The Forces that Narrow the Climate Debate

By Keith Kloor | May 21, 2013 5:34 pm

Last week on Twitter I lamented the simplistic public discourse on climate change, how it’s often framed by those who dismiss the legitimate concerns of a warming planet and those who play up those concerns. American Politicians, especially those with leadership positions in the Republican and Democratic parties, could steer the debate into calmer waters if they chose, since what they write and say on controversial issues usually makes news.

You can stop laughing now.

tornado

Image by solarseven/Shutterstock

A recent Washington Post op-ed by Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who is chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, feigned to sound reasonable about climate change, the way Vice Presidential candidate Dick Cheney pretended to be reasonable in 2000 during his debate with Joe Lieberman. It didn’t take long for many to be disabused of that facade and similarly, winking conservatives today know that on the issue of climate change, there isn’t much space between Lamar Smith and his fellow Republican James Inhofe, the author of a new book called, The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your future.

Smith is just more artful in the way he mischaracterizes climate science and downplays the threat of greenhouse gases. That said, Smith was dead-on about one thing in his op-ed, when he wrote that “unscientific and often hyperbolic claims” mar the climate dialogue.

As if on cue, one prominent Democratic senator has just served up a classic example of exploitive hyperbole. Politico reports:

Sen. Barbara Boxer took to the Senate floor and invoked the Oklahoma tornadoes in her speech on global warming. “This is climate change,” she said. “This is climate change. We were warned about extreme weather. Not just hot weather. But extreme weather.

This is simply not so, at least with respect to tornadoes, as even the normally climate shouty Grist acknowledges in this piece. Of course, in typically tortured fashion, others are discussing the difficult to nail down but still maybe/isn’t it possible climate change link to the terrible Oklahoma tragedy. As I’ve said repeatedly, the “new normal” in climate journalism is to explore a possible tangential connection between global warming and every weather related catastrophe.

And so our climate soap opera continues, with alternating episodes of climate denial and climate doom. If you’re in the mood for nuanced discussion that puts the Oklahoma tornado/climate issue into valuable context, read this Dot Earth post by Andy Revkin, who says that the relationship between greenhouse gases and tornadoes is “an important research question,” but one that “has no bearing at all on the situation in the Midwest and South — whether there’s a tornado outbreak or drought.” He goes on to write:

The forces putting people in harm’s way are demographic, economic, behavioral and architectural. Any influence of climate change on dangerous tornadoes (so far the data point to moderating influence) is, at best, marginally relevant and, at worst, a distraction.

So true. Let’s also not let the forces that narrow the climate debate hijack a discussion of those important demographic and socio-economic factors.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: climate change, global warming, select
  • Buddy199

    As if on cue, one prominent Democratic senator has just served up a classic example of exploitive hyperbole

    ——-

    Actually, it was two. Sheldon Whitehouse (D) R.I. apparently couldn’t resist the opportunity to make a jackass of himself either:

    http://dailycaller.com/2013/05/20/democratic-senator-goes-on-anti-gop-rant-over-climate-change-as-tornadoes-hit-oklahoma/?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

    If you want to posture and strut as a member of “The Party of Science”, maybe you should know something about, say, science.

    • EricAdler

      There is only one phrase that doesn’t belong in his speech, the part about tornadoes. The rest of it is spot on. One error doesn’t make a person a jackass.

      Lamar Smith is an example of a real jackass, shilling for the oil industry.

  • kdk33

    Oh dear.

    Last thread you were giving away hard earned technology. Technology that was described as possessed by “America” – it is actually possessed by the people and companies that developed it, a minor inconvenience you seem perfectly willing to ignore..

    This thread you argue by simple association (being a republican) that Lamar Smith is unreasonable.

    Perhaps you could enlighten us. What gives you the right to other peoples (intellectual) property? What did Mr Smith say that you find unreasonable?

    You are Always entertaining, but are tending toward the Lazy Journalist these days. Sad.

  • jh

    I think there are quite a few disputable “facts” in Smith’s piece. Just the same, I agree with this statement:

    “Instead of pursuing heavy-handed regulations that imperil U.S. jobs and
    send jobs (and their emissions) overseas, we should take a step back
    from the unfounded claims of impending catastrophe and think critically
    about the challenge before us.”

    • kdk33

      OK Name two.

      • jh

        Happily.

        ONE:
        From Keystone, “the resulting increase in carbon dioxide emissions would be a mere 12 one-thousandths of 1 percent (0.0012 percent).”

        I don’t know where this number came from and I can’t confirm or reject it, but I’m certain it’s too low, perhaps by an order of magnitude or two.

        TWO:
        “the State Department has also found [Keystone] would generate more than 40,000 U.S. jobs.”

        Perhaps State found that, but I doubt it’s correct, and certainly not over the long term.

        THREE:
        “U.S. emissions contribute very little to global concentrations of greenhouse gas”

        Ahem, we’re the second largest emitter, that’s hardly a secret and even if we aren’t today, we’ve been the largest emitter for most of the last century.

        The upshot is that I support Keystone and I support Smith’s overall position. He could have cited much more robust information and generated a much stronger case. Instead, he cited supporting numbers that are easily and reasonably disputed, making his comments fodder for alarmists.

        • kdk33

          Thanks for replying. You have some interesting points. I have some rebuttals.

