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Supreme Court Amicus Curiae from scientists

Filed under: — group @ 29 November 2006

In the wake of the NY times editorial yesterday, we’ve been asked to provide a link to the Amicus Curiae (draft) written by David Battisti, Christopher Field, Inez Fung, James E. Hansen, John Harte, Eugenia Kalnay, Daniel Kirk-Davidoff, James C. Mcwilliams, Jonathan T. Overpeck, F. Sherwood Rowland, Joellen Russell, Scott R. Saleska, John M. Wallace and Steven C. Wofsy in the current Supreme Court case (Commonwealth of Massachusetts et al vs. US EPA et al). Some discussion of this statement is also available at Prometheus.

Update: The actual brief (of which the first link was a draft) is available here (see comments below).

Update 2: We also note that on the final brief, Mario Molina, Ed Sarachik, Bill Easterling, and Pam Matson were additional signers.

136 Responses to “Supreme Court Amicus Curiae from scientists”

  1. 1
    Roger Pielke Jr. says:

    Thanks for the link. You guys might also be interested in these comments on the oral arguments in this case today. The representation of the science of climate impacts was pretty poor across the board (by both lawyers, and various justices).

  2. 2
    Roger Hill says:

    I had heard tat Scalia had already started to complain that it was over his head and that it is why he never liked science or something.

    I for one am sick and tired of the mechanical intellectual laziness switch that is thrown every time this most important issue comes up.

    There must be a very simple explanation about global warming.

    Carbon is in the ground and some of it in the atmophere. It is being burned from being dug out of the ground where it is a fossil fuel. Now in the atmosphere – add sunlight and it warms pure and simple.

    Too much carbon in the atmosphere where it will warm too much. It’s really not that hard to comprehend is it?

    There needs to be campaign to boil this down or sugar this off as we say in Vermont for the “simpletons” so that the intellectual “Scalia types” can no longer hide behind their ignorance.


  3. 3
    Pat Neuman says:

    Re 2.

    People need to hear simple explanations about global warming from officials they consider the experts on weather and climate. Those officials are with the National Weather Service, but officials answer serious questions about global warming with:

    … “I’m not really a climate change expert, so I can’t offer much insight here.” …

    National Weather Service staff receive training on “Climate Variability”, but they don’t receive training on climate change.

    Agency staff are hiding behind controversy and politics. The public is not being served in climate education.

  4. 4
    Neal J. King says:

    re: 2, Roger Hill:

    I don’t think your explanation is quite right. Trying to reach the level of straightforwardness you’re hoping for, my attempt would be:

    – CO-2 is much better at blocking infrared radiation than visible light. So the effect of CO-2 is to allow radiation from the sun to pass freely through, but to block IR coming from the earth. The IR radiation is the way that the earth cools off (reflected light has never heated the earth), so CO-2 discourages cooling.

    – Because the amount of CO-2 in the atmosphere makes it “optically thick” in the IR, the probability of an IR photon passing through the atmosphere without interacting with a CO-2 molecule is small. In this situation, the properties of the IR radiation that makes it out of the planet reflects closely the temperature of the atmosphere that is within optical depth (OD) value = 1 of the vacuum: that is, if you track the path of an escaping IR photon backwards, OD = 1 implies that that photon has interacted with a CO-2 molecule above or around that height. So the properties of the IR radiation reflect the upper layer of the CO-2, the CO-2 with which the radiation has most recently interacted.

    – In particular, the intensity of the IR radiation is close to the blackbody radiation intensity (at IR frequency) at the average temperature of the CO-2 at OD = 1.

    – So now, if you increase the amount of CO-2 in the atmosphere significantly, the spherical shell of CO-2 expands. In particular, the point at which one is at OD = 1 from the vacuum of outer space moves further out. Since the typical temperature in the troposphere generally drops with height (radius), roughly according to the adiabatic lapse rate of about 6 degrees/km (this is an upper limit on how fast the temperature can drop with increasing height), the temperature at the OD = 1 point is lower than it was before.

    – This means that the amount of IR leaving the earth is reduced, reflecting the lower temperature of the new OD =1 point. But that means that the energy balance of the earth is affected: The same amount of visible radiation is pouring in as before, but the amount of IR power radiated out and away has been reduced. This results in net radiant-energy income, and thus heating.

    – If the amount of CO-2 is now fixed, this imbalance will continue to create a heating effect until the temperature at the OD = 1 point is the same as it was when there was an equilibrium before. Simple-mindedly, I would expect a net increase in global average temperature to equal 6 degrees x the number of kilometers the OD = 1 point has moved upwards.

    – I have ignored all feedbacks in this picture. I have also ignored the small increase in the radiating surface area, due to the expansion of the CO-2 sphere. However, on the basic mechanism of the greenhouse effect, I think this is essentially right. The real experts can correct me if I’ve erred.

