Does Governor Terry McAuliffe deliberately misrepresent what skeptics of the prevailing Global Warming Orthodoxy think, or does he simply repeat what others have said about what skeptics supposedly believe? Either way, we have a problem. Here’s what he said yesterday before signing an executive order to convene a work group to deliver recommendations for carbon reductions:
Now, some of our legislators have trouble keeping up with the times on this topic. They don’t believe the overwhelming science supporting climate change.
Now, I can’t speak for Virginia’s legislators, but I can speak as a skeptic of Global Warming Orthodoxy, and I don’t know of a single reasonably informed observer who doesn’t believe in “climate change.” Skeptics believe that climate is dynamic, and that it has changed throughout human history. Indeed, they emphasize the cyclical nature of climate, as seen in the alternation between the Roman Warm Period, the Medieval Warm Period, and the modern era with cooler periods. The question is not whether “climate change” exists but what role human activity plays in causing climate change. As even the most ardent advocates of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change will acknowledge, it is difficult to tease out the human impact from natural climate variability.
Climate skeptics do understand that, all other things being equal, an increased percentage of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere will warm the planet. The question is how much will it increase warming? The computer models predicting steep temperature increases over the 21st century assume the existence of feedback loops in which more CO2 increases temperatures, which increases the evaporation of water (another greenhouse gas), which increases temperatures even more. How that process works still remains an object of scientific inquiry. An unresolved question is the extent to which water in the atmosphere leads to more cloud formation, which reflects sunlight, which cools the planet and counteracts the presence of greenhouse gases to some degree. For the most part, computer models have significantly over-stated warming compared to the historical record. Yes, global temperatures have risen, and, yes, this is the hottest decade since humans have been measuring global temperatures (not “in human history,” as Secretary of State John Kerry recently mis-spoke) but it is not as hot as the computer models of twenty years ago said it would be.
Once we move from the domain of “how fast are temperatures rising and what role do humans play” to “what do we do about it?”, we depart the realm of science and enter that of philosophy and public policy. The Global Warming Orthodoxy reaches far beyond science. It proclaims that the only proper response to warming temperatures is to re-engineer the world’s energy economy in order to reduce CO2 emissions. Even among environmentalists, there is disagreement how to go about this. While championing efforts to combat global warming, the Obama administration concedes that there is a legitimate role for natural gas as a transition fuel to renewable fuel sources, and for nuclear power as a source of base-line electric generation. Many Virginia environmentalists are hostile to both natural gas and nuclear, preferring all new electricity production be renewable. Reasonable people can debate the pros and cons of an all-renewable energy grid, but this is not a debate about “science,” much less about “settled science.” It is a debate about technology, economics, and the trade-offs between electric rates, grid reliability and clean fuels.
There appears to be a widespread prejudice that global warming skeptics (and by that, I mean skeptics of the Global Warming Orthodoxy) are anti-scientific knuckle draggers. In era of polarized politics, I suppose there is no dispelling that notion. But the skeptics themselves know differently. And McAuliffe, by suggesting those who disagree with him “haven’t kept up” with scientific thinking belittles their intellect and, thereby, diminishes any chance of winning cooperation with his agenda.
(This article first ran in Bacon’s Rebellion on June 29, 2016)