How the Media Misrepresents What Scientists Really Think About Climate Change
Nicolas Loris /
Skepticism is a hallmark of good science and good journalism. Yet, time after time, scientists and journalists make giant leaps of faith in their desire to fight climate change by regulating greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions.
This phenomenon was recently on display in a February 16 segment of Meet the Press that featured a discussion between actor Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”) and Representative Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.).
Host David Gregory introduced the discussion this way: “In the scientific community this is not really a debate about whether climate change is real. The consensus is that it is.” Here, he echoed President Obama’s State of the Union assertion that “climate change is a fact.”
It is, indeed, often said that 97 percent of climatologists agree on climate change. And, in fact, they do — up to a point.
A near-universal consensus (technically, it’s 97 percent of the climate literature) does exist that man-made emissions have some warming effect. Go beyond that, however, and you’re in territory where science must yield to assumptions — giant leaps of surmise concerning the current and future conditions of our planet.
Some assume that if you believe that the climate is changing and that man-made emissions are having some warming effect, you must also accept as gospel that our planet is cooking at an unsustainable rate, that hurricanes and other meteorological disasters will inevitably become more frequent and intense, and that GHG emissions caused by burning conventional fuels are the driving force — not just one of many factors — behind climate change.
Now comes the part where we look at the facts. The available climate data simply do not indicate that the earth is heading toward catastrophic warming or more frequent and severe natural disasters. Testifying before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last December, Dr. Roger Pielke, a professor at the University of Colorado’s Center for Science and Technology Policy Research, emphasized that “there exists exceedingly little scientific support for claims found in the media and political debate that hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and drought have increased in frequency or intensity on climate timescales either in the United States or globally.”
Nor do the data indicate that the dominant driving force behind climate change is human-induced GHG emissions. Such a view does nothing to account for the shortcomings of climate models. While some climate models predict unsustainable warming that will adversely affect human health and public welfare, data from observed climate reality has shown that these models, and the assumptions on which they are built, are incorrect.
Many of the models that the federal government relied on to justify regulating carbon dioxide were known to be unreliable. They had projected a 0.3 degree Celsius warming over the past 15 to 17 years, when in reality no warming occurred. It takes a serious leap of faith to base policy that will cost the economy trillions of dollars on projections from models that have already proven to be deeply flawed.
Since 2011, no fewer than 16 experiments published in peer-reviewed literature found that the equilibrium climate sensitivity (the effect produced by a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere) is lower than that projected in IPCC reports.
During the Meet the Press discussion, Representative Blackburn brought up another point that bears repeating: the importance of cost-benefit analysis. The cost of the federal government’s regulations on GHG emissions will be large, painful, and ongoing for American families. The climate benefit — even after decades — will be barely measurable.
The federal government’s CO2 regulations will virtually end coal use, which will drive up energy bills and therefore increase prices for other goods and services. This, in turn, will slow the economy and hurt America’s manufacturing base. The Heritage Foundation modeled the effects of eliminating coal from America’s energy portfolio and found that within a decade, nearly 600,000 jobs would be lost and a family of four’s annual income would drop by more than $1,200.
And the benefit? We could grind all economic activity to a halt, hold our breaths forever, and cut carbon emissions to zero in the U.S. — and still wind up lowering average temperatures by no more than 0.2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. And that’s using a climate calculator developed by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Supporters of carbon regulations like to label those who don’t share their beliefs as “climate deniers.” But it’s important to look at what they’re denying. It’s certainly not the facts. A more accurate term would be “climate realists.”
— Nicolas Loris, the Herbert and Joyce Morgan Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, is an economist focusing on energy, environmental, and regulatory issues.