  5. 5
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    So much for the supposedly “pro-life” judges being pro-life. I mean, I can understand perhaps why many pro-lifers voted for certain candidates with inconsistent platforms (against abortion, but okay with not reducing global warming). And I can understand candidates juggling issues in an inconsistent fashion to find the right mix to get elected (that’s why we call them politicians). But these judges don’t have those excuses here. Which just leads me to believe they are total…[well, you’ll just delete what I have to say].

  6. 6
    Daniel Rosenberg says:

    The Supreme Court has posted the transcript of today’s oral argument.

    You can try this link:

    Or click on Oral Arguments on the Court’s Home Page, then Argument Transcripts (second bullet from the bottom), and then it is the fifth case down in the “2006 Term Cases” box.

  7. 7
    Geordie says:

    I don’t think anybody has a hard time understanding that more CO2 will heat the earth more and why it does. That’s not even an important point, is it? I think what gets confusing is proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, that future generations will be greatly effected because of our actions or inactions. It is known by most people that temperature followed by CO2 levels naturally fluctuate and are currently doing that. So how can you squarely point the finger at certain countries or states that have added more CO2 without knowing for certain what the future effects will be. The problem is that there seems to be no smoking gun and no dead body, what I mean is our victim is somebody in the future and there is no absolute 100% pure fact that can be used to lay blame on certain people. Instead we have best guesses put together on a computor model that is beyond understanding for 99.9% of the world.
    At least that is why I still feel in the dark. I can’t understand how a model can exactly replicate the chaotic world but then again I can’t even understand (like most people) how my own computor exactly works. So maybe that is where the faith comes in, faith in the computor models.
    I don’t think the concept of a thicker coating makes something warmer, should be all that difficult to grasp. For me, it is all the doubts and questions that follow it.
    It can’t just be “All the models demonstrate increased temperature with raised CO2” or “A consensus of scientist agree”. It has to be unrefutable and understandable proof.

  8. 8
    John L. McCormick says:

    Hear an excellent summary of the oral arguments offered by Georgetown University Law School professors.

    Immediately after the Supreme Court heard the oral arguments, the Georgetown University School of Law Environmental Law Society hosted a discussion on the oral presentations and the reactions they prompted among the Justices. It was a quality forum that provided a clear and concise rendition of the issues the Court will have to decide and offered opinions on possible outcomes.

    Use the following link:

    to go the C-SPAN home page. Scroll down and access the following site:

    Georgetown Univ. Law Center on Massachusetts v. EPA
    In Washington, DC, the Georgetown University Law Center holds a panel discussion on Massachusetts v. the Evironmental Protection Agency.
    11/29/2006: WASHINGTON, DC: 1 hr. 31 min.

    It is worth the time to hear the entire discussio….almost as good as being in the Chamber.

  9. 9
    Eli Rabett says:

    There seems to be agreement that CO2 is an air pollutant.

  10. 10
    Joseph O'Sullivan says:

    The scientific question is a critical issue in this case. Much of the courtroom discussion focused on the right of the states and enviros to sue (standing is the legal term). If the science were certain the parties who want to regulate GHG win without much problem. So climate science is a major part of this case.

  11. 11
    Hank Roberts says:

    thank you John, agreed, the Georgetown panel is well worth listening to.

  12. 12

    I have grave tidings for Roger Pielke–Justice Scalia is well ahead of the Beltway learning curve . In a rare moment of lucidity, that Neocon Must Read, The American Spectator let staunch republican William Tucker air the common scientific wisdom on climate forcing last week , in an article entitled Endorse Kyoto. It drew a withering response, headed by this missive from Julius Blank of Los Altos California:

    “Mr. Tucker must be joking or ill informed. …None of the pundits on either side of the issue seem willing to recognize the fact that an increase in atmospheric CO2 of 100 ppm cannot possibly add enough heat to raise atmospheric temperatures by anything measurable unless somehow the CO2 gets heated up to some absurdly high temperatures.

    For example; if you want to raise the temperature of one million pounds of air you will need to add 250,000 BTU. Air has a specific heat of 0.25 BTU per pound per degree F. CO2 has a specific heat of 0.20 BTU per pound per deg F. If you add 100 pounds of CO2 ( 100 ppm) you get 20 BTU for every degree of heated CO2. You can do the math to see how much CO2 needs to be heated to get to 250,000 BTU. This is not rocket science. Most students of thermodynamics and heat transfer can easily verify this.”

    The good news is that Mr. Blank is not a lawyer. The bad news is that he is the doyen of the chemical engineers who founded Fairchild Semiconductor.

    [Response: Oh dear…. – gavin]

  13. 13
    pete best says:

    #12, if that is true then why don’t they also factor in the additional heat trapped by increased waper vapour which is a feedback from increased warming from Co2 and what about the Methane also.

