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Michaels and Cato Unwittingly Accept the Climate Threat

Posted on 30 June 2012 by dana1981

As we know, it is absolutely critical that we reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as much as possible, as soon as possible, to minimize the damage that climate change will do.  Thus the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) endangerment finding - which concluded that GHGs are pollutants as defined by the Clean Air Act and must therefore be regulated - is a critical document.  Although there have been steps taken by individual states (i.e. RGGI and California) to regulate GHG emissions, we have had little success in implementing measures to reduce emissions on a national level, other than piecemeal steps like higher vehicle fuel efficiency standards which are often implemented for other non-climate reasons.  There are of course many individuals who oppose the EPA endangerment finding for two main reasons, (i) they oppose any steps to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and (ii) they oppose any government regulations. 

Unfortunately the American political party environmental policy positions have shifted.  In the 1980s, political liberals tended to favor government regulation as the solution to environmental problems, while political conservatives in the Reagan and Bush administrations came up with the concept of cap and trade systems to use the free market to solve them.  To the conservatives' credit, cap and trade systems have worked remarkably well - the up-front costs were much lower than originally predicted, and they have saved Americans tens to hundreds of billions of dollars.   Now cap and trade is the favored solution to GHG emissions amongst political liberals in the USA, while the conservatives who originated the concept now generally oppose it, instead choosing to reject climate science and deny the problem exists at all.

Since these conservatives have successfully blocked attempts to implement a cap and trade or other carbon pricing system, we are left with government regulation (via the EPA and its endangerment finding) as the only alternative to reduce GHG emissions from large emitters.  Into this scene enter serial data deleter Patrick Michaels and his fossil fuel-funded Cato Institute political think tank, which have released a voluminous report attempting to undermine the endangerment finding, with their misguided efforts of course being promoted by the usual climate denial enablers.

In this post, we will examine some of the key findings in the Cato report and demonstrate how they are flawed, and that Michaels and Cato unwittingly acknowledge that the EPA is correct about the threat of human-caused climate change in the process.

Global Warming is Primarily Human-Caused

The EPA endangerment finding was based on several major climate science reports, such as the IPCC report and the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) report Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States.  The USGCRP report listed 10 key findings which Michaels and Cato have 'tweaked' to reflect their own perception of the science.  The first key finding of each:

USGCRP: Global warming is unequivocal and primarily human-induced.

Cato: Climate change is unequivocal and human activity plays some part in it.

In other words, Michaels and Cato dispute that humans are the primary cause of the 20th Century global warming/climate change.  To support this position, they refer to page 16 of their report, which essentially just rehashes the myth that because the 1910-1945 rate of warming was similar to that since 1975, the latter warming may be natural.

"The first warming is not likely to be associated with greenhouse gas changes, and the lack of statistically significant warming since 1996, which is concurrent with the greatest increases in greenhouse gases, is of unknown importance at this time."

As it so happens, there were significant human GHG emissions in the early 20th Century, which caused atmospheric CO2 levels to rise from 300 to 310 parts per million by volume (ppmv) from 1910 to 1945.  This CO2 rise alone would have caused approximately 0.1°C surface warming, which is approximately 20% of the total observed warming during that period.

More importantly, the Cato argument is intellectually lazy, because it fails to actually examine the causes of these warming periods.  A number of climate scientists have conducted attribution studies and universally find that while the 1910-1945 warming was predominantly caused by natural effects (i.e. increasing solar activity and an extended period of low volcanic activity), the warming over the past 50 years has been dominated by human GHG emissions (Figure 1).

HvA 50 years

Figure 1: Net human and natural percent contributions to the observed global surface warming over the past 50-65 years according to Tett et al. 2000 (T00, dark blue), Meehl et al. 2004 (M04, red), Stone et al. 2007 (S07, green), Lean and Rind 2008 (LR08, purple), Huber and Knutti 2011 (HK11, light blue), and Gillett et al. 2012 (G12, orange).

And of course while the warming since 1996 (this date being selected with a juicy cherrypick) may not quite be statistically significant at a 95% confidence level, surface temperatures have most likely warmed approximately 0.2°C over the past 15 years - a fact which Cato and Michaels conveniently neglect to mention.

