Blowing Smoke

President Obama’s recent comments on climate change and the need for additional federal regulation of greenhouse gases carelessly handled the science he quotes. I know, it’s just politics, but the findings of science take a bit more time to consume than a 10-second “sound bite.”

President Obama’s address to students at Georgetown University on June 26 clearly impressed listeners of his willingness to fight climate change by presidential fiat rather than by engaging in legislative give-and-take to reach a more collectively acceptable solution. The legislative process was intentionally designed to be pedestrian so that issues would be thoroughly vetted and the citizenry heard. I suppose that view is so 20th century.

The president in his Georgetown speech said that he doesn’t “have much patience for anyone who denies the challenge [that climate change] is real.” His statement conflates climate change (which no one denies is occurring and which can have devastating effects) with the implicit assumption that man’s activities are the proximate cause.

A quick check of the facts shows that for the past 17 years the global average annual temperature has remained statistically unchanged, even while global CO2 emissions have risen near 50% since 1990 with the U.S. portion of global emissions about 16% today. Even the infamous Phil Jones of the UK’s Climatic Research Unit, when pressed, admitted in a recent interview that the global average temperature rise from 1995 “is positive (0.12C per decade), but not significant at the 95% significance level.” What Jones failed to say is the measurement uncertainty is 0.5C (see “Where’s the Warming?” in the February 2013 issue).

Science by Vote

Three comments by Obama at Georgetown played fast and loose with science. First, he dogmatically repeated the talking point “ninety-seven percent of scientists… acknowledged the planet is warming and human activity is contributing to it.” It is certainly a delicious sound bite, but is otherwise tasteless. The study upon which this claim is based has been thoroughly debunked. J.D. Cook, et al. published “Quantifying the Consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming in the Scientific Literature” based upon the authors’ survey of only paper abstracts. Cook, et al. admit, in statistics released weeks after the paper was published, that only 1.8% of authors actually expressed an opinion in the abstract. Nevertheless, the reviewers were somehow able to divine each author’s true opinions. Google it and come to your own conclusions.

Second, it’s true, as Obama noted, that last July a new “high” temperature record was set, but there’s more to the story. The “high” temperature was a mere 0.2C higher than the previous record, which you now know is a meaningless statement because the measurement uncertainty is 0.5C. Even so, if you take the time to look at the data, you’ll find that the “high” wasn’t set based on the highest temperature recorded during the day, as he would like you believe, but rather the nights were less cool than when the previous record was set in the 1930s. The so-called “average” temperatures quoted are determined by the average of the highest and lowest temperatures that occur during a particular day.

Finally, satellite data of the Arctic has only been collected since 1979, so few valid conclusions are possible about long-term ice melt trends. However, we do know that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported last year that the Arctic was showing 28% more ice than in 2007 and Arctic temperatures were higher in the 1930s. Clearly, the president is not shy about cherry-picking science when necessary to make a point.

Selling the Carbon Tax

I’ve saved my biggest gripe with his speech for last. Obama’s sloppy use of science was carefully crafted to gain public support for “carbon pollution” as the source of climate change. Using the term 20 times in his speech, he again conflated carbon dioxide, which is essential to plant life on this planet, with anthropogenic emissions (particularly from coal-fired power plants) as the principal cause of climate change. This rhetorical trick should now be obvious to all who were listening closely (or reading the transcript, as I did).

I wrote in the May issue (“Bait and Switch”) about one of the more noxious carbon tax proposals under consideration, which has the support of the administration. The president’s Georgetown University speech was the logical step two in the administration’s pursuit of a carbon tax. Obama’s role as salesman-in-chief was to cement in the public’s mind the idea that human activity is the principal driver of climate change. I’m not buying what he’s selling and neither should you.

Dr. Robert Peltier, PE is POWER’s editor-in-chief.