          One: I don’t know the basis for his calcs and you concede they may be correct, but you claim they are misleading. I disagree. That HC will be burned keystone pipeline or not. building the pipeline probably reduces emissions because if we don’t build it a less efficient transportation of oil to market will follow.

          Two. I don’t get it. Was Smith’s statement incorrect or not. Disagreeing with state is different. 40,000 does sound high for permanent jobs. He may not have meant permanent jobs. Keystone is clearly good for the economy.

          Three: I don’t like the way he said that. But that statement is actually factually correct. If you read the rest his main point is that even significant (expensive) action on the part of the US will not do much to reduce GHG. And he is right.

          I like you’re critique much better than Keith’s.

          Cheers

          • jh

            kdk33,

            Good considerations, but I still think it’s misleading.

            ONE: I hadn’t considered that possibility, but here’s why I don’t think it’s right. I think Smith is comparing between burned / not burned. If he is comparing between burned w/ Keystone / burned without Keystone, then the impact of Keystone should be negative since a pipeline is a more HC-efficient form of transport than rail or truck.

            TWO: OK, perhaps 40K jobs is precision jargon. But the piece is aimed at a general audience so jargon should be clarified and put into the context of every-day language. Not doing that is misleading. OK, politicians do it all the time. But that doesn’t make it right or useful or honest.

          • EricAdler

            Smith’s statement in his WAPO article regarding emissions resulting from the Keystone Pipeline

            is misleading. Tracking back to the reference Smith provided, it was his statement as chairman of the HR Science and Tech. Committee. It reads:

            “https://science.house.gov/sites/republicans.science.house.gov/files/documents/HHRG-113-%20SY-WState-S000244-20130507.pdf

            “..the worst case scenario projected that approval of the pipeline could result in a U.S. annual
            carbon dioxide emissions increase of only twelve one-thousandths of one percent (0.0012%).”

            The statement in the article didn’t say “US annual emissions”, and a reasonable interpretation would be total global emissions. The fact is that almost all of the fuel is destined for export, so US annual emissions from the products are not a proper measure of the effects. Smith knows better, and is clearly trying to fool the unsuspecting reader.

        • kdk33

          If you google around… 40.000 is about mid range estimate for direct + indirect “jobs”. But jobs are defined as man-years. So keystone will create 40,000 man-years of work, it seems.

          If that is the way these numbers are typically reported, then it was not taken out of context, it’s just jargon that is somewhat unfamiliar to the average Joe.

          Other government talk is equally confusing. “cuts”, for example, typically mean deceleration of spending, not an actual spending decline. I don’t know who started it but all sides do it.

  • dannyR

    Climate change is not particularly driven by rise or fall of atmospheric temperature or oceanic heat content. Regional climate change (≠’global warming’) can occur in a regime of thermal stasis by random drift, and the change can be adverse, benign, or neutral, but wherever you have climate change that cannot be comfortably adjusted to, you automatically have adverse climate change.

    This will occur even if by some miracle any current (claimed) temperature rise could be stabilized, and CO2 levels frozen at 400 ppm.

    All this to say that the climate dice are loaded and always have been. For the most part, the essential thing about climate is that farming and fishing work best with a fixed climate, so farmers and fishers don’t have to keep re-investing in new equipment: they can always plant corn on the same plot, or soy, etc., and fishers can always catch salmon and tuna with the same trawlers and nets, and don’t have to switch species.

    That ain’t gonna happen. We don’t live in oxygen tents or Skinner boxes.

  • Tom Scharf

    Even I approve of this post. You must be off the reservation again.

    Bringing climate change connections into disaster preparation poisons the well. It’s hard enough to get funding for anything, or to pass any laws nowadays, but saying we must do it because of climate change just makes most people want to run away as fast as possible. Oh, it is “those” people again…

    The correlations simply aren’t there, with tornadoes it’s not nuanced. There is no evidence of correlation, much less causation. With decades of rising CO2 and tornado statistics you can make the call. There has been a rise of reported EF2 and lower tornadoes over the past 50 years, but this is reportedly due to Doppler radars and higher confirmation rates on small tornadoes.

    It is certainly still possible that there is a small correlation that will take a long time to measure accurately, say a change of 2% or lower. If it was 25%, we would most definitely see it by now.

    Should disaster preparation change because the events will increase by 1%? No. So don’t poison the well.

  • Tom Scharf
  • EricAdler

    There are plenty of catastrophic problems associated with climate change/global warming. However, the science says that we don’t have enough of a handle on tornadoes to say whether an increase in frequency and force will occur.

    The scientists and advocates who are calling for immediate action to reduce fossil fuel consumption are generally not using tornadoes as a reason. It seems like misdirection to use Barbara Boxer’s mistake to characterize the movement to stop climate change/global warming.

    On the other hand, it is clear that Lamar Smith is a shill for the fossil fuel industry. His claim that “unscientific and often hyperbolic claims mar the dialog”, was not really about tornadoes,contrary to what you imply. He specifically was referring to the damage from Hurricane Sandy as not being caused by Climate Change. This is a straw man argument, since the real argument is that such storms become more frequent with climate change. Also, Smith was claiming that CO2 may not be that important in climate change.

    I don’t see why Smith gets any credit for being “dead-on”. This is an example of false equivalence nonsense we get from journalists who espouse centrism.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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