In short, on this point the  USGCRP report and EPA endangerment finding are based on a sound review of all the scientific evidence, while Michaels' Cato argument is based on two characteristics of scientific denialism - misrepresentation and logical fallacies, and cherrypicking.

More Michaels Logical Fallacies

In fact, misrepresentation and logical fallacies are the preferred method by which Michaels and Cato dispute the USGCRP report and EPA endangerment finding.  For example, in response to the conclusion that climate change will stress water sources, Michaels and Cato argue that water sources have been stressed in the past, and therefore will be stressed in the future "with or without human-induced climate change."  While this is certainly a true statement, it does not follow that we should increase the frequency and magnitude of water resource stress by increasing evaporation, drought frequency, water loss from plants, etc., as the USGCRP report notes will occur as human-induced climate change increases.

Similarly, while the USGCRP report notes that continuing climate change will cause various thresholds to be crossed, leading to large changes in ecosystems, Michaels and Cato respond again by saying that ecosystems will change with or without human-induced climate change.  Again, it does not follow that we should increase the frequency and magnitude at which a dangerous event happens just because this type of event will eventually happen naturally.

While this is a glaring logical fallacy, Michaels and Cato follow with perhaps an even greater fallacy, arguing that climate change does not pose a threat because we may be able to adapt to it.

Mitigation, Adaptation, and Suffering

Throughout the report, Michaels takes a similar position as that espoused by his colleague Chip Knappenberger with regards to heat fatalities.  In fact, Michaels references the same paper as Knappenberger when making this argument, which the two co-authored with Robert Davis in 2003.

The long and short of it is that the EPA endangerment finding is predicated on the fact that human-caused climate change poses a threat to public health and welfare, but Michaels and Cato argue that it's not a threat because we can adapt to it.  As one example (though the Cato report contains many other similar arguments) they point to their Davis et al. (2003) paper which argues that heat-related deaths are less common in hotter cities.  From this Knappenberger actually argued that more frequent heat waves will actually lead to fewer heat-related deaths, which is another rather glaring logical fallacy, and also not borne out by the data.

However, the most glaring logical fallacy here involves the conclusion that climate change does not pose a threat because we can adapt to it.  In reality, if climate change did not pose a threat, we would not need to adapt to it.  For example, the only reason people would need to adapt to more frequent heat waves is because they pose a threat to human welfare.

As Lonnie Thompson put it, "The only question is how much we will mitigate, adapt, and suffer" to human-caused climate change.  Adaptation has a cost, and a much greater overall cost than mitigation, but the point that Michaels and Cato miss is that the possibility that we may be able to adapt to a threat does not negate the existence of that threat - quite the contrary.  We may or may not be able to successfully adapt to those threats, but that question is predicated on the fact that the threats exist, and therefore the EPA endangerment finding is correct. 

By arguing that climate change poses threats that we may be able to adapt to, Michaels and Cato have unwittingly acknowledged that the EPA is right to regulate GHG emissions due to the threat they pose to public welfare.

The Tragedy of the Cato

The final USGCRP 'key finding' notes that "future climate change and its impacts will depend on choices made today", effectively echoing the conclusions of the Australian Climate Commission's The Critical Decade report that we are running out of time to sufficiently reduce our GHG emissions.  Michaels and Cato responded by claiming that developed nations' emissions reductions won't matter, because our emissions will be dwarfed by those from developing nations like China.

This is of course the CO2 limits will make little difference 'Tragedy of the Commons' myth.  In reality, developing nations like China are making efforts to limit their GHG emissions growth, because they recognize the threat posed by human-caused climate change.  However, developing nations understandably want developed nations - which are responsible for most of the human-caused climate change thus far - to lead the way in emissions reductions.  If developed nations like the USA sit on our hands and say "our emissions don't matter," then China will have no incentive to reduce their emissions either.  This is an example of Tragedy of the Commons whereby everybody looks out for their own best interests at the detriment of the collective best interest.

Every nation can say "our emissions by themselves are too small to matter," and if everybody takes this approach, nobody will reduce emissions.  This is why we need international climate agreements in which all nations commit to reducing their emissions.  However, the USA (which should be leading the way as the largest historical emitter) cannot commit to serious emissions reduction goals if groups like Cato are successful in undermining climate legislation on a national level.

