A Gathering Storm
This commentary originally appeared in National Review Online on January 29, 2014.
‘The debate is settled,” said the president in his State of the Union address. “Climate change is a fact.” But of course there is no debate about whether climate change is a fact: The debate is now about whether human emissions of greenhouse gases cause weather events of unprecedented intensity. President Obama argued that stringent new limits on coal-fired power plants are urgently needed “because a changing climate is already harming western communities struggling with drought, and coastal cities dealing with floods.” So less coal-fired electrical generation will help us avoid droughts and floods? Heedless of the absurd stretch in his own argument, the president presses on.
While the climate-science community acknowledges increasing uncertainty about the human influence on climate, the president doubles down on what he calls the “unequivocal” dictates of science. Inconvenient facts and crushing costs have led Australia, Britain, Germany, and other countries to pull back on carbon sanctions, and yet our president’s initiatives expand. And although the reach of the president’s dictates may be limited by law in most of the federal domain, broad executive action without a congressionally legislated foundation is no problem with today’s Environmental Protection Agency’s aggressive application of the broad terms of the 40-year-old Clean Air Act to protect health and welfare.
The fatal flaws in President Obama’s current climate policies were on display recently at a hearing of the U.S. Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, at which I was invited to testify about EPA’s role in the plan. Most of the four-hour hearing was devoted not to scientific evidence but to conclusory statements by the sharply divided members of the committee. The shrill tone of statements from the left side of the dais represented evangelism for the Church of Climate Change. Member after member dogmatically proclaimed that this scientific creed was beyond dispute: Destructive climate change caused by human activity is upon us now, and aggressive action is needed regardless of the cost.
The other side of the room appropriately drew attention to developments in climate science that cast doubt on the basic theory of dangerous anthropogenic global warming, the theory that is being driven by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Even the “official” IPCC has admitted, in its recent Fifth Assessment Report, that the 16-year lull in warming temperatures since 1998 weakens the IPCC’s scientific case that man-made greenhouse gases dominate natural forces of climate such as the sun. The premise of the last 25 years of IPCC science is that the earth’s climate is highly sensitive to the relatively small amount of CO2 that man’s use of fossil fuels adds to the natural atmospheric CO2. That premise, however, is increasingly hard to square with the evidence now gained by physical measurements (as opposed to the projections of modeling).
Most amusing is the alarmists’ increasing preoccupation with “extreme weather events.” Members insisted that severe weather of any stripe proves that human activity is causing a “catastrophe unfolding before our eyes” and thus, aggressive government action is needed “with the fierce urgency of now.” The president also now focuses on bad weather when imposing carbon chastity by executive action. As he stated in his second inaugural address: “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but no one can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.”
In this conflation of weather and climate, the Left implicitly concedes that its speculative theory of dangerous warming is not as compelling as it once seemed. Hence, it changes the nomenclature from “global warming” to “climate change” and now to “climate disruption.” The president’s climate plan encourages a host of government actions to make the weather more “stable” and “resilient,” as if federal regulations could wish hurricanes away.
Although typically stereotyped as “anti-science,” the more skeptical members were well armed with scientific data. U.S. government records from the last century show that tornados, storms, droughts, wildfires, etc. have been neither more intense nor more frequent in recent years. Dr. Judith Curry, chair of Georgia Tech’s School of Atmospheric Sciences, testified that the belief that recent extreme weather is unprecedented results from “weather amnesia.” She said: “In the U.S., most types of weather extremes were worse in the 1930s and even in the 1950s, while the weather was overall more benign in the 1970s. . . . The extremes of the 1930s and 1950s are not attributable to greenhouse warming and are associated with natural climate variability.”
The President’s Climate Action Plan was released last summer to a tepid response. The plan is a futile, wasteful, and redundant hodgepodge of at least 50 programs and directives associated with anything green, clean, or low carbon. In need of a “Tool Kit for Climate Resilience,” a “Better Building Challenge,” or “Insurance Leadership for Climate Safety”? The President’s Plan is there to help.
