Politics & Policy

Playing Politics with the Weather

The Highland Bowl in Aspen, Colo. (Lev Akhsanov/Dreamstime)
The EPA’s head forsakes science in predicting that Aspen will one day resemble Amarillo, Texas.

EPA administrator Gina McCarthy has had a busy travel schedule these past few days, drumming up support for the Obama administration’s energy and climate policies. On Friday, she was in Rome talking with Vatican officials. There she told reporters that climate policies were about helping “folks that are in poverty.”

Two days earlier, McCarthy was in Aspen, Colo., with a different message. Here it was about helping snowboarders. “Shorter, warmer winters mean a shorter season to enjoy the winter sports we love,” she said in an essay entitled “We Must Act Now to Protect Our Winters.” “If we fail to act, Aspen’s climate could be a lot like that of Amarillo, Texas, by 2100. Amarillo is a great town, but it’s a lousy place to ski.” True, Amarillo is as flat as a pancake, and the nearest ski resort is 210 miles away. Then there’s the effect of elevation on climate. Aspen is a lot higher than Amarillo.

Judith Curry, a climate scientist at Georgia Tech, told me that Gina McCarthy’s “prediction” appeared to be made on the back of an envelope. It neglected to factor in the 6,791-feet difference in elevation. “Climate models have not demonstrated any skill on regional scales, owing to the dominance of natural variability on regional climate variability,” Curry added.

Curry points out that the same day McCarthy’s essay appeared, the northeastern United States was blasted with snow. When confronted with heavy snowfall, many scientists and media analysts now take the line that global warming is leading to “extreme weather.” Two days before McCarthy’s Colorado visit, the Washington Post’s resident climate alarmist, Chris Mooney had written: “If anything, extreme snowfall may actually be enhanced by global warming.” (Italics are his.)

In Rome, Gina McCarthy insisted that environmental issues are not political. “We need to get this out of the political arena,” she urged. But, as Curry says, all Gina McCarthy is doing is trying to make climate change relevant to Americans. This involves having it both ways at once: Climate change means there will be more snow in New York and less in Aspen.

Republicans are often portrayed as unscientific Neanderthals, derided for their line, “I’m not a scientist, but#…” But you don’t have to be a scientist to see that many climate claims aren’t science, but spin and propaganda. Indeed, climate change isn’t about the weather, it’s about politics. And, with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, it’s about a federal takeover of one of the commanding heights of the economy: energy production.

To this end, McCarthy repeats the claim made by NASA GISS that 2014 was the hottest year on record. The Daily Mail was virtually the only newspaper to point out the deceitful nature of the claim. NASA’s announcement did not explain that, based on its own figures, there was only a 38 percent chance that the 2014 record was accurate. If it had adhered to IPCC standards on the treatment of uncertainties, the NASA press release would have had to qualify its announcement by saying, “2014 is about as likely as not to have been the hottest year.”

One of the most damaging casualties of the climate wars is scientific integrity. When a public scientific agency such as NASA subordinates its integrity to a political agenda and when climate scientists use their standing to criticize one side in a political debate but fail to correct the errors and exaggerations made by their partisans in the political arena, the public loses faith in science. Republicans expressing doubt about claims of future catastrophic climate change are condemned for being “against science,” while the media give those on the alarmist side a free pass, whatever foolish or wrongheaded things they might say.

A commonly deployed distortion is the extreme-weather gambit. The IPCC has formally stated that it has “low confidence” in observed changes in climate extremes (defined as extreme weather or climate event) since 1950; despite this, alarmists continually make unsubstantiated claims to the contrary, a theme of Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech at the climate conference in Lima two months ago. No climate scientist called out Kerry for saying a year ago that “the science is absolutely certain,” a ludicrous claim to make about a relatively new field studying a system characterized by, in the words of the IPCC, “chaotic variations on a vast range of spatial and temporal scales.”

We’ve suffered a huge loss as a society from scientists’ leaving their ivory towers and forsaking the disinterested pursuit of knowledge. Conscious of the damage to science of political agendas, scientists should be averse to science’s being used for political ends and instead educate the public, which is easily confused by the most basic scientific concepts. A recent poll showed that 80 percent of those surveyed backed mandatory labeling on foods containing DNA — an illustration of how easy it is to bamboozle Americans with politics dressed up as science.

The prolonged pause in global temperature means that since 2005 the rolling 15-year temperature has fallen back to the 1900–2012 long-term trend of a rise in temperature of around seven-tenths of one degree Centigrade (1.3 degrees Fahrenheit) per century. This is a scientific problem worthy of investigation that will help scientists improve their understanding of climate. It does not signify a policy problem requiring draconian de-carbonization or a religious crisis necessitating a papal encyclical.

— Rupert Darwall is the author of The Age of Global Warming: A History.

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