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Congressional Climate Briefing - The End of Climate Skepticism?

Posted on 19 November 2011 by dana1981

On 14 November 2011, the US Congress Natural Resources Committee held a briefing called "Undeniable Data: The Latest Research on Global Temperature and Climate Science" (video recording available here).  The briefing was held by Representatives Ed Markey (D-MA) and Henry Waxman (D-CA), who were the architects behind the Waxman-Markey climate bill (a.k.a. the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009) previously analyzed by Skeptical Science.  It's worth remembering that the Waxman-Markey legislation was passed by the US House of Representatives, and the USA would have a carbon pricing system in place if Senate Republicans hadn't exploited the filibuster rule to prevent similar legislation from going to a vote in the Senate.

During the subsequent 2010 elections, the Democrats lost their majority control of the House of Representatives.  Since gaining control, Congressional Republicans have held one climate hearing, and mostly invited climate "skeptics" to testify.  As a result, the climate hearing resulted in a compilation of climate myths and misinformation, economic myths, and the participants seemed uninterested in learning from the proceedings.  The Republicans have since refused all Democrat requests for further climate hearings, which is why Waxman and Markey held a less formal briefing in this case. Rep. Waxman also noted that the Republican-controlled House

has voted 21 times to block actions to address climate change, including a vote to deny that "climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities and poses significant risks for public health and welfare."

Unfortunately, the Republican anti-climate science trend continued, as no Republican congressmen attended this briefing.  Rep. Waxman also commented that while the Republicans have claimed that it's Congress' job, not the EPA's, to regulate carbon emissions, Congress has refused to do so, and that while they claim that "the science isn't settled," they refuse to hold climate hearings to learn about the science. 

The Republican justification for missing this briefing was that they are focusing “on creating jobs and promoting common-sense solutions that protect both the environment and the economy.”  However, climate change and its solutions are inextricably linked with jobs and the economy, and how are policymakers to come up with "common-sense solutions" if they remain in the dark about climate change and its impacts?  Moreover, Congressional Republicans have recently found the time to debate the reaffirmation of the national motto "In God We Trust," whether to mint a commemorative coin for Major League Baseball, and to allow Americans from states which allow concealed weapons to conceal them in states which do not allow them.  Surely devoting an hour or two to holding a climate hearing is more important than these other issues for which they have managed to find the time in their busy schedules.

The scientific experts at Monday's briefing were Dr. Richard Muller of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project; Dr. Ben Santer, an expert on climate change attribution; and Dr. Bill Chameides, vice chair of the National Academy of Sciences' Committee on America's Climate Choices.  Dr. Chameides has provided a summary of the briefing here.

Dr. Muller spoke first regarding his skepticism of global warming two years ago, but the BEST project confirmed the accuracy of the surface temperature record and put his concerns to rest.  Dr. Muller distinguished between true skeptics and closed-minded deniers, and stated that those who continue to deny that global warming is happening fall into the latter category.  Dr. Muller's implication that we should only accept the reality of global warming now that his project has confirmed it for the umpteenth time rankled Dr. Chameides a bit:

He seemed to imply that all scientists should have been skeptics like him before his study, and that he's the only one to have taken skeptics' criticisms seriously and actually investigated their claims....Did those other scientists [who previously investiaged these issues] violate some sacred principle of scientific skepticism by accepting their own exhaustive studies' results without having waited for Muller to come along with his study? Certainly not.

Nevertheless, Muller's contribution adds a welcome and independent piece of evidence on global warming, evidence that has been accumulating over many decades of scientific study.

Dr. Muller expressed similar doubt about the magnitude of the human contribution to global warming (although he noted uncertainty cuts both ways, and the human contribution could be even larger than we think), and suggested that natural oceanic cycles and solar activity could be playing a larger role in global warming than climate scientists believe.  As with the temperature record two years ago, Dr. Muller is expressing "skepticism" about subjects which he has not personally researched.  However, other scientists like Dr. Santer have thoroughly researched the causes of global warming.

Dr. Chameides called Dr. Santer's presentation "a tour de force."  In it, Dr. Santer discussed the various "fingerprints" of man-made global warming, many of which we have examined at Skeptical Science.


Dr. Santer devoted the most time to the cooling upper atmosphere, which is an expected "fingerprint" of an increased greenhouse effect, as more heat is trapped in the lower atmosphere.  Dr. Santer discussed that warming caused by natural ocean cycles or solar activity would result in a different pattern.  Increased solar radiation reaching Earth, for example, would cause all layers of the atmosphere to warm.  Every observed "fingerprint" is consistent with what we expect from man-made global warming.

During his presentation, Dr. Chameides focused on climate change from the risk management perspective.  Dr. Chameides suggested that as with a strong financial portfolio, we should take a diversified approach to addressing climate change, including implementation of a carbon pricing system, preparing for climate adaption, investing in clean tech R&D, informing the public about climate science, and engaging in international efforts to mitigate climate change.  Dr. Chameides' main conclusion was that the prudent path forward must involve a comprehensive federal policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Crucially, despite his remaining skepticism, Dr. Muller also agreed that the remaining climate uncertainty is not sufficient to preclude us from acting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  The take-home message from each presentation is:

Muller: The planet is undeniably warming.  Muller is personally not convinced how much of that warming is due to humans, but believes the remaining uncertainty is not sufficient to prevent us from taking serious action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Santer:  The scientific evidence clearly indicates that the observed global warming is predominantly caused by humans.

