The Energy Secretary Is Right On Climate Change

REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Tom Harris Executive Director, Climate Science Coalition
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Energy Secretary Rick Perry did a remarkable thing last week: he expressed skepticism about the causes of climate change in a TV interview and, even after howls of disapproval from environmentalists and the press, he did it again a few days later before a major Senate committee. Red GREEN and Blue, “a part of the Important Media network of blogs,” wondered, “Rick Perry on climate change – is he crazy, or is he playing Trump?

In reality, Perry’s candor is a refreshing change that politicians from across the political spectrum should strive to emulate. Here is what happened.

Appearing on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on June 19, Perry was asked by anchor Joe Kernen, “do you believe CO2 is primary control knob for the temperature of the Earth and for climate?”

Perry responded:

No, most likely the primary control knob is the ocean waters and this environment that we live in. The fact is this shouldn’t be a debate about, ‘Is the climate changing, is man having an effect on it?’ Yeah, we are. The question should be just how much, and what are the policy changes that we need to make to effect that? This science, this idea that science is just absolutely settled and if you don’t believe it’s settled then you’re somehow another Neanderthal, that is so inappropriate from my perspective. I think if you’re going to be a wise, intellectually-engaged person, being a skeptic about some of these issues is quite alright.

Calling Perry’s answer, “pretty good,” Kernen laughed, “You’ve really got to be careful. I don’t know what the actual penalty is for not believing…It’s heretical.”

That is an understatement. Climate activists and many media were outraged by the Secretary’s answer. The Houston Chronicle reported, “Perry’s comments drew attacks from environmental groups, which called the former Texas governor a ‘climate denier.’”

“Rick Perry’s outrageous comments are the latest indication that this administration will do everything in its power to put polluter profits ahead of science and public health,” said Sierra Club Climate Policy Director Liz Perera.

“Perry has the science exactly backward,” complained Shaye Wolf, climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Far from being climate change’s key cause, the world’s oceans are actually another victim of greenhouse pollution,” Wolf asserted in The Washington Post.

In a story headlined, “Rick Perry Denies Climate Change Role of CO2,” InsideClimate News labeled the energy secretary, “the second of President Donald Trump’s cabinet members to go on television to publicly dismiss the importance of CO2 in global warming, ignoring the scientific evidence.”

Dozens of others reported the same. For example:

EcoWatch’s Climate Nexus headlined their June 20 story, “Head of Energy Dept. Denies CO2 Is Main Cause of Climate Change.”

Labeling Perry’s comments “anti-science,” Mashable, a prominent on line media company, entitled their coverage, “Rick Perry just said CO2 isn’t the leading driver of climate change, even though it is.”

In “CNBC allows Rick Perry to spout nonsense on live TV without any fact checking,” Dr. Joe Romm, wrote, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry denied basic climate science Monday.”

Writing in the Houston Chronicle, Washington Energy Correspondent, James Osborne condemned Perry for questioning “one of the fundamental tenets of climate change.”

On and on went the attacks from Associated Press, Salon magazine, Toronto Star, Market Watch, etc. Media outlets that reported uncritically on Perry’s comments were few and far between.

At least two open letters were sent to Perry about his supposed mistakes:

In their June 21, 2017 open letter to the Secretary, the American Meteorological Society (AMS) lectured Perry: “it is critically important that you understand that emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are the primary cause [of recent global warming]… Skepticism that fails to account for evidence is no virtue.”

Congressman Earl Blumenauer (OR-03) sent Perry “educational materials outlining the basic established science behind climate change,” telling the Secretary, “You too need to read the enclosed reports.”

Most politicians would have responded to the onslaught by quickly issuing a mea culpa press release, pledging allegiance to political correctness on climate change and then never again questioning the United Nations’ position on global warming. But not Perry. Only three days later, in response to intense questioning by Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) at the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee hearing about President Trump’s 2018 energy department budget request, Perry asked, “Don’t you think it’s OK to have this conversation about the science of climate change…What’s wrong with being a skeptic about something that we’re talking about that’s going to have a massive impact on the American economy?”

Predictably, media howled again.

Yet Perry’s points about climate change, in both the TV interview and his Senate testimony, are justified. For example, being a skeptic about such a complex and uncertain field, especially one with expensive policy ramifications, is indeed “quite alright.” Besides being necessary for science to advance, skepticism is the duty of our elected officials when activists demand the allocation of vast sums of public money to their causes.

Perry was also correct when he said on CNBC that it is “inappropriate” to label people Neanderthals because they do not agree with the global warming science promoted by the U.N. Dozens of open letters and other public lists show that many experts do not support the hypothesis that we face a man-made climate crisis. The Climate Scientists’ Register (http://tinyurl.com/2es3rqx) assembled by the International Climate Science Coalition is perhaps the simplest document of its kind. In only a few days in 2010, over 100 experts from 22 countries agreed to the following statement:

We, the undersigned, having assessed the relevant scientific evidence, do not find convincing support for the hypothesis that human emissions of carbon dioxide are causing, or will in the foreseeable future cause, dangerous global warming.

And referring to the hypothesis that CO2 emissions from fossil fuels are accelerating global warming as “one of the fundamental tenets of climate change,” as did the Chronicle’s Osborne, makes no sense. The UN’s point of view on climate change is not an irrefutable truth, like the tenets of a religion, or at least it shouldn’t be. Scientific hypotheses, even scientific theories, are merely the educated opinions of experts based on their interpretations of observations and so can be, and often are, wrong. Philosophers since ancient times have understood that observations cannot prove truth. This is especially the case in climate science, a field that University of Western Ontario applied mathematician Dr. Chris Essex calls “one of the most challenging open problems in modern science.”

Concerning the open letter to Perry from the AMS, Dr. Tim Ball, an environmental consultant and former climatology professor at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, responded: “These are completely false statements. The only evidence in support of the CO2 as the primary cause of global warming are the outputs of the computer models used by the U.N’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which have been wrong in every forecast or scenario they produced since 1990. If your forecast is wrong then your science is wrong. Even strong advocates of these models, including Michael Mann, concede that they have failed by consistently overestimating their forecasts and by failing to predict the 20+ years with no global warming.”

When it comes to climate change, tolerance of alternative perspectives, a much-vaunted hallmark of liberalism, vanishes. They should welcome, not condemn, questioning the status quo. Effective science and public policy-making needs skeptical enquiry, not mere acquiescence to fashionable thinking. Perry’s approach is a breath of fresh air. Bravo, Mr. Secretary!

Tom Harris is executive director of the Ottawa, Canada-based International Climate Science Coalition.