  14. 14
    John L. McCormick says:

    RE #9

    Eli, I do not agree [There seems to be agreement that CO2 is an air pollutant]. That view has to fit the confines of the Clean Air Act. And, the courts will have a hard time coming to your conclusion. Though, they must.

    However, CO2 is contributing to increasing emissions of volatile organic compounds which morf into ozone and thus contribute to ozone non-attainment in metorpolitan areas such as Washington, DC, Denver, LA, etc.

    It would be of value for RealClimate to present the evidence on hand that CO2 fertilization of vegetation and longer growing seasons, increasing daytime temperatures, possible change of air flow causing increased air inversions is a yet to be explored justification for EPA to link CO2 with ozone non-attainment and thereby rule CO2 as an agent of smog generation.

  15. 15
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    On the argument that increasing GHGs from China would outweigh any gains from the U.S. reduction of GHGs (with new vehicles), I would respond that the small reductions from the U.S. would have even more impact in reducing harm in that context, since a slight reduction in a dire situation is much more helpful than a slight reduction in harm in a relatively benign situation. It is sort of like a dollar being much more valuable to a starving person, than to a millionaire.

    I would also argue that our GHG emissions are causing harm now & will be doing do almost in perpetuity. Mr. Milkey did say the harms were continuous, but I would have liked to have heard the compounding effects of adding GHGs, esp CO2 (see the RC post from Archer on its longevity in the atmosphere), day after day, year after year. This isn’t like a pending death sentence, where the court decision and outcome could be extremely close, as when the court decides just before or just after the person is executed. But the GHG issue IS a close call in another way. If we do not start reducing very soon, huge damage is imminent in the sense of being “in the pipeline” and being compounded. It’s our Indo-European languages that have problems, channeling and limiting our thinking. In Hopi, for instance, verb tenses are not thought of in terms of space (length, point, or segment of time), but in terms of verifiability, what is more or less certain.

  16. 16
    Aaron says:

    John L. McCormick:
    Your suggestion reminded me of an oddball insight that occurred to me last night. Rogert Corder is getting a lot of press right now for his work on procyanidin concentrations in red wine. One of his findings is that:

    Slow ripening boosts the levels of all polyphenols and two key enzymes involved in polyphenol synthesis are increased by ultraviolet (UV) light. So grapes grown at higher altitudes, where there is more UV exposure, could potentially contain higher levels of procyanidins.

    Now, I doubt the overall utility but isn’t it interesting that one of the theoretical implications of stratospheric ozone depletion is an increase in the antioxidant power and consequent health benefits derived from wine?

  17. 17
    Jana Wilson says:

    I am a layman who reads this blog on a regular basis in hopes of gaining some balanced understanding of climate change. Sometimes I understand the topics and sometimes I don’t. I have learned quite a lot, though.

    I just finished reading the Amicus Curiae written by David Battisti, Christopher Field, Inez Fung, James E. Hansen, John Harte, Eugenia Kalnay, Daniel Kirk-Davidoff, James C. Mcwilliams, Jonathan T. Overpeck, F. Sherwood Rowland, Joellen Russell, Scott R. Saleska, John M. Wallace and Steven C. Wofsy in the current Supreme Court case.

    It is, for the non-scientist, a very good analysis of the entire situtation surrounding the science of climate change. I plan on using parts of it to explain issues to others. I find the whole communication issue between scientists and the public at large to be fascinating, because there are constantly miscommunications. It is an issue that flies under the radar, but is terribly important in our world today.


  18. 18
    Hank Roberts says:

    Economists: “… Climate change and Social Security remain areas of disagreement.”
    Robert Whaples (2006) “Do Economists Agree on Anything? Yes!,” The Economists’ Voice: Vol. 3: No. 9, Article 1.

  19. 19
    Michael Salem says:

    What annoys me when people talk about uncertainty in climate understanding, is that everything we understand is uncertain. One needs to contemplate relative uncertainties to evaluate information.

    In this case, I would expect most educated people to agree that our uncertainty in how negative will be the effects of unmitigated climage change are significantly smaller than our uncertainty in the economic ramifications of mitigating climate change. In fact, it’s not even clear that the economic ramifications will sum to be negative.

    This is aside the point that it is, to put it bluntly, childishly irresponsible to prioritize our economic goals over the welfare of the world.

  20. 20
    Henry Molvar says:

    Thanks for this article.

    The Amicus Curiae brief linked in the first paragraph states, in at least two places:

    c. This amount of warming is very likely to drive
    steady melting of arctic ice sheets and further
    increases in global average sea level, which is
    projected to reach an additional 0.1 – 0.9 meters (1/3
    – 1 foot) by 2100, and to continue rising to much
    higher levels in the decades to millennia following

    I get (1/3 – 2.9 feet) for 0.1 – 0.9 meters; is this difference significant to the case or am I just nit picking?

