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Climate change: no room for debate?

A round-up of the disputes in the US climate change debate

Among the most contentious of issues in Washington right now is the issue of climate change. While both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate voted on an Amendment stating the “climate change is not a hoax,” that is pretty much the last thing the majority of both sides agree on.

On this week’s "TechKnow," we’ve looked at some of the disputes involved with the debate on climate change and how at least one city is dealing with the effects now.

Here’s a guide to some of issues involved.

97% of Published Reports Agree Climate Change is Fueled by Man-Made Greenhouse Gas Emissions:

Everyone from President Obama to climate scientists themselves misrepresent this figure, often noting that 97% of scientists say that climate change exists and it is humankind’s fault. The 97% figure actually refers to published papers linking climate change to manmade greenhouse gas emissions. 97% of that research points to fossil fuel emissions of C02 for climate change. It’s a big number. Nevertheless, there’s a tiny minority of scientists who disagree with the vast majority of scientists who say greenhouse gas emissions are causing the earth’s climate to change at an unnatural pace.

What’s Climate Change Doing?

You may have seen Senator James Inhofe from Oklahoma holding up a snowball as evidence that climate change is not creating a warming earth. And while we’ve gone from calling it Global Warming to Climate Change, the extremes in weather are coming more frequently and in greater intensity according to many scientists. The biggest concern is the melting of the glaciers in the Arctic and Antarctic.

Hasn’t There Has Always Been Climate Change?

There has been climate change ever since the earth got an atmosphere.  No one disputes that. The overwhelming number of climate scientists are concerned that the greenhouse gases we emit when we burn coal, oil and natural gas - those coming out of your car tailpipe and power plants are sending carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And that’s trapping heat and raising temperatures in the ocean and the atmosphere at too high a rate. Those who disagree say the climate models that are predicting doom are overstating the case and point to a recent “hiatus” in the rapid increase in some temperature readings. Many of them say this is part of a natural cycle and presumably believe the earth will be able to absorb all the CO2 without a deleterious effect.

As Richard Somerville, a climate scientist at Scripps Oceanographic Institute told us, “We can say that some things are caused naturally, so for example, when a large volcano goes off, it puts a lot of stuff up in the atmosphere, you can temporarily cool the world, for a year or two, by a degree or two.  And then that goes away, and we can distinguish the fingerprint of that kind of natural change, than the fingerprint of human caused change.  So, it’s a perfectly legitimate question, but what some people don’t realize is that we’ve worked on this question for decades, we’ve done the analysis, (and) we’ve found the fingerprint of human activity.  Mankind is now the dominant factor for causing climate change on scales of say a few decades, not on scales of hundreds of thousands of years.  Nature is still in charge out there. “

Climate Models and Scientific Tolerance:

There is a school of thought that it’s not the climate models that are at fault, but the communicators of the scientific process. Because you can’t look out your window and see climate change the same way you see the weather change day to day, those not in the scientific community are sometimes puzzled by the urgency of scientists. Especially when they say things like NOAA did when announcing that 2014 was the hottest year on record. There was a caveat. There is a 38% chance it’s not the hottest year. (Maybe later it will turn out that 2013 was the hottest?) But, putting in those caveats is part of the scientific process. I call it wiggle-room, the scientists call it tolerance, or margin for error. But, climate science is so complex, involving so many variables, it would be disingenuous to say with 100% certainty it’s the hottest or the sea level will rise 2-feet in a certain number of years. And to muddy the waters a little more scientists have a scale of certainty - they have 95% certainty and then categories of less than 95%.


The IPCC is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is part of the United Nations. They’ve got hundreds of scientists, climate scientists, sociologists, geologists and more, who peer review all sorts of climate science research. Not just the effects on the atmosphere and the oceans, but issues like the effects on peoples  lives and livelihoods, the economy and the environment. Hundreds of these scientists will be meeting in Paris in December 2015 to come to some sort of agreement or roadmap for the entire world to embrace to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions. Even if the United States is a party to an agreement, it may need to be approved by the Senate.

The Big Three Emitters:

China is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. The United States is second. India is third. Recently President Obama came to an agreement with the Chinese to significantly cut back on greenhouse gas emissions. For years Congressional Republicans have used the fact that China was not cutting back on C02 emissions as a reason for not backing cuts here in the US. Meanwhile, the White House is hoping that the agreement between the US and China will spur the Indian Government and all governments to follow suit.

Federal Mandates:

Science aside, much of the dust up over climate change in the United States of America is over how or if we should address the problem. The Obama Administration has resorted to regulations. So for instance, every federal department must now incorporate climate change into its planning. Notable among those are the Department of Defense, which has called climate change a “threat multiplier.” The Navy may be leading the way. Its facilities in the Hampton Bays Norfolk area are vulnerable to sea level rise. And in a unique partnership they are working with local governments to prepare and adapt to sea level rise inundating the area where base personnel live and where critical infrastructure is threatened.

Early this summer, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to release regulations for coal-fired power plants. Opponents are heading to court already, claiming the federal government cannot tell the states how to limit emissions. Some observers believe that even if the regulations stand up, Senate Republicans, who control the purse strings for the EPA, could take away money to enforce the regulations.

If the Scientists are Right, Why so Much Pushback?

To quote President Clinton’s campaign mantra: “It’s the economy….”.

If you flip on a light switch, get in a vehicle, buy a single product you’re involved in creating greenhouse gas emissions.  Just about everything we do involves energy. Many lawmakers fear that a crackdown with federal regulations on the use of fossil fuels will take an enormous toll on the economy and they’re not willing to be the ones to vote to fuel unemployment.

TechKnow’s Lindsay Moran asked Dr. John Holdren, the Obama administrations top science advisor what we would all have to give up to slow down the world’s climate change. Instead he talked about how fighting climate change could create a different economy, as investment in clean energy would fuel a new economy.

The Obama Administration believes that the world, with government help, can create the technology to fuel our world with cleaner energy and better technology. Coincidently, so do some of those who are against the Obama Administration’s regulations. They just want to leave it in the hands of private enterprise.

What the Polls Say:

Of course, science is certainly not a popularity contest. But a New York Times poll on January 30th, 2015 found that 74% of Americans said the federal government should be doing something to combat climate change.  And more than half (51%) of Republicans believe the government needs to do somethingas well. And that brings me to the comment we’ve heard from so many leading Republicans when asked about fighting regulations on climate change. You may have heard it too: “I’m not a scientist.” While some see that a way to not directly take a stand to fight climate change, other’s see it as a way to leave some wiggle room to back climate change regulations and legislation should the electorate start to aggressively swing that way. 

Fossil Fuel Political Contributions:

Environmental activists and others note a curious correlation between fossil fuel political contributions and lawmakers who are fighting greenhouse gas emission standards. I will only note that as they say in the scientific field, correlation doesn’t imply causation.


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