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Inhofe’s last stand

Filed under: — gavin @ 7 December 2006

Part of me felt a little nostalgic yesterday watching the last Senate hearing on climate change that will be chaired by Sen. James Inhofe. It all felt very familiar and comforting in some strange way. There was the well-spoken ‘expert’ flown in from Australia (no-one available a little closer to home?), the media ‘expert’ from the think tank (plenty of those about) and a rather out-of-place geologist. There were the same talking points (CO2 leads the warming during the ice ages! the Medieval Warm Period was warm! it’s all a hoax!*) that are always brought up. These easy certainties and predictable responses are so well worn that they feel like a pair of old slippers.

Of course, my bout of nostalgia has nothing to do with whether this was a useful thing for the Senate to be doing (it wasn’t), and whether it just provided distracting political theatre (yup) in lieu of serious discussion about effective policy response, but even we should sometimes admit that it is easier to debunk this kind of schoolyard rhetoric than it is to deal with the complexities that actually matter. The supposed subject of discussion was ‘Climate Change in the Media’ though no-one thought to question why the Senate was so concerned with the media representations (Andy Revkin makes some good points about it though here). Senators have much more effective means of getting relevant information (knowledgable staffers, National Academy of Science reports, the presidential office of Science and Technology etc.) and so this concern was concievably related to their concern with public understanding of science….. or not.

Naomi Oreskes did a good job on the context and provided useful rebuttal to a frankly ridiculous claim that contrarians were not getting any air time on the networks. One point she could have raised was that when Patrick Michaels made the same complaint to CNN – that their climate news stories weren’t ‘balanced’ – a quick scan of their interviewee lists revealed that the scientist most frequently on CNN …. was none other than Michaels himself. A result somewhat at odds with his standing in the community or expertise, but ample evidence for the ‘false balance‘ often decried here.

As for the scientific content, with the sole exception of Dan Schrag’s statements, it was a textbook example of abuse of science. Two exchanges summed it up for me. In the first, Bob Carter insisted that CO2 always follows temperature for the ice age cycles (which are paced by the variations in the Earth’s orbit and for which CO2 is a necessary feedback) and seasonal cycle (related mainly to Northern hemisphere deciduous trees) . Both statements are true as far as they go – but they don’t go very far. Was Carter suggesting that the 30% increase in CO2 decreased after 1940? or that it has stopped increasing in recent years (since he appears to also believe that global warming stopped in 1998?). As an aside by his criteria it also stopped in 1973, 1983 and 1990…. only it didn’t. Of course, if this wasn’t what he meant to imply (because it’s demonstrably false), why did he bring the whole subject up at all? Surely not simply to muddy the waters….

The second great example was Carter making an appeal to authority (using NASA and the Russian Academy of Science) for his contention that world is likely to cool in coming decades. Of course scientists at NASA are at the forefront of studies of anthropogenic climate change so a similar authority would presumably apply to them, and the Russian Academy was one of 11 that called on the G8 to take climate change seriously, but let’s gloss over that inconsistency. The nuggets of science Carter was referring to are predictions for the next couple of solar cycles – a tricky business in fact, and one in which there is a substantial uncertainty. However, regardless of that uncertainty, NASA scientists have definitively not predicted that this will cause an absolute cooling – at best, it might reduce the ongoing global warming slightly (which would be good) (though see here for what they actually said). Two Russians scientists have indeed made such a ‘cooling’ prediction though, but curiously only in a press report rather than in any peer-reviewed paper, and clearly did not speak for the Academy in doing so, but never mind that. Of course, if Carter seriously thought that global cooling was likely, he should be keen to take up some of James Annan’s or Brian Schmidt’s attractive offers – but like the vast majority of ‘global coolers’, his money does not appear to be where his mouth is. It’s all classic contrarian stuff.

With the new Senate coming in January, it seems likely that this kind of disinformational hearing will become less common and more climate policy-related hearings will occur instead. These won’t provide as much fodder for us to debunk, but they might serve the much more useful function of actually helping craft appropriate policy responses.

Ah… truly the end of an age.

* If needed, the easy rebuttals to these talking points are available here, here and here


221 Responses to “Inhofe’s last stand”

  1. 201
    Jack Aubrey says:

    I just read a press release from the Center for Economic and Policy Research about a new study they’ve released titled “Are Shorter Work Hours Good for the Environment? A Comparison of U.S. and European Energy Consumption.”

    The study breaks down GDP versus hours worked developed nations, with a specific focus on the differences between the U.S. and EU-15 (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom). There is pressure in Europe to adopt more of an American-style business model, but that would result in a 25% increase in energy used, making it much more difficult for those nations which have ratified the Kyoto Protocol to meet their goals.

