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Coal made its best case against climate change, and lost

Posted on 11 May 2016 by dana1981

Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private sector coal company (now bankrupt), recently faced off against environmental groups in a Minnesota court case. The case was to determine whether the State of Minnesota should continue using its exceptionally low established estimates of the ‘social cost of carbon’, or whether it should adopt higher federal estimates. 

The social cost of carbon is an estimate of how much the damages from carbon pollution cost society via climate change damages. In theory, it represents how much the price of fossil fuels should increase to reflect their true costs.

The coal company called forth witnesses that represented the fringe 2–3% of experts who reject the consensus that humans are the primary cause of global warming, including Roy Spencer and Richard Lindzen, while their opposition invited witnesses like Andrew Dessler and John Abraham who represent the 97% expert consensus.

John Abraham previously summarized the proceedings and ruling in favor of the higher carbon cost estimates, but it’s worth delving into some of the details of the climate science and economics arguments to see why the judge ruled against the coal company and its contrarian witnesses. The losing case from the coal company witnesses (rebutted by John Abraham here and here) can be summarized as follows:

  • Warming has been less than models predicted [False]
  • This means the climate’s sensitivity to the increased greenhouse effect is low [False]
  • Carbon pollution is great anyway and should be subsidized, not taxed [False]

In between these primary arguments, Peabody coal’s witnesses made a variety of false and/or conspiratorial statements, dredging up numerous long-debunked climate myths.

Climate models get global warming right

Much of the coal witnesses’ testimony focused on recent global temperatures. The testimony was written before 2015 shattered the previous global temperature record, which had been set just a year earlier, and now 2016 is on pace to break the record once again. This record-breaking new reality invalidates much of their testimony, but much of it was inaccurate to begin with. For example, at one point Roy Spencer claimed:

we now stand at 18 years without warming in the real climate system.

This statement is unequivocally false. Over the past 18 years the surface has warmed, the atmosphere has warmed, the oceans have warmed, ice has melted, sea levels have risen, and so on. Even Spencer’s own satellite data showed that the atmosphere had most likely warmed over the cherry-picked 18-year period in question. Anyone can easily check the warming trends with this useful tool.

Spencer also presented a number of graphs comparing observed and modeled temperature data – graphs that have never been subjected to peer-review. These graphs were intended to dispute the accuracy of climate models, but the reality is that these models have proven their reliability and accuracy, as I show in my bookClimatology versus Pseudoscience. NASA GISS Director Gavin Schmidt recentlydetailed the problems with these “misleading” graphs.

Wishful thinking won’t change physical climate sensitivity

Spencer and Lindzen both claimed that a growing body of research suggests the climate is much less sensitive to the increasing greenhouse effect than the IPCC report concluded. This is a clear-cut case of cherry picking, as is evident simply by understanding that the IPCC report takes all research into consideration, including studies with relatively low (and high) climate sensitivity estimates.

While some recent studies have suggested a relatively low climate sensitivity, those studies have generally not withstood scientific scrutiny or the test of time, and other recent studies have suggested a relatively high climate sensitivity. The latter were completely ignored by the coal witnesses.

To argue for a low sensitivity, Lindzen even went as far as to reference a paper he published in 2001 hypothesizing that clouds will act to slow global warming.Within a year, four separate studies had found errors in the hypothesis and/or identified contradictory evidence. Again, the hypothesis simply hasn’t withstood scientific scrutiny or the test of time.

Ultimately Lindzen admitted that the coal company case relied upon trusting the 3% of fringe contrarian scientists and ignoring the expert consensus as summarized in the IPCC report:

All of this [opposition] testimony is flawed to the extent it simply relies on … predictions by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change … today the best evidence indicates that … a much lower climate sensitivity value of 1°C or 1.5°C is correct

In other words, trust these outlier scientists’ judgment about what evidence is “best” and ignore the expert consensus. The judge did not find this argument compelling.

Carbon pollution is bad

Incredibly, the coal company actually made the case that carbon pollution is so terrific, we should be subsidizing it:

Because the initial impacts of climate change are positive, due to carbon dioxide fertilization, reduced winter heating, and few cold-related deaths, the social cost of carbon is negative for the highest discount rates, that is, carbon dioxide emissions should be subsidized rather than taxed.

This testimony came from the same economist wrote the following in showing that further global warming will hurt the economy:

Most countries benefitted from climate change until 1980, but after that the trend is negative for poor countries and positive for rich countries. The global average impact was positive in the 20th century. In the 21st century, impacts turn negative in most countries, rich and poor.

In short, carbon generally ‘fertilizes’ plants, which is good, but carbon pollution also causes climate change, which leads to more extreme weather like heat waves and droughts, which are not so good for crops or most species in general. We’re already well beyond the point where the costs are outweighing the benefits.

