Krugman Fails Climate Science 101

An embarrassing attempt at environmental journalism.

Economist Paul Krugman took to the pages of The New York Times on Sunday in order to regurgitate Sierra Club talking points regarding global warming and to castigate the Republican Party for being “anti-science.” As Roger Simon noted, like just about everybody else writing about the issue, Krugman doesn’t bother to explain or understand the science or the nature of the robust scientific debate that has been going on for some time. Instead, he relies on the Left’s preferred method for analyzing scientific issues: a moistened finger held up to the wind.

Krugman’s central thesis is that theory that mankind is causing catastrophic climate change has to be true, because “97 to 98 per cent of scientists” agree that it’s true. You’ll see the “97 to 98 per cent” number appearing quite often now. It’s become a key talking point of the alarmist crowd, as they struggle to regain relevance in a world that has a harder and harder time taking them seriously. But where does that amazing number come from? It arises from a 2009 survey that two University of Illinois researchers conducted. 10,257 Earth scientists responded and, much to the U of I professors' chagrin, the results were far from satisfying to the alarmist crowd.

Many of the respondents indicated that they believe that natural forces are much more important than mankind’s paltry contributions to climate trends. Some questioned the validity of the models that have been used to predict massive forcing attributable to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. All in all, it wasn’t the kind of response that the researchers were looking for when they were trying to prove consensus. So, the professors decided that 10,180 of the scientists who responded weren’t qualified to comment on the issue because they were merely solar scientists, space scientists, cosmologists, physicists, meteorologists, astronomers and the like. Of the remaining 77 scientists whose votes were counted, 75 agreed with the proposition that mankind was causing catastrophic changes in the climate. And, since 75 is 97.4% of 77, “overwhelming consensus” was demonstrated once again. See Laurence Solomon’s marvelous analysis of the survey for more details.

This attempt to silence dissent across scientific disciplines is a sad and troubling feature of the global warming alarmist movement. As a scientist and a skeptic, I often hear alarmists tell me that I’m not qualified to opine on global warming because I’m merely a chemist. I’m not a climatologist, so my vote should not count. Now, having specialized in air quality work for the past thirty years, having run many dispersion models (related to, but not the same as, climate models) and knowing a fair bit about thermodynamics, I’ll flatter myself to think that I know a whole lot more about the issue than 99% of the people writing about it in the mainstream media. And yet, people like Krugman feel no shame when they speak authoritatively about an issue they don’t understand in the slightest. I’ll make Mr. Krugman a deal: I won’t write about exchange rate instability if he will take a pass on atmospheric science.

There is no question that carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases” play a role in the complex climate system that is planet earth. No scientist denies that. But the stupefyingly oversimplification that leftists like Krugman cling to – that global warming is wholly and directly caused by our use of fossil fuels – is about as idiotic as saying that unemployment rates in Arkansas determine growth in national GDP. The global warming question is, in fact, five distinct questions:

1. Is the planet’s climate changing?

2. If so, is the rate of change cause for concern?

3. If so, can human activities contribute to the rate of change?

4. If so, is the degree to which human activities contribute to the rate of change significant compared to other forces?

5. If so, is it wiser to attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that it is to adapt to the changing climate?

Only if one answers all five questions in the affirmative can one justify further reductions in fossil fuel use. When one considers how scientists answer those questions, we find that the number who would answer every one with an unqualified “yes” hardly represents any sort of consensus at all. See the Heartland Institute’s detailed analysis, “You Call This Consensus,” for more.

Ironically, while leftists like Krugman rave on and on because conservatives like Rick Perry have the courage to question the supposed “consensus,” they appear to be blissfully ignorant of the fact that the United States has been and will continue to do exactly what they want: make massive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Let’s assume for a moment that Krugman is right and that I and the thousands – and there are thousands – of other scientists that disagree with the alarmists are wrong. Let’s say that it is indeed vitally important for the United States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. What else do you want us to do? The fact is – and I am shocked that as clever a fellow as Krugman couldn’t be bothered to do a little research to figure this out – the United States has made massive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and will continue to do so because of all of the programs that are already in place.

A simple check of EPA data shows that greenhouse gas emissions in America have dropped fourteen percent over the course of the last decade. China and India have more than made up for that reduction with increased emissions of course, but to perpetuate the myth that the United States isn’t doing its part is ludicrous. Is some of our reduction due to the great recession? Sure. But the fact is that regulatory initiatives already in place guarantee that greenhouse gas emissions in the United States will continue to drop for decades to come. Before they trot out the tired old idea that Republicans are “anti-science,” it would be nice if mainstream journalists spent some time understanding and reporting on what’s in place. For example:

• Thirty-three states have Renewable Portfolio Standards in place. These programs massively reduce greenhouse gas emissions by forcing states to use less and less fossil fuel each year.

• Northeastern states banded together to put a regional cap and trade program in place that has been up and running since 2009, and consortia of Midwest and western states are working on their own cap and trade programs.

• The USEPA is going to start regulating all large greenhouse gas emissions sources under the Clean Air Act, and its permit program starting on July 1, 2011.

• By passing new, incredibly draconian ambient air standards and new regulations affecting power plants, Obama’s EPA has ensured that no new large coal-fired power plants will be built in the United States again, and that a significant portion of the existing fleet will shut down in the next decade or two.

New CAFE standards will continue to drive down oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles.

In spite of this, in spite of the massive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that we have seen over the course of a decade, and in spite of the incredible reductions in air pollution emissions we have accomplished over the last forty years, it’s never enough for the environmental crowd.  Of course it’s not. They have to keep moving the goal posts farther and farther back to keep themselves relevant. It’s the same old Sierra Clubs “the sky is falling” rhetoric. The fact is that Republicans like Perry are not anti-environment, they are rather sensible enough to recognize that the American people are sick and tired of signing off on every crackpot initiative that liberals expect us to accept just because they wrap a green bow around it.