    Henry Molvar

  21. 21
    Grant says:

    Re: #19

    This is aside the point that it is, to put it bluntly, childishly irresponsible to prioritize our economic goals over the welfare of the world.

    I couldn’t agree more.

    Re: #20

    Not just nitpicking; indeed the difference between 1 ft. and 2.9 ft. will be significant for coastal areas!

  22. 22
    Mitch Golden says:

    What is interesting is that this brief appears to be specifically targeted to appeal to Justice Scalia. At several points they quote from his opinions (one dissenting), and they emphasize arguments bound to appeal to him.

    I’ll be interested to see if they are right that he is persuadable.

  23. 23
    Zeke Hausfather says:

    re: Henry Molvar
    I noticed that basic math error as well. To be honest, it probably will have no real impact on the case (given that this is just one of many amicus briefs, and all the plaintiffs have to prove is that the harm is significant and imminent to have standing), though clearly they need a better editor…

  24. 24
    John L. McCormick says:

    RE# 16

    Aaron, I like the way you think.

    Perhaps we can thank Amphictyonis; the Goddess of Wine and of Friendship Between Nations for ozone depletion. Look for the silver lining!

  25. 25
    SecularAnimist says:

    Mitch Golden wrote in #22: “What is interesting is that this brief appears to be specifically targeted to appeal to Justice Scalia.”

    I have not yet seen the complete transcript but from the brief excepts that I have seen, it appeared that Scalia was reading from the denialist script, e.g. “there is no scientific consensus that global warming is caused by human activities.”

  26. 26
    Mitch Golden says:

    Re #25: Just to clarify: I was referring to the Amicus Curiae brief. I suspect what you’re referring to is the oral arguments. I won’t be surprised if Scalia votes the wrong way on this. The court has had a terrible record with respect to understanding science and scientific arguments, and Scalia has definitely been part of that.

  27. 27
    Sashka says:

    It was pretty silly of NYT to opine that a plain reading of the Clean Air Act shows that the states are right. First of all, it is really a bad form to issue pre-judicial opinion. Second, if I may follow their bad example, if anything, the plain reading would suggest the opposite because (as the NYT conviniently ignored) the law says in its judgment. However stupid the EPA judgement is there is not much to do that can be done about it. That alone pretty much decides the outcome of the case, in my uneducated non-binding non-legal yet not so humble opinion.

    The proceedings at this stage seem to be focus on whether or not the states have the standing to bring up the case. For that they need to show that they stand to be harmed by the EPA inaction. I guess the current projection is that MA will lose to the tune of 15 feet along the coast line if the policy doesn’t change. With the new standards that the states want enacted this number will change to what? I’m guessing 14.8-14.9. Then the EPA inaction takes away 1-2 inches of land along the coast. Technically, it may be construed as harm but in reality this is less than any forecast uncertainty.

    The whole thing is just a political stunt, particularly because the Bush administration have recently proposed to tighten the CAFE standards.

    What more do the states want?

  28. 28

    Political stunt, for sure. But maybe one that will have some positive consequences. If the case keeps global warming–and the Bush administration’s denial of it–in the papers and on the evening news for awhile, it could further sway public opinion until the administration has to change its stance….?

  29. 29
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    Weren’t there any endangered species affected by GW in these states that filed? And if so, couldn’t they also use that (or maybe it isn’t imminent enough).

    Also, why can’t states (& cities) also make a claim that in addition to reducing harm to themselves, they also wish to reduce their harm to other people & species around the world (or at least in the U.S.)? Should a state or city be prevented from regulating its harm it does to others?

    Another thought, states and cities (& nations) could be gravely harmed in their reputation & standing in the world. The U.S. has decided to be a skunk about GW & not care that other nations around the world think very lowly of us for it & might even sanction us for it, but why should states and cities be barred from preventing their reputations from being smashed to smitherines? There are other harms beside physical harms, and sometimes these are more important (as in people would give their lives for various principles).

  30. 30
    Sashka says:

    Re: 28.

    Don’t hold your breath.

  31. 31

    As one of the (much lesser known) scientists on the climate scientists brief, I am gratified to see it appreciated by some of the readers here.

    Please note, however, that the RC link provided here is to our Amicus Brief submitted at the stage when petition for Certiori (Mass et al.’s request that the Supreme Court review the case) was filed back in May.

    Our more complete climate scientist’s Amicus brief “on the merits” (the one that is considered at the stage of oral argument, and was cited by Justice Stevens yesterday during oral argument) is at:

    Parts of our later “merits brief” parallel the earlier “Cert. brief” (but with the units conversion error detected by Real Climate’s very perceptive readers removed!), but with a greater integration of the science into the legal issues.