The part of the plan that caused most debate at the hearing was the EPA’s proposed regulatory limit on CO2 from new and existing power plants. These CO2 standards are the first direct regulation of CO2 since the EPA’s Endangerment Finding in late 2009 forced CO2 into the legal category of “pollutants” under the Clean Air Act by a wave of the administrative wand. If the EPA’s CO2 rules for power plants foreshadow the EPA’s future CO2 agenda, expect energy scarcity in this country, of the kind that has already occurred in Germany: Der Spiegel reports that 700,000 households are now cut off from electricity, which is three times the average U.S. price. These families now burn wood pellets imported from the U.S. for home heating.
The plan relies heavily on carbon capture and storage, but not a single successfully operating power plant in this country has been able to use that technology at scale, in spite of billions in taxpayer-funded subsidies. The EPA’s proposed standards are unachievable for coal-fired power plants. The limits would force fuel switching from coal to natural gas, or to non-emitting generation from nuclear or renewable fuels.
By requiring the impossible, the EPA is arrogating to itself the power to dictate the nation’s energy infrastructure. Such regulatory power runs afoul of the fundamental economic freedom enshrined in the Clean Air Act by Congress. The CAA allows private actors — not the EPA — to choose energy fuel, both process and product. Congress limited the EPA’s regulatory power to mandating standards achievable through the use of technology that has been commercially demonstrated to work.
The hearing’s high point unfortunately arrived near the close, after many members had fled to other hearings. Dr. Judith Curry cut a path across the current impasse between zealous believers and adamant deniers. She stressed that “both the climate-change problem and its solution have been vastly oversimplified by the IPCC science and the policy process.” Increasing evidence about temperature, the sun, natural variability, sea levels, Antarctic ice, and extreme weather weakens the IPCC’s assumption that man-made CO2 emissions dominate the natural dynamics of the earth’s climate. Dr. Curry importantly reminded the policymakers that “CO2 is not a control knob on climate variability.”
The IPCC has indeed commanded the climate-science community within an increasingly narrow politicized process of consensus. Policy responses have been limited to reducing greenhouse gases. Research options have been limited to identifying anthropogenic influences on climate and simulating these influences in models. Thus, the research was tasked to reinforce the original premise of the theory. Empirical research on natural climatic forces like the sun and water vapor, and on natural variability, has been marginalized. Although 99.98 percent of the energy in the world’s climate derives from the sun, solar activity plays almost no role in our current climate variations, according to the IPCC.
The IPCC’s assessment report issued in September 2013 acknowledges but cannot explain the 16-year cessation of warming temperatures. The observed decline in solar activity is most likely the cause — a force that the temperature record demonstrates was not trumped by increasing emissions of CO2.
The president could forge a meaningful international effort on the environment and climate. Let the U.S. create a multilateral group — perhaps through the OECD — to replace the IPCC. A group of responsible governments could foster observational research on natural climatic dynamics, variability, and extreme weather. Scuttle the futile policy responses of the past based on caps on greenhouse gases and sanctions on fossil fuels. Focus on local and regional mitigation of the impacts of severe weather. Land-use practices in vulnerable areas are far more apt to reduce economic damage than electric cars and carbon capture at power plants. Initiatives to transfer to developing countries the many viable emission-control technologies for genuine pollutants would indirectly reduce carbon more effectively than sanctions and fuel switching to renewable energy.
In the meantime, we owe thanks to Dr. Curry and the increasing number of courageous climate scientists who expose the fatal flaws of the IPCC, promote sound science, and understand the subtle relation between science and policy. The Senate hearing revealed the looming danger in the president’s Climate Action Plan, while his State of the Union speech reflected the plan’s incoherence. The plan should be stopped before America’s working families, like those in Germany, are forced to suffer energy poverty in the service of faith-based climate regulation.
Kathleen Hartnett White is distinguished senior fellow and director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.