Oct 09 2020

Climate Denial Talking Points

My schedule did not afford time for a post yesterday, and I only have time for a short one today – but I want to reply quickly to a couple of climate denial talking points that arose during the vice presidential debate. Pence represented the typical denial strategy. He started by saying that the climate is changing, we just don’t know why or what to do about it. This is the motte and bailey fallacy in action – pull back from the position that is untenable to defend an easier position, but don’t completely surrender the outer position. Pence was not about to deny that global warming is happening at all in that forum because he would be too easily eviscerated, so he just tried to muddy the waters on what may seem like an easier point.

But of course, he is completely wrong on both counts. We do know what is causing climate change, it is industrial release of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. At least there is a strong consensus of scientists who are 95% confident or more this is the major driver, and there is no tenable competing theory. That is what a scientific fact looks like. We also know what to do about it – decrease global emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. And we know how to do that – change our energy infrastructure to contain more carbon neutral sources with the goal of decarbonizing energy. Change our transportation industry as much as possible over to electric (or perhaps hydrogen) vehicles. Advance other industrial processes that release significant amounts of CO2. And look for ways to improve energy efficiency and sequester carbon efficiently. It’s not like there aren’t actual detailed published plans for exactly what to do about it.

Pence, however, will rush from his perceived motte into the bailey of total denial when he feels he has an opening. So he also said that the “climate change alarmists” are warning about hurricanes, but we are having the same number of hurricanes today as we did 100 years ago. This is not literally true (there were six hurricanes so far this year in the North Atlantic, and four in 1920), and it looks from the graph like there is a small uptick, but let’s say it’s true enough that statistically there isn’t a significant change in the number of hurricanes. This is called lying with facts – give a fact out of context that creates a deliberately false impression. In this case the false impression is also a straw man, because climate scientists don’t claim that global warming increases the number of hurricanes. They claim (their models predict) that warming increases the power and negative effects from the hurricanes that do occur. The governments Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory states:

A review of existing studies, including the ones cited above, lead us to conclude that: it is likely that greenhouse warming will cause hurricanes in the coming century to be more intense globally and have higher rainfall rates than present-day hurricanes.

Notice they don’t mention that the number of hurricanes will increase. Hurricanes get their energy from the warmth of the ocean. The ocean powers them up, then they crash into land where they dump their energy and water and will weaken. But they can go back out to sea and power up again. Also, the more a hurricane lingers over a specific area the more water it will drop, leading to flooding, which is what causes the most damage and loss of life from hurricanes. Data reviewed by the GFDL (linked above) shows this is already happening, but will get much worse as global warming increases.

Pence next tried to take credit for dropping CO2 release from the US, as if this is tied to pulling out of the Paris Accord. It is true that CO2 emissions are decreasing, but this is a trend that has been fairly linear since 2005. Between 2005 and 2018 US CO2 emissions dropped 12%. This is largely due to shifting energy production to less CO2 producing methods, including rising renewables. But also, I will acknowledge, this is partly due to a shift from coal to natural gas. There has been a huge drop in coal as a percentage of US energy. Pence selectively used this fact to defend natural gas, glossing over the fact that this is a greater knock against coal, which he does not want to criticize.

I also have to mention that while natural gas has lower CO2 emissions, it has high methane emissions, which is a stronger greenhouse gas. You have to include that in any calculation of effect on climate. At best natural gas is a stop-gap (and I think it is reasonable for now – as anything is better than coal), but is only a temporary measure until we can get truly carbon neutral sources online.

I also found it interesting that Pence did not bring up nuclear. This is one of the rare issues where the Republicans may be closer to the science than Democrats, who historically oppose nuclear. But apparently their love affair with fossil fuels is just too great, so they ignore this advantage.

So what has the effect of Trump’s policies been on CO2 emissions? This is hard to say because there are so many other factors, such as weather and the economy. But it seems that there is a decrease in the rate of decrease of CO2 emissions under Trump. Nothing can really be learned from 2020 – the economic crash dominates the figures. But overall it seems if anything Trump has slowed the reduction in CO2 that adopting renewable energy and better standards was having. Admittedly a live debate is not the place to get into all these details, but pretty much everything Pence said on the climate was misleading and tracked with fossil fuel industry talking points rather than the scientific consensus.


No responses yet