    Interested readers should note that not only our brief, but all relevant documents for the case (now including the transcript of oral argument) are at the website referenced above. Backup to:

    This includes EPA and Massachusetts filings, and all Amicus briefs filed on behalf of both sides. In particular, RC readers might be interested to see that the Competitive Enterprise Institute has assembled a group of contrarians (Sallie Baliunas, Pat Michaels, et al) to file a brief on the other side, disputing ours.

    Best regards,

  32. 32

    I think climatologists should welcome honest challenges from outsiders, and be willing to accept the possibility that we are making herd mentality mistakes. I find it difficult to see why economists should be exempt from doing likewise. It’s my perception that economists have a near unanimity of opinion on matters that under present circumstances deserve reconsideration.

    Comment #18 and the referenced article put one of them into focus.

    I jumped through the hoops and downloaded the article. I was unsurprised to see that the perceived “disagreement” on greenhouse gases was in fact a near unanimity among economists. The question was posed as one about the impact of CO2 restraints on GDP. The disagreement amounted to a spread in opinion of probably less than 20 per cent in the estimate of GDP impact of greenhouse gas emissions. This amounts to a very small difference in annual growth rates over a century. Consequently what we see among the surveyed economists (leaving aside a few possible outliers) is near unanimity that the entire question isn’t very important.

    Many of us believe otherwise. Therefore we must either question the conclusion, or question the framing of the issue.

    Accepting the framing of the question amounts to a concession that “GDP” is a meaningful measure of human well-being over long time scales. Is this necessarily true?

    While on sufficiently short time scales GDP growth is a meaningful measure, as the time scale gets long it is necessarily measured in s fictitious quantity called the “inflation adjusted” currency. This adjustment is preformed relative to a standard “basket of goods” that establishes prices, but the contents of the “basket” themselves are frequently readjusted.

    I can’t resist pointing out, to those who express great concern about errors in the historical temperature record and great confidence in economic assessments of long-term policies, that this adjustment amounts to a drift not in the intrumentation but in the quantity being measured!

    Over a century, this highly nonlinear drift in the definition of wealth can dominate the year-over-year growth rate. It is absolutely unclear what the quantity being measured is, because it is impossible to actually establish an exchange rate between 2006 currency and 2106 currency.

    If climate shifts spectacularly, perhaps the economy will “grow” in the direction of increased military activity, increased medical spending, increased spending in water management, increasing expenditures on insurance. If climate stabilizes, perhaps it will “grow” perhaps less, perhaps more, in the direction of purchases of musical instruments, art supplies, libraries. Which society will be better off? Will the scenario A basket of goods be more accessible in the scenario B world, or vice versa? Is it possible that the question doesn’t actually have a meaningful answer>

    Is it too much to suggest that a dollar in the business as usual world might not have an obvious exchange rate versus a dollar in the carbon stable world? Did any economist respond to the question

    “In comparison to a world in which greenhouse gases were stable, rising levels of greenhouse gases by the end of the twenty-first century [will have what quantitative net effect on GDP]?”

    with a resounding “that is an ill-posed question”?

    The “size” of an economy is a socially constructed quantity. Leaving aside for the present the issue of whether the largest economy on some measure is necessarily the most desirable one, consider the fact that not just the instrument, but the quantity being measured, drifts!

    Still, it seems generally accepted that the fate of the biosphere is to be decided by the experts in this wonderland croquet.

  33. 33
    Joseph O'Sullivan says:

    #27 (Sashka) The NY Times editorial is correct about a plain reading of the Clean Air Act. The arguments in court dealt with standing and the EPA’s position that additional policy considerations outside of the CAA trumped the language of the CAA.

    #29 (Lynn Vincentnathan) AGW and endangered species have already made it to the courts, but under the Endangered Species Act. Corals were recently added to the Endangered Species Act after an environmental group filed a lawsuit. The relevant agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service, has admitted that one of the things that has been killing corals is higher than normal temperatures.

    The Center for Biological Diversity was the group that threatened to sue. They are fairly new and they love to litigate. Here’s a reuters article

  34. 34
    Doug Watts says:

    Re: 27: “I guess the current projection is that MA will lose to the tune of 15 feet along the coast line if the policy doesn’t change. With the new standards that the states want enacted this number will change to what? I’m guessing 14.8-14.9. Then the EPA inaction takes away 1-2 inches of land along the coast. Technically, it may be construed as harm but in reality this is less than any forecast uncertainty.”
    I am from coastal Massachusetts (Buzzards Bay). Buzzards Bay and many other sections of the coastline of Mass. have extensive salt marsh habitats that serve as the nursery areas for an enormous number of marine species, many of which live as adults in deeper areas. This is why salt marsh and marine estuarine habitats are protected, and in many instances, are now being restored.