Chameides:  The prudent path forward involves a diversified risk management approach, which must involve a comprehensive federal policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Overall it was a very interesting and informative briefing.  Unfortunately, the fact that it was attended by zero Republican congressmen suggests that contrary to the hearing subtitle, it will not be the end of climate skepticism, but perhaps it at least represents a small step in the right direction.  Maybe Congressional Republicans will find some time to listen to climate scientists when they're finished classifying pizza as a vegetable.

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Comments 51 to 59 out of 59:

  1. "I don't know of a better system worldwide" Apart from the specific issues noted by scaddenp, the glaring problem in democratic decision making in the USA from an Australian point of view would be voter registration. Here there's a neutral agency which handles voter registration, according to rules clearly set out in legislation and regulation. They apply equally to all Australian citizens, no variations state by state. Having an impartial, universal voter registration system would be a vast improvement for USA democracy. At least from the view on this side of the Pacific.
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  2. pirate#47: "a product that you can offer and make a profit, would you limit yourself?" All corporations are expected to limit themselves - they must stay within the law. For the time being, the US still has a Clean Air Act and an EPA. How do your precious companies respond? They buy themselves enough representation in Congress to influence lawmaking. Since the 1990 election cycle, the oil and gas industry has contributed more than $270 million to political campaigns, committees and causes. Republicans received 76 percent of the total money. ... What companies are contributing the most? The people and PACs affiliated with Koch Industries, ExxonMobil and Chief Oil and Gas were the top three political donors during the 2010 election. How've the oils done during this time period? ... the U.S. oil industry made $100 billion in windfall profits since the late 1990s, largely by eliminating refining capacity that paved the way to drive up prices at the pump. Those price increases have added more than $1,000 a year to the average family’s gasoline bill. The analysis, entitled “Debunking Oil Company Myths and Deception: The $100 Billion Consumer Rip-Off,” found that the difference between the cost of crude oil, and the price at the pump (net of taxes) is now about 40 cents a gallon higher than historical averages. That spike comes as a small number of large oil companies control both oil production and refining in the United States. Great system; I was a part of it for 25 years (until I got a real job). No wonder Congressmen don't have to show up for briefings - or do anything that helps the people they were sent there to help fleece. Just "Drill, baby, drill."
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  3. Humor is obviously acceptable, there have been many good examples here. But the political humor in the last sentence in the OP should be removed and/or left out of future articles.
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  4. muon, I am in no position to assess the expertise of Consumer Union researchers but I do see some issues with that report. Firstly, if crude production is constrained while demand increases, then I cant see how profits can do anything except go up. The cost part of the production goes up only modestly while retail price goes up a lot. If refining capacity has been artificially limited, then surely someone can make a buck reopening a refinery or building a new one? The real issue with refining is that they cost a huge amount build and need to operate 20-30 years to return a profit to investors. But 30 year supply contracts are rather thin on the ground. Compare that article with this one "Many refiners struggle to make money currently as refining margins slide back to $2-5 per barrel. My own refinery model clearly demonstrates this phenomena and finished product prices will have to rise substantially"
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  5. scaddenp$54: I guess it depends on who is doing the refining. Here's a USEIA database of US % refinery utilization that shows the peak was in 1998; 2010 was back to the same level as 1991. BP enjoys a considerable margin on refining: Global average refining margins improved to $10.0/bbl in 2010 from $9/bbl in 2009 with oil demand returning to growth. Chevron's not doing so badly either: Chevron, the second-largest American oil company, had a 43 percent jump in quarterly profit, beating estimates as high oil prices and increased refinery margins offset weaker output. Chevron’s profit rose to $7.7 billion, or $3.85 a share, from $5.4 billion, or $2.70 a share, a year earlier. Profits are indeed up; gasoline prices are just high enough to keep people driving - and finding costs, which spiked in 2008, are back down in the $15/bbl range. Last I checked, WTI was over $95. Like they used to say in Texas, "If you don't have an oil well, get one!"
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  6. Nothing to stop anyone getting a supply contract and building a refinery. Oil companies dont need to control refinery capacity to make money. The problem is maintaining production. IEA figures for 2012 are not looking promising in that department. Need a big depression to keep demand down. Looks like Italy and Greece are answering the call.
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  7. Standout Republican Jon Huntsman -- who ranks lowest in the polls -- may have summed up the differences best when he tweeted earlier this year: "To be clear, I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy." Indeed, many have. Seeking to drum up conservative support, the other Republican candidates have championed their doubts about human-caused climate change in recent debates just as vigorously as they have called for the return of waterboarding for terror suspects. The entire nation is divided on the issue, according to the latest Gallup poll which shows 53 percent of Americans see global warming as a very or somewhat serious threat, down 10 percent from two years earlier. "We have got a big problem, domestically, in terms of climate reality," said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. When lawmakers cannot agree that climate change is a problem for which solutions must be sought, gridlock ensues, according to Democratic lawmaker Henry Waxman. "During this Congress, the Republican-controlled House has voted 21 times to block actions to address climate change," he said at a hearing this month. "History will look back on this science denial with profound regret." Source: “Climate change denial still runs strong in US” AFP, Nov 28, 2011 Click here to access the entire article.
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  8. Suggested reading: “Table Talk: Inside the 'pizza is a vegetable' controversy; climate change and food prices”, Nov 29, 2011 To access this timely article, click here.
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  9. Nearly two-thirds of moderate or liberal Republicans believe there is solid evidence for global warming, Pew poll finds Source: “Changing climate of Republican opinion doesn't agree with Tea Party” Th Guardian (UK), Dec 2, 2011 To access the article, click here.
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