The Next President: Climate Change

Climate change is one of the six focus issues that the next chapter is following during the presidential campaign.

On Climate Change:

Do you believe that human activity is largely responsible for climate change and do you favor regulation of emissions?

TNC’s take: Overwhelming scientific evidence supports the conclusion reached by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have increased, leading to atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide that are “unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years” and that the effects of these gasses are “extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century” (Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report, Summary for Policymakers). Voluntary reductions of greenhouse gas emissions are unlikely to be successful, and so new regulations are critical in the next several decades to prevent or forestall the worst of the predicted climate effects. Recent extreme weather events suggest that those effects are already being felt. Pope Francis addressed the issue of climate change in the encyclical Laudato Si’, which TNC briefly summarized in the post Caring for Our Common Home.

There seems to be no middle ground on the issue of climate change. Two candidates whose statements represent opposing extremes on the issue illustrate the choice that the voters have in selecting the next president of the United States.

Ted Cruz has told his conservative donors and others that there is no factual basis in science for climate change and that the theory of climate change is being used to control the economy and the energy industry. Cruz rejects the “apocalyptic claims” of “global warming alarmists” by declaring that “the satellite data demonstrate that there has been no significant warming whatsoever for 17 years.”

Cruz also likes to point out (based on a nine-paragraph Newsweek article from the 1970s) that “advocates of global cooling” predicted enormous worldwide problems from cooling but “the data” did not back up that theory and so “the advocates of global cooling suddenly shifted to global warming” as a justification for “government control of the energy sector and every aspect of our lives.”

Unpacking the Cruz position on climate change requires a trip into the scientific weeds. It is a trip that he expects his admirers will not make, no doubt.

The Washington Post examined Cruz’s climate change talking point (“zero warming in the last 17 years”) and discussed the data that show that 1998 (17 years ago) was possibly one of the warmest years on record, although 2014, 2010 and 2005 were warmer—an inconvenient truth for Cruz. To support his claim that there has been “zero warming” since 1998, Cruz has made selective use of the data. He starts with a single warm year and refers only to satellite data, excluding other climate change data, such as ground-based weather station records, that do not support his conclusion.

According to the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the rate of warming from 1998 to 2012 was “smaller than the rate calculated from 1951,” but that does not mean, as Cruz has claimed, that there has been “zero warming” in the most recent 17 years.

The researcher whose work Cruz has misused to support his position on global warming, physicist Carl Mears, rejects Cruz’s ideological conclusions:

“Mr. Cruz (and others who seek to minimize the threat posed by climate change) likes to cite statistics about the last 17 years because 17 years ago, the Earth was experiencing a large ENSO [El Nino-Southern Oscillation] event and the observed temperatures were substantially above normal, and above any long-term trend line a reasonable person would draw. When one starts their analysis on an extraordinarily warm year, the resulting trend is below the true long term trend. It’s like a pro baseball player deciding he’s having a batting slump three weeks after a game when he hit three homers because he’s only considering those three weeks instead of the whole season.”

In contrast, Martin O’Malley took an unusual stand on climate change when he declared in July: “One of the things that preceded the failure of the nation-state of Syria and the rise of ISIS was the effect of climate change and the mega-drought that affected that region, wiped out farmers, drove people to cities, created a humanitarian crisis.” PolitiFact, a fact-checking website that rates the accuracy of claims by elected officials, candidates, leaders of political parties and political activists, rated O’Malley’s statement as “Mostly True.” PolitiFact cited a March 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which found that climate change contributed to an extreme drought in Syria’s breadbasket between 2006 to 2009, resulting in rapidly rising food prices and nutrition-related diseases, while 1.5 million internal refugees abandoned their farms and flooded into Syrian cities. The influx of people, unemployment, and corruption fed into discontent with the regime of Bashar al-Assad, resulting in an uprising against the government, which ISIS exploited.

In a statement on his website, O’Malley says: “protecting the United States from the devastating impact of climate change — while capitalizing on the job creation opportunity of clean energy — is at the center of my campaign for President.” O’Malley supports a transition to renewable energy sources, ending the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels: “We cannot meet the climate challenge with an all-of-the-above energy strategy, or by drilling off our coasts, or by building pipelines that bring oil from tar sands in Canada.” He lists specific proposals that would promote his “number one priority” for the federal government: “transition to a clean energy future.” His ideas include a Clean Energy Jobs Corps, efficiency retrofits of federal buildings, environmental regulations to curb the emission of greenhouse gases, adoption of a national renewable electricity standard, and a Clean Energy Financing Authority.

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