    The US EPA itself has a longterm saltmarsh/estuary protection and restoration project on Buzzards Bay, the Buzzards Bay Estuary Project. It is the US EPA’s project. Its goal is to preserve and restore these critical habitats from past and ongoing anthropomorphic impacts, particularly increases in nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage, development and non-point source pollution.

    An anthropomorphic sea level rise (even a small one) due to climate change would alter and likely harm these habitats and undo the very work the US EPA is now funding to protect their ecosystem functions. So, in effect, it can be said that by the US EPA refusing to acknowledge the potential effect of climate change on these habitats (ie. due to sea level rise), the US EPA is an actor in defeating the explicit goals and purpose of its Buzzards Bay Estuary Project and all of the efforts now being undertaken by the people and towns around Buzzards Bay and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The US EPA would be the chief “culprit” in preventing its own stated protection and restoration mission from being achieved. We have met the enemy and he is us.

    Through this illustration, I think it is obvious that Massachusetts has a strong standing claim in this case. Salt marshes and shallow estuarine habitats are critical habitats for a wealth of marine fauna, many of which are economically important. These habitats are sensitive to very small changes in sea level.

    Lastly, what is at issue here is not the difference in sea level rise between a No Action model and what the states are asking for at present in CO2 reductions. That is a strawman because it puts on trial the effect of the requested reductions — rather than the EPA’s claim it has no legal authority to mandate any reductions. These are two completely different things. As far as I understand it, this case is not a debate about how much CO2 emissions should be reduced pursuant to the Clean Air Act (ie. Reduction Alternative A or B or No Action), but whether the Act gives the EPA the legal authority and responsibility to reduce them at all. That’s why it is before the Supreme Court, because it is a threshold issue of interpreting legislative intent. If this were about two CO2 reduction plans and their various costs and benefits the Supreme Court would not have accepted the case for hearing.

  35. 35
    Mark Ritzenhein says:

    I, too, am a lay reader of this blog. I hesitate to say anything except that I am left so confused by the debate and the minutiae argued over here that I cannot understand how any scientist can detect a trend of any sort. I value this site and am very glad that it exists. However, my certainties of global warming have been wrecked and wracked by doubt and seemingly-crossed data or methods argued over here. How is a non-scientist supposed to cope with this? How do scientists cope with such uncertainty? How can one stand back and reach any conclusion at all? What scientific “truths” do any of you hold to?

  36. 36
    Hank Roberts says:

    Thank you Dr. Saleska.

    Mark, if you’ve read the documents Dr. Saleska just pointed us to, you’ve got a good start. If not,

  37. 37
    Rod Brick says:

    I understand the necessity to to describe things in simple terms to try to win people over. But at some point the credibility gets undermined when one starts actually beliving that what is arguably (one of) the most difficult and complex scientific fields IS simple. ‘Cause it just ain’t, the conclusions of the self-assured not withstanding.

  38. 38
    Henry Molvar says:

    Re:35 Mark Ritzenhein I’ve been a scientist for over 40 years and the answer to your question, What scientific “truths” do any of you hold to?, will probably seem very curious and perplexing to a layman.

    My answer is that truth is in the province of religious beliefs.

    The highest certainty that science holds is accepted theory; and any theory can be overturned by new data or improved methodologies.

  39. 39
  40. 40
    Jim Dukelow says:

    Re #20 and the math error:

    Another possibility is that someone mis-transcribed a hand-written 0.3 meters (or 1 foot) into a type-script 0.9 meters. The quantitative estimate of sea level rise appears to have been replaced with a qualitative statement in the Climate Scientist’s Final Amicus Brief.

    Best regards.

    Jim Dukelow

  41. 41
    Mark Ritzenhein says:

    Perhaps I should have asked more specific questions. Thus: 1. How does one sort “noise” from “trend?” 2. Is there any certainty (underlying, tacit “belief”–let’s leave the age-old argument out here) that CO2 is warming the planet in a direct correlation (I have seen graphs of CO2 and average planetary temp from Antarctic ice cores which show an exact correlation, and I use this as the basis for my belief that the planet will become extraordinarily hotter–is this a mistaken assumption?) 3. Models always require refinement, but are current climate models reliable enough to take for granted? 4.Does scientific inquiry allow speculation for a proposed disaster date for life on this planet, due to current GW (yes, I understand the provisional and cautious nature of scientific theory)? Thank you.

  42. 42
    John L. McCormick says:

    RE # 41

    Well Mark, you have trumpted I. F Stone, a brilliant thinker and peace activist of another generation who said:

    If you expect to have you questions answered in your lifetime, you are not asking big enough questions.

    Mark, go back to reading the TAR and eagerly await the FAR.