5 telltale signs of coal’s science denial

Lindzen’s testimony in particular included numerous long-debunked climate myths, for example denying that the increase in atmospheric carbon is wholly due to human activities. It also included conspiratorial thinking with regards to the global temperature record:

it is highly suspicious that “adjustments” almost invariably produce results that favor advocates of a certain camp … Under these circumstances, the recent attempt by Karl et al (2015) to adjust data so as to eliminate the so-called ‘pause’ of the last 18 years is suspect ab initio.

The coal testimony thus checked off each of the 5 telltale signs of science denial:

  • Fake experts, for example inviting William Happer, who has never published a peer-reviewed climate study, to testify that carbon pollution is lovely;
  • Logical fallacies, for example claiming that past natural climate changes imply that the current change is natural;
  • Impossible expectations, requiring that climate models must be perfect;
  • Cherry picking, ignoring the vast body of data and research contradicting their every argument; and
  • Conspiracy theories, suggesting that scientists are fudging the contradictory data.

Ultimately, the judge was able to see the difference between science and denial, concluding:

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Comments 1 to 8:

  1. Thanks for giving the background on the Minnesota lawsuit. I have been wondering why the case was in court.  My expectation is that if other GHG lawsuits get to court they will have a similar outcome.  The 'fossil fuel' scientists are too few and too old.

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  2. Thanks for the article and the graphics, I enjoyed the description of the law suit as well.  We have been discussing the direct impacts of coal burning in my climate change course, which makes this article very relevant for me.  Not only that, but we have also discussed the idea of social costs (by looking at K. William Kapp's writings on the subject), and I enjoyed the fact that you touched on that.  It seems like if the true social costs inflicted by fossil fuel burning were made to be answered for by the companies who do it, no one would want to use this method for energy because of the massive costs.  In a perfect world, the giant subsidies could go toward sustainable forms of energy instead.  I don't know if this can ever happen in the United States in time.  

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  3. I'm surprised the contrarians were even allowed to testify given the rules of evidence. Possibly Minnesota is less strict than the federal court system, but generally only well established science can be presented.

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  4. Coal was a great step forward, 200 years ago, it brought us out of the era of wiping out forests for fuel, 12 hour workdays and travel by horse for the wealthy or by foot for the rest. Today's problems are mosqito bites compared to the harshness of life then, and fossil fuel provided the physical energy undelying that change. 

    Coal's time has now passed, we need to move away from carbon fuels (unless some clever soul figures out how to economically capture  C02 emissions). We also need to reduce the world population unless we are willing to live with conflicts and poorer lives, but that is not a popular thought and probably never will be. 

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  5. DrivingBy@4,

    There is an even less popular point regarding population.

    The highest consuming and highest impacting portion of the population is what needs to be reduced.

    My preference would be for the most fortunate among humanity to be expected and required to be leaders of the advancement of humanity to a lasting better future for all. Anyone uninterested in being that kind of person, preferring to live life as a partying spectator, would choose to give up the opportunity for the life of a leader (and find the wealthier life opportunity unavailable to them no matter how tricky or secretive they tried to be).

    The current system that excuses (and encourages) known to be unacceptable behaviour if it can be gotten away with, especially if it can be popular and profitable, clearly fails the needs of the future of humanity (as it focuses on meeting the desires of the most callous among us).

    Total global wealth and food production has grown more rapidly than the population yet a significant portion of the global population still live short horrible existences. That clearly needs to change.

    The elimination of the ability of the already most fortunate to continue to enjoy their undeserved perceptions of prosperity is a step in the right direction. It is a step that will need to be taken affirmatively by humanity in spite of the potential reactions from those who would try to fight against losing their ability to win rewards by behaving unacceptably.

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  6. @ OPOF

    We can easily agree here: "There is an even less popular point regarding population."

    I think you'll find that the rest is not a new idea, and is a hard sell. I was a bit off topic in my post, so I'll not pull the it further OT.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Thank you. This thread is indeed drifting offtopic.

  7. For 30 years, Richard Lindzen has been criticizing the Climate Models under apparently no pressure to offer a prediction alternative.  Imagine Opthalmologist Lindzen ordering a patch on your one good eye because it wasn't seeing 20/20: "Trust me!  You're better off blind!"

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  8. A number of people here are misunderstanding the nature of the proceedings. An adminstrative court hears evidence,  takes submissions,  takes testimony and cross examination, etc. but is not a "case" in the TV sense. In this case, the hearing is prescribed by legislation to write a legal opinion on evidence provided about a specific point (the social cost of coal) for the consideration of a higher body which will make the final decision.

    It is an important step. But in no way was coal found "guilty". The finding is that on the preponderance of evidence (a criterion much lower than beyond a reasonable doubt) the evidence provided by the high social cost side is correct and that the evidence provided by the deniers was not correct. It's a beginning, but there is a very, very long way to go on the legal front.

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