It's an effective Catch-22.  Cato argues that US emissions won't matter because China's emissions will be too large, China won't commit to emissions reductions unless the USA leads the way, and the USA can't lead the way with groups like Cato successfully undermining national climate legislation.

Until US policymakers move beyond the Cato-style climate logical fallacies, the EPA regulation of large GHG emitters via the endangerment finding is the only large-scale emissions reductions effort we have.  Instead of using the characteristics of scientific denialism to deny the threat exists, the Cato Institute should return to its conservative roots and support a free market solution to the problem via a carbon pricing mechanism.  In the meantime, the climate threat will only continue to grow until it eventually reaches the point where it becomes undeniable - but at that point it may be too late to avoid the suffering Lonnie Thompson has warned us about.

Note: A federal appeals court this week emphatically upheld the endangerment finding, concluding that the EPA was “unambiguously correct” that the Clean Air Act requires the federal government to impose limits once it has determined that emissions are causing harm.  In a blow to climate contrarians like Michaels and Cato, the judges wrote "This is how science works.  EPA is not required to re-prove the existence of the atom every time it approaches a scientific question."

Note also that Judith Curry has attempted to critique this post, but did not raise any substantive criticisms, and seems to have missed the point entirely.  Chris Colose does however raise some substantive criticisms of the Cato report in the comments beginning here.

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Comments 1 to 21:

  1. "To the conservatives' credit, cap and trade systems have worked remarkably well"

    This is actually less clear than the general popular impression. The usual example is acid rain control in North America. Roger Backhouse, a highly competent intellectual historian specializing in history of economics, has a good discussion of the acid rain program in his recent book, The Puzzle of Modern Economics. While Backhouse guardedly endorses the success of the cap-and-trade model in this case, he is careful to specify that evaluating cap-and-trade success for acid rain control is confounded by other important developments, notably the fact that abatement technology proved considerably less expensive than projected. David Hounshell, a specialist in history of technology, has pointed out that pollution regulatory regimes have consistently prompted the development of improved and less expensive abatement technologies. Its plausible that any regulation of acid rain, cap and trade or not, would have led to better abatement technologies.

    Its worth remembering that the only modest success in GHG mitigation to date is banning CFCs, a piece of outright regulation.
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  2. "This is how science works. EPA is not required to re-prove the existence of the atom every time it approaches a scientific question."


    I'm deep into investigating how mitigation is way less expensive than BAU, for that is the deniers' latest meme. Thanks dana, for the excellent article.
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  3. vroomie, see the CO2 limits will harm the economy rebuttal. I'll probably have another post on mitigation vs. adaption next week, but it will mostly be a re-tread of the information in that rebuttal.
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  4. The "changing our way is too expensive and will kill the economy" motto is a most common line of argument among deniers that goes back as far as the lead paint battle.

    The reasoning is deeply flawed and an acknowledgment of failure from those using it. They often try it when everything else has failed. It is a last ditch attempt to show that the benefit does not outweigh the cost, by trying to inflate the cost in ridiculous proportions. The implicit acceptance that the action proposed have the benefits presented by their proponents is worth noting.

    Usually, the costs they argue are so removed from all thoughtful estimates that it's not even near plausible. Sallie Baliunas argued that phasing out CFCs would cost "trillions" of dollars. Interestingly, so far this century the only thing that has cost trillions of dollars was the financial fiasco that came crashing down in 2008.
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  5. Naomi Oreskes "Merchants of Doubt" documents well the past cases of "skeptics" saying that it is too expensive to reduce/ limit some harmful activity. History has shown that the advocates of buisiness as usual were mostly wrong regarding the cost-benefit equation faovoring waiting.

    And on the "hey, we'll just adapt" (non)strategy for dealing with climate change we now have the CEO of Exxon-Mobil. It could be interesting to see the responses of various "skeptics" to this deviation from the "it's not us" script.
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  6. Roger - indeed, we'll have a post on the Exxon CEO comments in the near future.
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  7. "...the lack of statistically significant warming since 1996... is of unknown importance at this time."

