with the scientific mainstream but also with those “climate skeptic” scientists who argue that solar fluctuations or other natural phenomena are causing climate change, or that human-caused climate change is happening but may not be so harmful.

And of course, one might acknowledge that global warming is real, anthropogenic and harmful, and still not think a particular policy proposal to mitigate it would be effective or affordable. There can be reasonable debate about what should be done about climate change. But the Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee have opted for something else: a pathetic denial of reality.


Will GOP Give Climate Science a Fair Shake?

March 8th, 2011 at 10:59 am 22 Comments

House Democrats persuaded Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) to hold a hearing today on climate science. At a time when bipartisan gestures are hard to come by, I suppose that this hearing should be viewed as a positive development.

It’s too bad that any credible testimony on climate science is likely to fall on deaf ears in a subcommittee that is stacked with a veritable who’s who of GOP climate change skeptics and shills for fossil fuel interests.

Chief among these is Joe Barton (R-TX) who last week summed up his view on carbon emissions by saying:

I expel carbon dioxide at about 40,000 parts per million … so how in the world can that be a pollutant?

Perhaps someone should point out to Congressman Barton that he, like everyone else, also emits methane and fecal coliform bacteria. Would he use the same logic to argue that those are not pollutants?

There will be a few well-respected climate scientists on hand, such as Dr. Richard Somerville and Dr. Christopher Field, who could set Mr. Barton straight—unfortunately they were invited by the Democrats.

The Republican witness list includes two well-worn contrarians, Dr. John Christy and Dr. Roger Pielke, who basically assert that predicting future climate change is a futile and worthless endeavor, or that there is nothing mankind can do to effectively address it. Thankfully their “can’t do” attitude was not shared by scientists of the past who have cured diseases, sent men to the moon, or helped solve past pollution problems.

The GOP list also curiously enough includes Dr. Donald Roberts. Dr. Roberts is not a climate scientist, but rather a professor of tropical medicine who happens to be a huge fan of the pesticide DDT.  He actually wrote a book on DDT called The Excellent Powder and blames the environmental movement for its banning in the U.S. and sparse use around the world.

Ideally, congressional hearings should represent an honest search for facts by open-minded lawmakers who want to make informed policy decisions.

At a House Science Committee hearing last November, then Congressman Bob Inglis (R-SC) encouraged climate scientists to welcome the coming GOP led hearings, saying:

Those will be difficult hearings…But I would encourage you to welcome those as fabulous opportunities to teach.

The only hitch in that wise advice is that teachers need students who are willing to learn.

In all likelihood today’s hearing will be nothing more than an adversarial dog and pony show where scientific facts meet impenetrable hard heads, narrow minds and ill-conceived smoke screens.

For all of the efforts of GOP lawmakers to wrap themselves in the mantle of Ronald Reagan, they fail to emulate the resolve for problem solving and thirst for knowledge that led him to heed the warnings of climate scientists and address ozone depletion.

Reagan fully understood his obligations as a public servant and what the stakes were. He articulated this well in his famous 1964 A Time for Choosing speech:

You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children’s children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done.

If the Republicans at today’s climate hearing want to justify their brief moment here, a nice step in the right direction would be to open their minds and learn from the real climate experts in the hearing room—no matter who invited them.


Some Truths More Inconvenient than Others?

David Frum September 29th, 2009 at 11:17 am 67 Comments

Here is Paul Krugman this past weekend:

In a rational world, then, the looming climate disaster would be our dominant political and policy concern. But it manifestly isn’t. Why not?

Part of the answer is that it’s hard to keep peoples’ attention focused. Weather fluctuates — New Yorkers may recall the heat wave that pushed the thermometer above 90 in April — and even at a global level, this is enough to cause substantial year-to-year wobbles in average temperature. As a result, any year with record heat is normally followed by a number of cooler years: According to Britain’s Met Office, 1998 was the hottest year so far, although NASA — which arguably has better data — says it was 2005. And it’s all too easy to reach the false conclusion that the danger is past.

But the larger reason we’re ignoring climate change is that Al Gore was right: This truth is just too inconvenient. Responding to climate change with the vigor that the threat deserves would not, contrary to legend, be devastating for the economy as a whole. But it would shuffle the economic deck, hurting some powerful vested interests even as it created new economic opportunities. And the industries of the past have armies of lobbyists in place right now; the industries of the future don’t.

Nor is it just a matter of vested interests. It’s also a matter of vested ideas. For three decades the dominant political ideology in America has extolled private enterprise and denigrated government, but climate change is a problem that can only be addressed through government action. And rather than concede the limits of their philosophy, many on the right have chosen to deny that the problem exists.

Let’s test whose ideas are vested here. It ought to be unignorably obvious that the only near-term way to generate sufficient electricity while reducing the use of coal is nuclear power.

And yet… Krugman does ignore that particular inconvenient truth in this column and in so many others. In a 2006 exchange with readers, the Times columnist did have this to say:

William R. Mosby, Salt Lake City: Does nuclear energy have a part to play in mitigating global warming in the long term? Assuming it produces sufficient net energy and that fuel recycling/waste partitioning is used, nuclear energy could be one part of a non-CO2-emitting energy mix that would be sustainable for as long as a few thousand years, using the depleted uranium already in storage in the U.S. A great deal of research has already been done on the type of reactor and fuel recycling facility required to do this — the Integral Fast Reactor — but was canceled for political reasons in 1994.

However, those who see an urgent need to do something about global warming generally don’t talk about nuclear energy as a prominent part of the solution. Do they think that nuclear energy would be a bigger problem than global warming?

Paul Krugman: I was at a reception for Al Gore after a screening of his movie, and he was asked that very question. I thought his answer was very good. He said that yes, nuclear should be part of the mix, but it can’t be the main answer. And there are problems with nuclear we need to resolve: not just disposal of radioactive waste, but vulnerability to terrorist attack. In fact, as nuclear power becomes more common around the world, the possible misuse for weapons, terrorist or otherwise, will be a big problem. So unless there are some breakthroughs, nuclear power is only a piece, and maybe not a big one, of the solution.

But why can’t nuclear be the main answer? After all – there isn’t any other answer! Conservation can be incentivized through higher prices, yes. Solar and wind can contribute in some specialized niches. But remember, half of America’s electricity is generated by burning coal.  Only nuclear power is sufficiently cheap and scalable to replace so massive a power source. If your version of environmentalism cannot accept that truth, please kindly refrain from lecturing others about the blinding effects of ideology!