    On the flip side, if the U.S. followed the EU-15 in terms of work hours, employed workers would have seven additional weeks off per year (some of this in longer weekends) and the United States would consume 20% less energy.

    Who knows, maybe Barabara Boxer will see this as the answer!

  2. 202
    SecularAnimist says:

    In comment #180 I asked Sashka: “Do you have any substantive criticism of the Stern report?”

    Sashka did not offer any substantive criticism in response, but in comment #192, Steve Reynolds wrote:

    http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,20954347-31478,00.html:
    Apparently recognised authority on the economics of climate change, William Nordhaus of Yale does.

    First of all, Professor Nordhaus’s paper is available on his website at Yale, and I would recommend interested readers to that, rather than the article in The Australian that Steve Reynolds linked to, which is entitled “Warming fears do not add up”, and gives most of its space to the usual AGW denialist tactics of railing against “global warming hysteria” and claiming that “the science is unsettled”, that the IPCC is dominated by politically-motivated individuals who “suppress dissenting voices” and so on.

    Second of all, if you actually read Professor Nordhaus’s critique, it does not disagree with the Stern report’s finding that the long term economic costs of failing to address global warming will be greater than the costs of addressing it. Rather, Nordhaus disagrees with Stern’s choice of social discount rates — basically, the value that is assigned to the well-being of future generations relative to the well-being of the present generation.

    The Stern report uses a near-zero discount rate — it assigns the same value to the well-being of all future generations as to the well-being of the present generation. Nordhaus prefers to “substitute more conventional discount rates used in other global-warming analyses, by governments, by consumers, or by businesses.” Using the social discount rates preferred by Nordhaus underlies “one of the major findings in the economics of climate change … that ‘optimal’ economic policies to slow climate change involve modest rates of emissions reductions in the near term, followed by sharp reductions in the medium and long term. We might call this the climate-policy ramp, in which policies to slow global warming increasingly tighten or ramp up over time.”

    In contrast, the near-zero social discount rate used in the Stern report’s economic cost-benefit analysis supports a policy of near term, rapid, major reductions in GHG emissions. Nordhaus asserts that “central questions” about the economically optimal approach to reducing GHG emissions — “how much, how fast, and how costly” are “informed” by, but not answered by the Stern report, and “remain open”.

    Regardless of whether Stern or Nordhaus is “right” about the “correct” discount rates to be used in an economic cost-benefit analysis — and this may be a fundamental philosophical disagreement about how much to value the well-being of future generations compared to our own — Nordhaus does NOT disagree that GHG emissions need to be reduced, or that the ultimate cost of failing to do so will be greater than the cost of doing so. Thus the use of Nordhaus’s critique by climate-change deniers who argue against taking any action at all to reduce fossil fuel combustion and its CO2 emissions is dishonest.

  3. 203
    Steve Reynolds says:

    Re 202:

    Thanks for the direct link.

    >Nordhaus does NOT disagree that GHG emissions need to be reduced, or that the ultimate cost of failing to do so will be greater than the cost of doing so…
    … that ‘optimal’ economic policies to slow climate change involve modest rates of emissions reductions in the near term, followed by sharp reductions in the medium and long term. We might call this the climate-policy ramp, in which policies to slow global warming increasingly tighten or ramp up over time.”

    That makes sense to me. Drasticly reducing CO2 emissions with technology available in 30 years will be much cheaper than now.

    Long term capital investments (such as power plants, but not cars) should be addressed immediately though. A relatively small carbon tax (about equivalent to current gasoline taxes) would stear market investment away from coal and toward nuclear, renewables, and conservation.

  4. 204
    Hank Roberts says:

    Today’s NYT article is well worth reading through — and makes me wish they provided cites. Note especially the economic gaming around HFCs.

  5. 205
    Sashka says:

    Re: #202

    It’s not like there are two equally valid ways to discount. There’s one that is used by everyone and there is another used by Stern to get the conclusions that he needed to get. He cheated and his results have no validity, period.

    The idea of the climate policy ramp strikes me as a bit strange at first glance. To me, it’s like this: either you do it or not.

