The Personal Blog of Stephen Sekula

PoliSci: Perry on Climate

Science is sometimes very helpful when trying to sort informed political candidates from uninformed ones; uninformed or misinformed candidates are likely to make bad decisions when it comes to crafting policy. America deserves the most qualified policy makers.

Today, Gov. Rick Perry got some press for his statement on Climate Change (we’ll get to that in a moment). This got me thinking about what we know about climate change and the human contribution to it, as well as what what are the different Republican candidates’ positions on Climate Change and Energy Policy.

Let’s start with the science. Here is what we know about climate change:

  1. The average global temperature has risen about 1.0 degree Celsius since the mid-1800s. This is only an average. Some areas have risen more, some less. To put this in perspective, if your body temperature increased by about 1.0 degree Celsius you would be running a fever of 101F and would require medical attention. A 1.0 degree Celsius rise  is about the same as a 2 degree Fahrenheit increase in your body temperature from 98.6F.
  2. CO2 has increased in concentration in the atmosphere since the mid-1800s, which coincides directly with the period when humans began burning coal and other fossil fuels to power the industrial revolution. CO2 is a greenhouse gas, which in larger concentrations traps more heat at the Earth’s surface.
  3. The CO2 which has been added to the atmosphere has a nuclear fingerprint that tags it as having come from sequestered carbon sources, such as buried coal and oil deposits. Carbon from near the surface of the Earth has a different fingerprint. The amount of sequestered-carbon-based CO2 in the atmosphere is the primary component of CO2 which is increasing.
  4. Increased CO2 causes heating, which causes more water to enter the vapor state. Water vapor is a much stronger greenhouse gas. The added water vapor amplifies the warming effect of the CO2. More heating and more CO2 continues to add more water vapor to the air, further amplifying the warming.
  5. The long-term climate outcomes of the added heat-trapping gases is an area of active research. Heating will be part of it, but in addition large volumes of melted arctic and antarctic ice  are entering the Earth’s oceans. Large amounts of cold water entering the oceans may have other disruptive effects on the transport of energy across the earth. Thus, while strong climate disruption is expected, it may not all be heating. What is clear is that regional climates will be disrupted; how that will happen is a matter of scientific study.

The above issues, which are the knowns in all of this science, are clearly described, detailed, and developed in hundreds of peer-reviewed papers and summarized in the last IPCC Report.

What do current contenders for the GOP Presidential nomination think about the science? Have they digested the uncontested scientific facts, or have they missed too many days of school? What are they doing with that understanding?

  • Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney both appear to accept the scientific facts [1]. They have previously supported cap-and-trade measures to control the growth of CO2 in the atmosphere. Their heads are in the right place. Of late, since seeking the nomination, they have backed off their original statements supporting cap-and-trade. They claim they have changed their minds to protect the economy from higher energy prices. We can argue whether this is bad policy – fossil fuels cannot last forever and alternative energy will be needed to meet increased demand and decreased supply. But that is a substantive policy discussion, where the basic facts appear not to be in question. Tim Pawlenty, now no longer in contention for the nomination, also backed off of cap-and-trade.
  • Michelle Bachman has come out strong in denial of the basic facts of climate. In fact, her ignorance runs deep into ignorance of basic chemistry and physics. “Carbon dioxide is natural. It occurs in earth . . . Carbon dioxide is not a harmful gas. It is a harmless gas,” [1] she said during a floor debate in the House on cap-and-trade. Her policy choices will be necessarily ill-informed, if not reckless. She needs a good science advisor, somebody with backbone. Arguing that CO2 is harmless, in this specific case, is like arguing that putting a fence around your pool to keep your toddler from falling in is senseless because water is natural.
  • Ron Paul has command of some facts, but misses the whole picture. “There is clear evidence that the temperatures in some parts of the globe are rising, but temperatures are cooling in other parts. The average surface temperature had risen for several decades, but it fell back substantially in the past few years. Clearly there is something afoot. The question is: Is the upward fluctuation in temperature man-made or part of a natural phenomenon.” [2] He goes on a small sidestep, talking about previous warming periods (which had nothing to do with the causes of the current period). Then he finally gets around to saying, “It is clear that the earth experiences natural cycles in temperature. However, science shows that human activity probably does play a role in stimulating the current fluctuations.” Ron Paul advocates removing subsidies for oil and coal, allowing their prices to normalize in the market, and causing pressure to develop alternative energies. Again, here we reach a substantive policy discussion that is built on top of an acceptance of the scientific knowns.An addendum to the Ron Paul story. When climate researcher emails were stolen and released on the internet, this causes a false stir about scientists “making up” climate change. Four independent reviews of the people involved in the mails, and the wider scientific community, cleared all doubt about the integrity of the scientific process. Ron Paul, however, jumped on the bandwagon of people using this as a chance to ignore the science and try to take the cheap way out of a substantive policy discussion. “The greatest hoax I think that has been around for many, many years if not hundreds of years has been this hoax on […] global warming.” [2] Foo on you, Ron Paul.
  • Rick Perry has entered the race for the GOP nomination. On Wednesday, Perry called human-induced climate change “a scientific theory that has not been proven.” [3] Ironically, Perry seems to be a victim of the kind of very poor science education policies he tried to shove on the State through appointment of fundamentalist Christians as chairs of the Texas State Board of Education. First of all, scientific theories explain facts; they are better than facts. So by definition, a theory has been proven. “I do think global warming has been politicized. … We are seeing almost weekly or even daily scientists are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing our climate to change. Yes, our climate has changed. It has been changing ever since the Earth was formed. But I do not buy into a group of scientists who have, in some cases, been found to be manipulating data.” None of what Perry says is true. Not only is he in zero command of the basic science, he seems to be mis-leading his supporters. The debates in the scientific literature are about the severity of impacts and the kinds of impacts, not whether there will be impacts. Nor is there scientific disagreement about the existence or cause of warming trends. He uses mis-direction by noting climate has changed in the past; that’s smoke and mirrors, meant to distract you from the truth that humans have been leading this one since the industrial revolution.
Indeed, science provides a valuable litmus test for us in this early stage of the Republican primary. The question remains: will Republicans choose to nominate someone who cannot command a basic understanding of established scientific fact, or will they choose a leader and a strong policy maker?