  43. 43
    Sashka says:

    Re #34


    If the Buzzards Bay Estuary is such a sensitive a habitat as you seem to imply you can can safely assume it destroyed 100 years from now with or without EPA action. If, OTOH, it is not that sensitive then it’s hard to see haw another couple of inches would make any difference.

    Back to the court case, I’m also curious why the EPA chose to invoke the legal authority argument. IMHO it would be quite sufficient to fall back on the aforementioned judgement provision and end the debate right there ad then.

  44. 44
    Hank Roberts says:

    The argument that little changes don’t make any difference, as Justice Souter aptly remarked, is one that could be equally applied to many other government endeavors, but isn’t.

    Is there a classic logic name for the argument that small steps get nowhere, and so you might as well not move at all? it seems an odd variation of Zeno’s Paradox that I can’t quite put a name to.

  45. 45
    James says:

    Re #41: Mark, I think you’re confusing the details of climate modeling and prediction, which are complex, with the basic mechanism of CO2-caused global warming, which (at least to not-a-climate-scientist me) seems quite simple. Here’s my suitable-for-lawyers explanation:

    Exhibit A: We know from theory and measurement that when visible light strikes a surface, such as the earth, some of it is re-radiated in the infrared.

    Exhibit B: We know (because it’s been measured by experiments) that CO2 transmits visible light, but blocks infrared.

    Exhibit C: We know that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has been increasing over the last century or so, because people have measured that increase.

    Therefore, we expect the earth to get warmer as a result. If it were a nice simple system, without complications like oceans, clouds, and vegetation, we could look up the relevant formulas and easily calculate just how warm it would get. (The reason climate scientists get PhDs is so they can deal with the complications :-))

    OK, that explains why Global Warming is happening. For why the guilty party is H. sapiens, in the 20th century, with many fires,

    Exhibit D: We can calculate the amount of CO2 produced by burning fossil fuels, and it’s pretty close to the increase seen in the atmosphere. We also know of no other source (volcanos, etc) that emits anywhere close to enough CO2.

    I think that meets the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard, don’t you?

  46. 46
    Sashka says:

    Re: #43

    I have trouble following the logic here. I think you and Justice Souter argue that since the government is known to have done some stupid things in the past it follows that it is legally obligated to do other stupid things.

    This thought may have come from a top judicial mind but I humbly beg to disagree.

  47. 47
    Dano says:

    RE 32 (Tobis):

    Well said. The phrasing I often use in laypeople’s terms is: our economy is based on our current condition – if we enter a climate stage that is unprecedented, our economy will be in uncharted territory and many bets may be off.

    I would add to Mr Tobis’ perhaps the economy will “grow” in the direction of increased military activity, increased medical spending, increased spending in water management, increasing expenditures on insurance. that there may well be many climate refugees, moving to more habitable areas and competing for the resources of their new location [viz. Katrina]. A portion of our GDP will not go into investment, but into disaster relief and be largely absent from the economy, in addition to the losses incurred to infrastructure, crop yields, etc.



    [Response: Indeed, it seems that all economists except Amartya Sen and Bill Nordhaus have forgotten that, even in economics, GDP is not identitical to what is more broadly known as “welfare,” but rather is an objectively measurable statistic that is broadly believed to be loosely correlated with “welfare.” Bill Nordhaus has done work on better measures of “welfare,” but strangely does not seem to use these to any great extent in his work on economic impacts of climate change. Measureing GDP is easy, predicting GDP is hard, but coming up with a good workable quantitative definition of “welfare” is tough, let alone predicting it. –raypierre]

  48. 48
    Joseph O'Sullivan says:

    #34 (Doug Watts) #43 (Sashka)

    The salt marshes are sensitive to even small changes in sea level. Marshes exist in narrow bands and what makes the existence of salt marshes possible is their relationship to sea level. The current rates of sea level changes are slow on a human scale but ecologically very quick and these rapid changes are making it difficult for salt marshes to adapt. Thanks to Doug for reminding me about AGW and the salt marshes.

    When I was an undergraduate I took a class on wetlands ecology, and the class took field trips to sites where there were attempts to construct wetlands. There were acres of ground that were supposed to be marshes, but were completely barren because the contractors made mistakes of placing the marshes a few inches above or below sea level when.

    “IMHO it would be quite sufficient to fall back on the aforementioned judgement provision and end the debate right there ad then”.

    The reason the government did not rely on the judgment provision because the judgment provision is does not give a sufficient legal basis for not regulating CO2. The Clear Air Act is clearly states the EPA is to regulate substances that are harmful when released into the air.

    There is one provision in the CAA that states that the head of the EPA has discretion, but when the whole law is read this discretion is very limited. The government and industry lawyers know this and so aren’t making it a focus of their argument.