  6. 206
    Lauren Anderson says:

    Gavin, I’m not sure why you assume a Democrat-led Senate would be “right” about climate change policy and a Republican-led Senate would not. Are Democrats genetically more intelligent than Republicans? Or by “more climate policy-related hearings will occur instead” in the new Senate, did you mean that a Democrat-led Senate would AGREE with you more than a Republican-led Senate? Frankly, I’m not sure a Democrat-led Senate would craft “appropriate policy responses.” Any response that throws money at a seemingly intractable problem is not appropriate. Reducing CO2 production to pre-Industrial Revolution levels to stop or reverse warming is an intractable problem. No one’s going to do it; yet that is the only thing (according to predicted correlations of CO2 to temperature) that will stop the warming. (Unless we start planting trees like crazy, which is cheap and simple–so of course no one will propose it.) If anyone attempted such a policy, do you have any idea what that would cost or what the impact would be on human beings? Much more than global warming, I assure you.

    [Response: Not sure what you are trying to read into my comments. I was merely making an observation that Barbara Boxer is unlikely to be having hearings to showcase contrarian talking points. When the new senate has climate change hearings, they are much more likely to focus on policy responses. Personally, I think that's sensible. Whether any action results and what form that would take is uncertain, but I think most people would agree that talking about policy directly rather than hiding policy differences under a cloak of 'scientific' uncertainty is a step forward. -gavin]

  7. 207
    Hank Roberts says:

    Lauren, nothing will “stop” the warming, it’s built in already.

    Have you looked at Dr. Hansen’s alternative?
    http://www.gsfc.nasa.gov/topstory/20020820climate50.html
    and Google for more.

    Early actions this decade can make a great difference in how fast the warming happens over the next several centuries, buying an extra generation or two for grandchildren’s kids to cope.

    Postponing the inevitable _is_ a worthwhile action, because it allows slower and more thoughtful responses as things change.

  8. 208
    James says:

    Re #206: Seems like this place needs a RealPolitics section, as well as a RealEconomics one :-) Obviously, a Democratic-controlled Congress is going to at least make some noise about global warming for the next couple of years, simply as a way of getting at Bush. Beyond that, who knows? I find it interesting to note that among a list of those who have introduced climate-related bills is McCain-Lieberman, while some other Republicans are hurriedly distancing themselves from Bush on the issue. We can only hope that more of them will wake up and realize that global warming isn’t a partisan issue.

  9. 209
    William Astley says:

    RE: ” …Two Russians scientists have indeed made such a ‘cooling’ prediction though, but curiously only in a press report rather than in any peer-reviewed paper, … ”

    Is it possible that a significant cooling event is imminent? Have there been rapid cooling events in the past? What is different now as compared to past conditions?

    The detailed paleoclimatic record does not support the orbitally driven insolation macroclimate model. (There are a number of papers that support this statement.) What are the implications of the competing galactic cosmic ray (GCR) modulated (modulated by the solar large scale magnetic field, solar wind, and the geomagnetic field) macroclimatic model?

    It is known that deglaciation occurs when obliquity is at a maximum. It is not insolation, but rather periodic abrupt changes in the geomagnetic field that triggers the deglaciation. (It is hypothesized that periodic changes in the sun maintains the geomagnetic dipole field that has a decay time, if it is not recharged, of about 10 kyr.) There is an observed 41 kyr periodic change in the magnitude of the geomagnetic dipole field. The geomagnetic field is maximum when the earth’s tilt is maximum.

    This hypothesis explains why the deglaciation event can skip obliquity cycles. The solar event is periodic on a roughly 8000 year cycle. The periodic recharge of the geomagnetic field is less strong if the solar event does not coincide with the peak of the 41 kyr obliquity cycle (maximum tilt).

    How rapid is the change from interglacial to glacial climates, based on the paleoclimatic record?

  10. 210
    Eli Rabett says:

    Steve, Waiting, as Nordhaus advocates also means absorbing the costs of the CO2 emitted between now and then. Those costs are not zero, moreover if informed speculations about outside the box nasties are even partially valid, those costs could be enormous. Further, delaying action means that capital replacement will still favor large emitting systems (coal generation, etc) without amelioration technologies.

    What Nordhaus actually advocates is a gradual introduction of controls. The question, of course, is how gradual is advisable.

  11. 211
    Hank Roberts says:

    >199, the NYT article,

    Mark Bahner, in Roger Pielke Jr. ‘s thread at Prometheus, caught a significant typo; for HCFC read HFC:
    http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/prometheus/archives/climate_change/001031and_im_focused_on_a.html#comments

    “The NYT article is in error, compare:
    http://www.epa.gov/ozone/defns.html
    … the NYT reports:
    “Two-thirds of the payments are going to projects to eliminate HFC-23.”"

  12. 212
    Mark A. York says:

    “Are Democrats genetically more intelligent than Republicans?”

    As a biologist I would say yes. It seems to have a genetic basis for reasoning ability. In this vein I think the likelihood for belief in the supernatural is passed on in a similar fashion. The Belief Gene if you will.