    Michaels seemed to have a better idea of how important it was when he addressed the Heartland conference a few years ago:

    "What happened, and this is why this argument is so very, very dangerous, is that solar activity and the La Nina we're in now [He was speaking in 2008] have conspired to add up to produce very, very little temperature change in the last couple of years. What's going to happen is, one of these years, that's going to turn around. If you make that argument now, you're going to have a very, very difficult time defending the future.

    Global warming is real and the second warming of the 20th century- people have something to do with it. Get over it."
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  8. Apparently Michaels circa 2008 was a lot smarter than Michaels circa 2012!
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  9. To "ralbin" on cap and trade, just a point of logic, if a cap and trade policy is instituted then the price of abatement is unexpectedly less, that does not reduce the effectiveness of the cap and trade as without it the abatement may have not been tried therefore the cheapness never realised. In fact the cap and trade success is not 'confounded", it is strengthened.
    Whether regulatory control is better has to take into account the reduced political support for it so reducing the likelihood that it will be imposed.
    No doubt the solution will vary from case to case, and each measure adds to the general success, (or lowers the speed to more warming, more properly said) but cap and trade is easier to spread across borders into different political realities as it uses common principles, - ie money etc.
    Geoff Thomas.
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  10. I don't think it matters if other policies for reducing acid rain would have been just as effective. What matters on this point is that Cap and Trade uses market forces and was implemented by the Republican Party (i.e. Conservatives). One of the key problems we face is dealing with those whose ideologies may lead them to doubt global warming because they believe/have been told it is only a way to implement government based (taxes and/or straight regulation) solutions. If it can be shown that market or conservative initiated solutions can be used, those who are open to rational argument may be more open to the science.

    This doesn't mean a variety of methods cannot be be effective but anything that gets a reluctant person to be more open to the science is a worthwhile point to make.
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  11. BTW, I do realize that some conservatives will still see Cap and Trade mean too much government intervention in markets. can't win them all with one strategy...but's Ronnie Reagan...the Gipper. It's hard for conservatives to call him a socialist leader who was seeking one world government.
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  12. rugbyguy59 @10 has it right. There are in fact myriad ways to switch to a low carbon economy. Some have advantages over others in some areas, but compensating flaws so that, from a purely economic point of view, there is no clear advantage to any particular method. The difficulty, then, is not the method chosen but the political will to choose any method. If we can increase that will by adopting a particular method, then that is sufficient to make that method the best option.
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  13. "People have been died in the past from diseases, therefore they'll die in the future, therefore we shouldn't bother investing in drugs".

    Isn't that following exactly the same logic as Michaels, or did I miss something?
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  14. Mark, I presume Michaels would argue that drug development is one way we've adapted to various diseases. For example, they want to adapt to increasing heat waves by installing more air conditioning units and other similar infrastructure. The logic is that instead of preventing the problem, you adapt to it.

    My analogy was that instead of reducing gun violence, you just hand out bullet proof vests.
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  15. It's not a good idea to compare 'acid rain' to CO2.

    Combating acid rain and smog meant higher emissions standards for cars, and adding some pollutant sequestering to factories etc. expensive - but doable - with roughly predictable outcomes.

    There is no such thing as CO2 sequestration that works within economic thresholds. CO2 sequestration uses enormous amounts of energy. Otherwise, capping CO2 would radically increase the price of energy, making it's way into everything you consume.

    The changes would be drastic and overwhelming - in Europe, where energy prices are high for a variety of reasons - transportation is a problem. Fortunately, they live close to one another, and they can travel by train, or small car.
    Trains in America would be uneconomical. We live in suburbs, extraburbs, not city centers. We have more extreme weather (in Germany, few people have air-conditioning, though that might be possible in Cali, certainly not in the east).

    Cap and Trade in any significant fashion would utterly devastate the Economies in North America and many other places.

    Finally, two things:

    - First, If you really want to help, instead of [inflamatory snipped] - perhaps you could be working on actual methods for alleviating the problem. As it stands solar, wind and other renewables - do not work in an economical fashion. (I have a friend who works at GE financing the projects) - they don't add up - and never will. After 40 years of R&D and investment, solar is still a mess. If it were economical, Wallmart would be happy to sell panels and they would be on every roof in America.