    “what is at issue here is not the difference in sea level rise between a No Action model and what the states are asking for at present in CO2 reductions”

    There are legal technicalities that make this a critical issue. The states and enviro’s are suing the EPA to force the EPA to act. To have the right to sue (standing) they have to show that the the regulation of CO2 from cars in the U.S. will reduce harms caused by AGW. This is tough for the states and enviro’s. If they don’t have the right to sue they can’t force the EPA to regulate CO2, not matter how harmful it is. Thats why standing is a focus of the government’s case.

  49. 49
    cat black says:

    One gets the sense from this forum and others that while people are generally opposed to the idea of even minute levels of suspected carcinogens being released into the environment, or vague kinds of accidents or product safety issues, they are less sensitive to small changes in an existing component like CO2 or methane that is not itself a health threat but which, at sufficient levels, will someday certainly change life as we know it in ways as yet uncertain. This is much like the fear we exhibit regarding the appearance of a single mountain lion at the edge of a neighborhood, which brings out armed police, while the ravages of introduced exotic species on native flora and fauna, to their eventual extinction and the destruction of vast areas of natural habitat of inculculable value and beauty, hardly raises a ripple.

    We are “self centered” in that we fear for our lives and demand great societal intervention even if the threat is very remote or abstract, while we are far less concerned with a general destruction of our environment or indeed of other peoples not our own.

    Of course this is all chalked up to that old buggaboo “human nature” which, if we are to take that as our inescapable reality, means we are both irreducibly stupid and profoundly callous, and therefore whatever happens next in our drunken careen toward personal profit and shared indifference is probably simply our just due. Though of course the suffering being debated will happen not to me or my family or anyone reading this, but to countless poor and uneducated peoples unable to comprehend what has just taken place. I see their faces in the future and I harden against the idea that we can endure AGW impacts just fine.

    Some of us will endure, and some of us may die by the hundreds of millions a lingering death of starvation and disease in places not of our birth, confused and lost, homeless and alone and torn from family and clan and land, weeping in self-doubt not knowing what we personally did to deserve such a gristly end and the slow destruction of everything we ever knew or thought could endure beyond our short days.

    Put that in your denialist pipe and smoke it, for all the pleasure it gives you.


  50. 50
    Ike Solem says:

    There is another aspect to this, which is the relationship between coal-fired power plant emissions, CO2 emissions and a whole host of associated air pollutants, including mercury, arsenic, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide species. The problem seems to be that the legal definitions of the matter exist in a different realm then the basic science involved.

    The notion of a ‘threshold’ is what’s scientifically questionable. The EPA tries to set safe thresholds for pollutants, but that notion doesn’t make sense. Would you sprinkle a little arsenic, sulfur and mercury on your dinner plate, even if the EPA assured you that ‘you were beneath threshold’? Probably not, right? Now some people at the EPA seem to be trying in good faith to set a ‘threshold’ for CO2 in the atmosphere, which is laudable from the regulatory standpoint, since it provides a legal support for efforts to reduce CO2 emissions and move towards renewable energy as a replacement for fossil fuel energy.

    As far as certainty and uncertainty in climate science, it seems to me the largest uncertainty by far is going to be human behavior over the next few decades, which is a subject for which no equation exists. The best science can do (and this is what the IPCC does) is construct climate scenarios for different human behaviors.

    It’s somewhat reminscent of Richard Feynman’s examination of the Challenger disaster, in which he asked engineers and managers to write down estimates of the the possibility of failure. The manager wrote down “0% chance of failure” and the engineers wrote down things like “1 in a 1000”. (I think the data to date shows 1% chance of failure for every launch). Still, a lawyer would say “I want absolute, unrefutable proof that the space shuttle is not safe”- that’s a legal argument, not a scientific one. What’s the scientific measure of ‘safe’? Perhaps the real failure is that of basic scientific education in this country.

    Global warming is happening; the only real questions that are being asked are ‘how fast’ and ‘how far’? It’s the human variable that presents the greatest uncertainty in answering such questions. The accumulating evidence doesn’t look good – scientists used to think it’d take the Greenland Ice Sheet 1000 years to melt, and I believe the more recent estimates are on the order of 100 years (under B-A-U scenarios). Then you have the increased incidence of deadly heat waves, the shrinking artic sea ice, the disintegrating antarctice ice shelves, the melting tropical glaciers, the warming oceans, the responses of plants and animals to new climate regimes, low-oxygen water masses and changes in ocean circulation, intense and frequent hurricanes, historically erratic weather patterns, softening permafrost… I mean, what more do you need?

    The only rational thing to do is to try and reduce CO2 emissions by 70% or so as fast as possible on a global scale, while continuing to monitor the climate system in as much detail as possible. You’d think that any rational person would want that information, but the truth is that some finanical and political interests are actually eager for a lack of information (otherwise why hack the climate satellite funding?).