The Washington Times Talks Greenhouse Law

On Thursday March 17, the Washington Times published an editorial opinion with the title, "Ending the global-warming argument".  While the information in the article lacks any factual content that would end the argument on climate change, the purpose was to call attention to a legal battle that, in effect, would give a group of seven states "the right to sue out-of-state corporations as 'public nuisances' for their crime of emitting a harmless, colorless gas that’s essential for life on this planet." The editorial staff member is referring to carbon dioxide.

According to the complaint, carbon-dioxide emissions from various power plants around the country “increase smog and heat-related mortality”; “raise sea levels, thereby inundating low-lying property such as much of New York City’s infrastructure”; “lower water levels in the Great Lakes, harming commercial shipping and hydropower production in New York”; and “make it impossible for several species of hardwood trees to survive in Vermont, Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island.” It goes on to claim “even one degree of global warming will double the number of heat-related deaths in New York City, to 700 per year.”

The next paragraph of the Washington Times opinion starts, "Never mind that none of these calamities have actually happened...".  So let us look at what the legal brief actually says:

They [plaintiffs] alleged that carbon dioxide emissions from defendants’ power plants contribute to global warming, causing a wide range of current and threatened injuries to plaintiffs and their citizens. Among other things, plaintiffs alleged that the emissions and resulting global warming would:

Then, the complaint goes on to list the possible injuries.  Notice how the use of 'current and threatened' and 'would', with my emphasis, changes the context of the complaint.  It has a future context never mentioned by the editorial, and in fact, is misrepresented to make the argument easier to refute.  This is a case of classic logical fallacy called a strawman argument. The article has already failed its argumentative purpose at this point.

Going further, let’s look closely at the seven states' complaints to see if the truth-telling machine, known as science, supports their claims.  

1. [I]ncrease smog and heat-related mortality in Los Angeles and New York City

 From the IPCC AR4: WGI Ch 7.4 Reactive Gases and the Climate System

A few GCM studies have examined more specifically the effect of changing climate on regional ozone air quality, assuming constant emissions. Knowlton et al. (2004) use a GCM coupled to a Regional Climate Model (RCM) to investigate the impact of 2050 climate change (compared with 1990) on ozone concentrations in the New York City metropolitan area. They found a significant ozone increase that they translated into a 4.5% increase in ozone-related acute mortality.

2. [C]ontinue to shrink California’s mountain snowpack, which forms the State’s largest source of drinking water and has already been diminished by global warming

From the IPCC AR4: WG1 Ch Snowpack, Snowmelt and River Flow

Hayhoe et al. (2004) produced a standard set of statistically downscaled temperature and precipitation scenarios for California; under both the A1F1 and B1 scenarios, they find overall declines in snowpack.

3. [R]educe crop and livestock yields in Iowa

From the IPCC AR4: WGII Ch 14.4.4 Agriculture, forestry and fisheries

In the Corn and Wheat Belt of the U.S., yields of corn and soybeans from 1982 to 1998 were negatively impacted by warm temperatures, decreasing 17% for each 1°C of warm-temperature anomaly (Lobell and Asner, 2003). 

4. [L]ower water levels in the Great Lakes, harming commercial shipping and hydropower production in New York

From the IPCC AR4: WGII CH 14.4 Key future impacts and vulnerabilities

Lower water levels in the Great Lakes are likely to influence many sectors, with multi-dimensional, interacting impacts (Figure 14.2) (high confidence). Many, but not all, assessments project lower net basin supplies and water levels for the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Basin (Mortsch et al., 2000; Quinn and Lofgren, 2000; Lofgren et al., 2002; Croley, 2003). In addition to differences due to climate scenarios, uncertainties include atmosphere-lake interactions (Wetherald and Manabe, 2002; Kutzbach et al., 2005). Adapting infrastructure and dredging to cope with altered water levels would entail a range of costs (Changnon, 1993; Schwartz et al., 2004b). Adaptations sufficient to maintain commercial navigation on the St. Lawrence River could range from minimal adjustments to costly, extensive structural changes (St. Lawrence River-Lake Ontario Plan of Study Team, 1999; D’Arcy et al., 2005). 

5. [M]ake it impossible for several species of hardwood trees to survive in Vermont, Connecticut, New York, and Rhode Island

Molecular indicators of tree migration capacity under rapid climate change Jason McLachlan et al.

Recent models and analyses of paleoecological records suggest that tree populations are capable of rapid migration when climate warms. Fossil pollen is commonly interpreted as suggesting that the range of many temperate tree species expanded at rates of 100–1000 m/yr during the early Holocene. We used chloroplast DNA surveys to show that the geography of postglacial range expansion in two eastern North American tree species differs from that expected from pollen-based reconstructions and from patterns emerging from European molecular studies. Molecular evidence suggests that American beech (Fagus grandifolia) and red maple (Acer rubrum) persisted during the late glaciation as low-density populations, perhaps within 500 km of the Laurentide Ice Sheet. Because populations were closer to modern range limits than previously thought, postglacial migration rates may have been slower than those inferred from fossil pollen. Our estimated rates of ,100 m/yr are consistent with model predictions based on life history and dispersal data, and suggest that past migration rates were substantially slower than the rates that will be needed to track 21st-century warming.  

6. [R]aise sea levels, thereby inundating low-lying property such as much of New York City’s infrastructure


Implications of Recent Sea Level Rise Science for Low-elevation Areas in Coastal Cities of the Conterminous U.S.A.  Weiss, J.L et al.

[G]lobal greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions over the 21st century will not only influence SLR in the next ~90 years, but will also commit Earth to several meters of additional SLR over subsequent centuries. In this context of worsening prospects for substantial SLR, we apply a new geospatial dataset to calculate low-elevation areas in coastal cities of the conterminous U.S.A. potentially impacted by SLR in this and following centuries. In total, 20 municipalities with populations greater than 300,000 and 160 municipalities with populations between 50,000 and 300,000 have land area with elevations at or below 6 m and connectivity to the sea, as based on the 1 arc-second National Elevation Dataset. On average, approximately 9% of the area in these coastal municipalities lies at or below 1 m. This figure rises to 36% when considering area at or below 6 m.  *Weiss SkS article

Time table:

Copenhagen Diagnosis 2009 Global Sea Level

As for the next statement in the Washington Times editorial, "there would be no link to the companies under legal assault", I will point to part of Professor Scott Mandia's letter that he sent to the Washington Times in response:

Your March 17th editorial titled “Ending the global-warming argument” has confused science with politics. There is no informed debate that humans are overloading the air with too much carbon and that this carbon is causing the planet to dramatically warm. There is no informed debate that increasing carbon will cause this warming to continue.  (For perspective, the amount of CO2 that is added to the air every day by human activities, primarily from burning fossil fuels, is equal to the amount of oil spilled by 8,000 Gulf Oil Spills per day.)  Virtually every publishing scientist and all international science academies agree on this.

Let's hope the Washington Times decides to print the Professor's letter.

Further reading:

Wikipedia article on Public Nuisance Laws

Clean Air Act, Title I - Air Pollution Prevention and Control

Atmospheric Trust Litigation, Mary Christina Wood

CO2 EPA endangerment finding

Posted by grypo on Thursday, 24 March, 2011

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