Thursday, May 29, 2014

Denying science versus debating policy

Calls for a national policy to combat the causes of climate change - namely the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere - are intensifying, as major scientific and governmental organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have sought to highlight the established scientific facts, the changes that are already occurring, and to highlight the significant risks we could face in the near future.

Earlier this month, two different groups of scientists reported results that indicate that the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is essentially inevitable. Such a collapse would result in sea level rise of more than 3 meters.

And next week President Obama and the US Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce new EPA regulations designed to reduce carbon pollution from existing coal-fired power plants.

Enter Amy Ridenour, a syndicated columnist who, on May 23rd, 2014, published an Op-Ed in the Schenectady Gazette in which she listed the "Top 10 reasons why Congress should ignore advice to pass major legislation to combat climate change." (The Gazette doesn't have a link to their version; but here is a link to essentially the same article via the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel).

How the US and the world should confront the threat of climate change is a complex question, and one that is worthy of debate. Should Congress pass a comprehensive Cap-and-Trade system or Carbon Tax to create market incentives for reducing carbon pollution? Should we rely on Executive-branch regulations like the EPA's rules about powerplants and autos? Or, alternatively, should we do nothing? - for example if the cost of such policies to our economy are too expensive when compared to the future costs of dealing with the effects of climate change.

I have my own thoughts. Amy Ridenour has her own thoughts. By all means, let's have a public debate about what we should do. Let's let those who believe in an activist government face off with those who have a more libertarian bent. But that debate must begin with the acceptance of the scientific facts - that the climate is warming and that humans are responsible.

And that is where Ms. Ridenour's piece went wrong.

She led off her Top-10 list with a whopper at #1: "The world isn't warming." She adopted the well-worn tactic of the Climate Denier community of cherry-picking the >100 year temperature record to select the particular starting point - the late 1990's - that shows little warming. In fact, when the full range of historical temperature records is presented, one cannot help but conclude that the Earth is warming.

My response was to publish a Letter to the Editor to the Schenectady Gazette, in which I called her to task for denying that the world is warming. And, I had some fun pointing to John Oliver's "Statistically Representative" climate debate, in which the balance of scientific opinion is accurately represented by 97 scientists vs. 3 climate deniers.

Ms. Ridenour had her fun, too:

Well played, Ms. Ridenour. Well played.

But let's move on. I would happily listen to the debate about which policy approach is the best. Let's hear economists like Richard Tol debate Nicholas Stern about how we should price present-day action versus future disruptions. Let's compare a market approach like Cap-and-Trade to a carbon tax in terms of which one works best and has the smallest impact on the economy.

But we must start with the acceptance of the scientific facts. Though Ms. Ridenour rails against the use of the "97% of scientists" figure, the existence of climate change and the role of humans is accepted by virtually every major scientific society including AAAS, the National Academy of Science, and the American Geophysicists' Union.

I suspect that writers like Ms. Ridenour begin their analysis of climate science with a distaste for the prescriptions: They don't like the prospect of policies that will increase the price of energy and likely act as a drag on our economy, and so they search for faults with the science. But that's not the way it works.

Accept the science. Then let's debate the policy.

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