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Fact-Checking Bill Maher on Climate Change



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Friday’s Real Time with Bill Maher, featuring National Review’s Charles Cooke as a guest, included discussion of climate change and Charlie’s recent article “Green Drought: For the sake of the smelt, California farmland lies fallow.”

Maher was joined by Rachel Maddow and former Representative Jane Harman (D., Calif.), and, as you might imagine, all three found fault with Charles’s piece. You can watch the video of the entire discussion here.

However, and this won’t be a shock to NR readers, Charles was right and they were wrong. The following is a fact-check of the Charles Cooke fact-checkers.

First up was a discussion of the tiny fish that’s causing so much disruption to California’s famers, the Delta smelt. When Charles dared to suggest that regulations that divert water from the farmers according to the number of smelt in the water supply might be onerous or ill conceived, Maher quickly came to the defense of the tiny fish. He called it “bait for salmon.” He declared it an important part of “the food chain.” He warned that “you pull one string out of the sweater and the whole thing comes apart.”

Maher added: “We either divert the water for the farmers or for the fishermen. If we do this for the farmers — the people who are starving, you say — then we hurt the fishermen. But the farmers have a better lobbyist, don’t they? They have better lobbyists than the fishermen.”

But none of what Maher said is true. The following is from a fact sheet on the smelt from the California Natural Resources Agency: “Although the Delta smelt does not support a commercial or recreational fishery, its range is restricted to the Delta, and many people consider its population an indicator of the precarious ecological health of the Delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast.”

Got that? It’s an “indicator” — in other words, a measuring tool — and has nothing to do with the overall food chain for humans, or with salmon, or with a sweater. Charlie discusses smelt metrics at length in his piece.

I should note that, while the smelt isn’t part of the protein portion of the human food chain, what is part of it are the crops from California that aren’t being grown today. Why Bill Maher and his panel think one food chain is more important than the other is a mystery to me.

To his credit, Maher does touch on the real problem in California. It’s that there are too many people and businesses with claims on California’s limited water resources. Maher’s quip that “we don’t have enough water because we stupidly built cities in deserts” was spot-on, but he never expanded on that.

And the panel never did get around to describing what happens to the smelt now that they’re not eaten by salmon. The answer is, they get to swim out into San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean and live an idyllic life, free of pumps, salmon, and fishermen. The smelt are the big winners in all of this.

Now this isn’t to say that the smelt aren’t important indicators of the overall health of the ecosystem or that I am saying salmon are immune to the current drought, but that’s not what was discussed on Friday, nor is it anywhere close to what Maher said to make his argument.

Maher’s errors above make me question how much he really wants to fully explain the problem to his viewers rather than just get a good sound bite out of the debate. It’s a remarkably complex issue, on which even environmentalists don’t agree. Just ask Governor Jerry Brown, who has been heavily criticized by the Left for his support of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, a “comprehensive conservation strategy aimed at protecting dozens of species of fish and wildlife, while permitting the reliable operation of California’s two biggest water delivery projects.”

The simple fact is that somebody is going to lose in California’s water war. As of today, it’s the people in California’s San Joaquin Valley who scrape together a living growing food. Charlie in his piece asks why other interests are being put ahead of the farmers’. Maher and the other panelists never answered.

The panel then moved on to the larger question of whether the current drought in California is a result of climate change. Maher during his monologue defined climate change as “extreme weather,” and Rachel Maddow added, much to the delight of the Maher and Harman, that “2013 was the driest year on record in California in recorded history. And, in some parts of the state, it was less than 50 percent of the previous record total of the low precipitation. The fish didn’t do it. This is climate change.”

#more#Maybe Maddow would be so kind as to define “recorded history”? Yes, the drought is bad, but it’s nowhere near as bad as droughts that have hit California in the past. There is a detailed history of droughts much worse than today’s and, although not recorded by human hand, this data is part of the “settled science” that the Left likes to reference when making their global-warming claims. From the Los Angeles Times:

How extreme is this year in California’s climate history? To answer this, we need to look back further than the 119 years we have on record, to the geologic past. Based on the growth rings of trees cored throughout the Western United States, AD 1580 stands out as the driest year in the last half a millennium, drier than 1976-77. It was so devastatingly dry in 1580 that the giant sequoias in the Sierra Nevada essentially failed to grow at all; the cores show either extremely thin or absent tree rings. If the current drought continues in California through Oct. 1, this water year will be the driest not only in our modern records but in half a millennium. . . .

Tree rings, lake and ocean sediments, and other earth materials provide natural archives that reveal our region’s climate history. And the history of the Western United States is one apparently plagued with deep and prolonged droughts on a fairly regular basis. Multi-year droughts have recurred every 20 to 70 years over the last several thousand years, related to changes in ocean temperature in the North Pacific.

How long can these multi-year droughts last? In the modern historic record, they lasted only six years: from 1928 to 1934 and from 1987 to 1992. But the climate archives going further back reveal that droughts often lasted much longer than a decade, causing large lakes to shrink or dry up completely, more frequent wildfires and native populations to embark on massive migrations. A particularly dry stretch occurred between AD 900 and 1400 (during the Medieval Warm Period), with two 100-year droughts in California and the Southwest. Throughout the Southwest, archaeological remains show that flourishing civilizations all but disappeared as their agricultural bases withered.

Charlie dared to suggest otherwise, and Maher, Maddow, and Harman all jumped in with a collective “No, no, no.” I guess Maher, Maddow, and Harman missed this piece from the New York Times last week, “Science Linking Drought to Global Warming Remains Matter of Dispute”:

In delivering aid to drought-stricken California last week, President Obama and his aides cited the state as an example of what could be in store for much of the rest of the country as human-caused climate change intensifies.

But in doing so, they were pushing at the boundaries of scientific knowledge about the relationship between climate change and drought. While a trend of increasing drought that may be linked to global warming has been documented in some regions, including parts of the Mediterranean and in the Southwestern United States, there is no scientific consensus yet that it is a worldwide phenomenon. Nor is there definitive evidence that it is causing California’s problems.

In fact, the most recent computer projections suggest that as the world warms, California should get wetter, not drier, in the winter, when the state gets the bulk of its precipitation. That has prompted some of the leading experts to suggest that climate change most likely had little role in causing the drought.

“I’m pretty sure the severity of this thing is due to natural variability,” said Richard Seager, a climate scientist who studies water issues at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University.

Again, climate change may create events that look like the drought in California, but what’s going on in California today isn’t because of what humans have done to the environment. And that’s not me or Charlie saying that but the scientists who believe in anthropogenic climate change.

One thing I think is important to add: If climate change really is a problem of WMD proportions, as John Kerry suggested, then the people who believe what Kerry said need to start behaving as if it’s true. For example, Bill Maher was kind enough to fly Charlie and Rachel Maddow out to Los Angeles to appear on the program. Air travel, according to the New York Times in 2013, is a “serious environmental sin,” and for people “in New York City, who don’t drive much and live in apartments, this is probably going to be by far the largest part of their carbon footprint.”

In other words, the most damage Charlie and Rachel Maddow will do to the environment this year was through appearing on Bill Maher’s show. If Maher is so concerned with the environment, he’d teleconference in his guests. His ratings might suffer, but are ratings more important than the planet?

As of today, yes, they are.

‪Postscript: As I write this, huge rainstorms are headed toward California. I expect Maher, Maddow, et al. will call this, too, extreme weather?



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