The attorneys general of 20 states have launched an investigation into groups they suggest have misled the public on the dangerous reality of climate change. Caught up in the inquisition of climate heretics are ExxonMobil, which has funded much private sector climate research and which today supports a revenue-neutral carbon tax, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank that rejects climate alarmism in favor of advocating energy affordability and abundance.
Through subpoenas for communications and research on climate change, the AGs aim to unearth any intentional misinterpretation of climate science. But the real inconvenient truth in this situation is that science itself is very much open to interpretation. It is, in fact, possible to disagree over the causes, effects and severity of climate change, and the pursuit of science and an appropriate policy response is advanced by having numerous voices engaging these difficult questions.
Misstating or exaggerating scientific consensus is a bipartisan offense. While we at R Street would never condone going after any organization for exercising its rights to free speech and advocacy, especially in pursuit of scientific truth, a few examples of scientific misinterpretation from the environmental community may serve as a helpful counterpoint to the witch-hunt pursued by these overzealous AGs.
Larry Schweiger, National Wildlife Federation: “There will be no polar ice by 2060 … Somewhere along that path, the polar bear drops out.”
Yes, Arctic sea ice is shrinking and seasonal sea-ice loss continues to grow, but the former president of the National Wildlife Federation takes it a step too far when it comes to the polar bears. What we know today is that bear populations are stable and adapting well to changes in ice patterns and their health parameters, including weight and reproductive rates, are strong. Zoologists have documented population declines in just 3 of 19 subpopulations, and those declines have stabilized or rebounded in recent years.
Kerry Emanuel, Massachusetts Institute of Technology: “We’re in for a rough ride over the next 10 years.”
In 2005, fresh off speculation about the link between hurricanes Katrina and Wilma and climate change, meteorology researcher Kerry Emanuel predicted a devastating decade of hurricane activity. While climate change unequivocally is increasing the ocean temperatures that lend hurricanes more energy and destructive power, we’re not yet certain whether hurricane frequency and intensity are actually increasing. The record actually suggests the number of hurricanes to make U.S. landfall has declined over the past 150 years. In fact, it has been more than a decade since a major hurricane – Category 3 or higher – has made landfall in the United States.
Rhea Suh, Natural Resources Defense Council: “Climate change played a direct and possibly determinative role in the death and destruction of a huge swath of the southern Philippines.”
The NRDC president attributed 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan, the deadliest typhoon in Philippine history, to climate change. Again, no particular weather event can be tied to a changing climate, even if anthropogenic forces make certain types of weather events more likely. The typhoon was a devastating tragedy, but that does not justify seizing on the deaths of 6,300 people to generate irrational and reactionary fear about the future impacts of climate change.
James Hansen, Columbia University: “Game over for the climate.”
With a doctorate in physics and a long career in climatological research, this former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies should know better than to offer overly simplistic sound bites on complex policy decisions – in this case, whether to build the Keystone XL pipeline. Yes, combustion of fossil fuels will add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, but it’s far beyond scientific consensus to suggest that forestalling climate catastrophe requires closing off any one source of carbon.
Leonardo DiCaprio, United Nations: “We are seeing extreme weather events, increased temperatures and the West Antarctic and Greenland ice-sheets melting at unprecedented rates, decades ahead of scientific projections.”
This U.N. Messenger of Peace falls into a familiar trap. Scientists are still trying to parse which weather events might be made more likely by a changing climate, but we do have a rich data record for the pace of temperature rise and ice melt. Researchers have been trying to determine why warming has slowed of late, pointing to several factors that might help reduce the sensitivity of the atmosphere to greenhouse-gas-forced warming. The short answer is that the climate system is a bit more dynamic than we’d appreciated. Ice is proving similarly durable. The Greenland and West Antarctic glaciers hold enough water to raise sea levels alarmingly, so scientists keep a close eye on melting patterns. Thankfully, geologic features are working against runaway melting, restricting glacial flow, slowing the pace of glacial retreat and delaying sea-level rise.
If Al Gore weren’t part of this activist push against scientific dissent, the AGs might want to look into his history of bombastic statements about the future of our climate as well. Consider, “I believe it is appropriate to have an overrepresentation of factual presentations on how dangerous it is, as a predicate for opening up the audience to listen to what the solutions are.” It’s enraging to see one of the principle instigators of this investigation openly admit to engaging in the very behavior he wants to expose.
Of course, this isn’t actually about rooting out scientific misrepresentation, but rather discrediting any analysis that derails support for aggressive cuts to greenhouse-gas emissions. Climate change is real, happening, and human caused to a significant extent. It demands a thought-out, hotly debated, well-informed policy response that accounts not just for the science but also for the non-climatic consequences of any decision. Suggesting caution isn’t wicked, but necessary to the debate.
Data can only inform policy choices, not direct them. The AGs’ crusade is a dogmatic and political attack on First Amendment rights – not a scientific one.