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Judith Curry: The State of the Climate Debate In The U.S.

Prof Judith Curry

Prof Judith Curry’s presentation in the House of Lords, London 15 June 2015

Good evening everyone, it’s a great pleasure to be here, and I would like to thank the GWPF for inviting me. Tonight 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

  1. Human caused climate change is real
  2. Human caused climate change is dangerous, and
  3. 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 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:

  1. Overheated rhetoric on climate change hurts the economy
  2. 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 . . . “

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