Perry, Romney, and Climate Change Consensus in the Presidential Race

It’s the nature of media (and, perhaps, society in general) that it often works to build controversy where none exists. Few places is that more evident than political races. When Texas Governor Rick Perry official entered the presidential race last week, he made comments about climate change and the adequacy of the science. Candidate Mitt Romney then contrasted Perry’s take with his own view that human beings contribute to global warming.

Though the remarks have generated a good deal of media coverage, there is no inherent contradiction between these two views.

Colorado State University professor Roger Pielke Sr. has extensively documented how land use affects climate. Urban sprawl has led to the creation of heat islands which are several degrees warmer than surrounding rural areas. Development in Florida has shifted in rain patterns. And deforestation has contributed to the famous melting of Himalaya glaciers.

However, acknowledging humans’ influence on temperature increases over the past century is a far cry from endorsing the notion that government must impose onerous regulation on greenhouse gas emissions in order to prevent catastrophic climate changes later this century. As Pielke testified before Congress earlier this year, “a focus on just carbon dioxide and a few other greenhouse gases as the dominant human influence on climate is too narrow, and misses other important human influences.”

Science is about developing theories and then continually challenging those theories through observation and accumulation of real world data. Yet, a myopic focus on a single variable (fossil energy use, in this case) excludes a wide range of other valid perspectives and ignores critical factors and. As a result, the resulting conclusions are unbalanced and make faulty foundations for policy recommendations.

It’s hardly surprising then that temperatures over the past 30 years have increased only a fraction of what many computer models predicted.

The reasons are that the models assume that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) will lead to increases in atmospheric water vapor—the most prevalent greenhouse gas—and that will enhance the gas’ warming affect. That’s fine in theory but has yet to be demonstrated in practice. Atmospheric water vapor has not increased. More importantly, scientists like University of Alabama’s Roy Spencer and MIT’s Richard Lindzen have shown that other elements in our complex climate system can be compensating.

A recent report published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation and written by Princeton professor William Happer—one of nation’s pre-eminent physicists—explains how and why the public has been misled about the global warming threat. He begins by quoting the forward written by Charles Mackay for the book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”:

The object of the Author in the following pages has been to collect the most remarkable instances of those moral epidemics which have been excited, sometimes by one cause and sometimes by another, and to show how easily the masses have been led astray, and how imitative and gregarious men are, even in their infatuations and crimes.

Professor Happer then makes the argument: “The contemporary ‘climate crusade’ has much in common with the medieval crusades Mackay describes, with true believers, opportunists, cynics, money-hungry governments, manipulators of various types, and even children’s crusades.”

He stresses the importance of keeping land, air and water free of real pollution, particulates, heavy metals, pathogens and explains why CO2 should not be considered a pollutant:

Before the industrial period, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was about 270 parts per million (ppm). At the present time, the concentration is about 390 ppm … About fifty million years ago, a brief moment in the long history of life on earth, geological evidence indicates, CO2 levels were several thousand ppm, much higher than now. And life flourished abundantly.

CO2 really is a greenhouse gas and, other things being equal, adding CO2 to the atmosphere by burning coal, oil, and natural gas will modestly increase the surface temperature of the earth. Other things being equal, doubling the CO2 concentration, from our current 390 ppm to 780 ppm will directly cause about one degree Celsius warming. At the current rate of CO2 increase in the atmosphere —about 2 ppm per year— it would take about 195 years to achieve this doubling … Supposed calamities like the accelerated rise of sea level, ocean acidification, more extreme climate, tropical diseases near the poles, etc. are greatly exaggerated.

The bottom line is that humans do influence climate, but the issue is hardly as black and white as many special interest groups claim and assertions about ‘scientific consensus’ are greatly overblown. While Governor Perry may have used political hyperbole in stating his position, he is right in being skeptical about claims of a climate disaster.