  13. 213
    Doug Watts says:

    As an aside, I wish policy makers and economists would seriously and sincerely adopt the Hippocratic Oath and the Precautionary Principle in their work. First, do no harm. Decisions made today that affect the next generation should leave the biota at least as healthy as the condition it exists in today, and more importantly, should not remove or restrict options available to the next generation to repair or improve upon the biota as they in their own wisdom see fit. The Precautionary Principle, to my mind is a morph of Murphy’s Law (if it can go wrong it will) and Hofstadter’s Law (everything takes longer than you expect, even when you factor in Hofstadter’s Law). In the face of scientific or probabilistic uncertainty, err on the side of the path which offers the best chance to protect the biota because the consequences of some paths cannot be reversed. ie. species extinction.

    Thanks.

  14. 214
    Hank Roberts says:

    Doug, I think most of the European Community has adopted the precautionary principle, at least in principle; it remains to be seen if it’s done in practice. The US, no. If the EU goes with business as usual under the pretense of carbon trades, that’d be the appearance without the behavior.

    Seems to me the US has created a system that sporadically collapses, allowing the rich to re-emerge from the wreckage and start over without the burden of the average citizen’s ever-increasing expectations and claims and entitlements.

    Fredric Brown’s short story “Letter to a Phoenix” (1949) is still the best description I’ve seen of that approach — if you haven’t read his short stories, look for it, it’s often reprinted.

  15. 215
    John Larson says:

    Science has shown that the climate is warming. But didn’t this occur in the past? Haven’t fossils been found in the areas of both North and the South Poles?

    If this is the case, the climate must have been warmer in the past. If that is a fact, what is the problem with the climate warming now?

    [Response: That is indeed a fact. And at those times (Eocene 50 million years ago, Cretaceous 65-100 million years ago) sea level was over 100m higher. -gavin]

  16. 216
    Sally says:

    And also at those times there was no human civilisation. The traditional functioning of the human and natural systems under a different climate regime is the problem now.

  17. 217

    Re “If this is the case, the climate must have been warmer in the past. If that is a fact, what is the problem with the climate warming now?”

    Rapid climate change can cause a hell of a lot of problems for us, even when it’s natural. Volcanoes are natural, too, but that doesn’t mean they’re pleasant to be around when they go off.

  18. 218
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    Re:215

    Why is global warming a dangerous thing?

    Because we (humans) thrive in a small ecological range. There are now +6 billion of us. Easy portable energy is diminishing. Changes in our agriculture, changes in sea levels, and the advancement of pests and diseases into new environments where they don’t have known restraints — these things could lead to misery unparalleled in human history.

    Just off the top of my head.

  19. 219
    James says:

    Re #215: “Haven’t fossils been found in the areas of both North and the South Poles?”

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned the obvious reason for this. Continents move around, so at the time those fossils were formed, they quite probably weren’t in the polar regions.

  20. 220
    Hank Roberts says:

    The obvious isn’t always the answer, though. Here for example:

    http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2002-03/jhu-spf032102.php

    “Once upon a time, Axel Heilberg Island was a very strange place.

    “… a full 8/9ths of the way from the equator to the North Pole, … thereâ��s not much to it beyond miles of rocks, ice, a few mosses, and many fossils.

    “The fossils tell of a different era, though, an odd time about 45 million years ago when Axel Heilberg, still as close to the North Pole as it is now, was covered in a forest of redwood-like trees known as metasequoias.

    “… Axel Heilbergâ��s forests probably received equatorial water and warmth from a prehistoric weather pattern unlike anything in existence today.

    ” … Because of its closeness to the North Pole both now and in the time of the redwoods, Axel Heilberg spends four months of each year in continuous sunlight and four months of each year in continuous darkness.”

  21. 221
    Sally says:

    Re: 206, 212.

    I’m not sure if this is off-topic but the thread is about a politician, so here goes.
    US universities are said to have a majority of democrat voters, at least among the faculty, which indicates that education fosters liberal inclinations. This could be balanced with the concept that teaching is a social good to begin with. Genetic influences certainly are a factor in learning and reasoning ability. Also consider the genetic factors at play here:

    “Children who at age 4 were described by their teachers as “self- reliant, energetic, somewhat dominating, relatively under- controlled and resilient” identified as politically liberal 20 years later.

    Conversely, children described as “feeling easily victimized, easily offended, indecisive, fearful, rigid, inhibited and relatively over-controlled and vulnerable” favored conservative politics when they grew up.”

    http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4176/is_20060326/ai_n16174533


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