    Nuclear Energy could otherwise be relatively clean and safe, if we could determine a means to operate these engines in an alternative matter, our CO2 woes would evaporate.

    - Second - I must say I appreciate this site very much, however it has done little to debunk my mild skepticism of climate change. In fact - it has only added to my skepticism. In the comment sections of each of the supposed debunking points you'll find some intelligent rebuttal to each of the points.

    I'm not a climatologist, therefore I can't integrate any new arguments, but I have a strong grasp of logic and I can assure you there is as much bias on this site as any other. There's some classical rhetorical problems on this site, arguments chasing their tails.

    The 'CO2 trails Temperature' over the 400K period explanations are particularly entertaining in that, however plausible the theory, it is woefully incomplete, and does not match the current rhetoric of climate change within the last 40 years.

    As an intellectual exercise, I would urge the author to take the position of the devil's advocate, and spend a few weeks debunking climate change as passionately as he is promoting the concept - because your eyes will open to the rather large gaping 'blind spots' in so many of the arguments.
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    Moderator Response: [Dikran Marsupial] Inflamatory snipped. Note it is somewhat ironic that you talk of rhetorical problems and then describe explanations as "entertaining" (which comes accross as a rhetorical dismissal of those arguments, without a solid counter-argument). There are many websites where rhetorical argument is allowed, this isn't one of them. Please stick to the science, and please read the comments policy.
  16. jomamax:

    I'm sure you can provide some specifics, such as:

    (a) citations from economic and political science literature backing up your claims regarding the alleged 'devastating effects' of reducing fossil fuel emissions. Ideally on a thread where it is more on topic.

    (b) citations from the scientific literature backing up your so-called skepticism on the science. Again, preferably on topical threads.

    Contrarians and pseudoskeptics alike continually make sweeping, grandiose claims in a vein similar to yours and then continually neglect backing them up with substantial evidence. One wonders why this is.
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    Moderator Response: [Dikran Marsupial] Please can we all try to keep the discussion as civil as possible. Jomamax has now been tasked to provide support for the assertions he has made (on appropriate threads), lets see what he/she provides, and discuss the science behind it.
  17. Jomamax @ 14 you are incorrect on many points in your comment.

    For starters, carbon cap and trade systems and taxes have been implemented without the skyrocketing costs. For example, see Europe, British Columbia, and RGGI. Note that the latter two are in North America.

    Additionally, solar is already economical. I've got a leased solar system on my roof right now that's not costing me any more than standard electricity rates. Solar PV prices are dropping rapidly, and wind is already cheap.

    And I'm well aware of the "skeptic" climate arguments, thanks.
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  18. dana1981,

    I stopped by to point you to a recent Eos op-ed about making the data available that are used to construct the figures in AGU publications. The point being that others could more easily “use the results” of the published papers. This would alleviate the issue of which data others wanted to use (or graph) and thus largely eliminate your concerns about “deleting data” from graphics as they were originally published.

    But, along the way, I came upon this article. And I thought I should point out a correction. The Davis et al. (2003) is not referencing a paper published in Climate Research, but from Environmental Health Perspectives (as you should very well know since you provided a link to it in your article you linked to in this piece).

    Hopefully you can clarify this for your readers.


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    Moderator Response:

    [DB] For those unacquainted with Eos, Eos is the AGU member newspaper. It is not a journal and does not publish original research results. FYI.

    Fixed link.

  19. Moderator (#18),

    I offered the Eos op-ed as a further support to my opinion that dana1981's "serial data deleter" description is more bark than bite.

    And, as to the contents of this article, these sentences are unfactual :

    “…which coincidentally was one of the Climate Research 'pal review' papers we recently discussed.”


    “…they point to their Davis et al. (2003) 'pal review' paper…”

    The Davis et al. (2003) paper appeared in Environmental Health Perspectives and had nothing to do with Mashey’s analysis.

    Thanks in advance for setting the record straight.

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  20. Chip Knappenberger - I have replied in the more appropriate thread.
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  21. Moderator,

    Thanks for taking care of once instance, but a second instance still remains:

    "they point to their Davis et al. (2003) 'pal review' paper which argues that heat-related deaths are less common in hotter cities."

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