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Former Gov. Christie Todd Whitman: Partisan of EPA Overreach

Christine Todd Whitman, former New Jersey governor and Environmental Protection Agency administrator under President George W. Bush, recently blasted Trump EPA administrator Scott Pruitt in The New York Times (“How Not to Run the EPA”). Gov. Whitman assures readers that as a Republican appointed by Bush to run EPA, she “can hardly be written off as part of the liberal resistance to the new administration.” Yet her complaints about Pruitt are no different from those voiced by the green Left and anti-Trump media.

That’s not surprising. Gov. Whitman, though still a Republican, supported Hillary Clinton for president in 2016, according to N.J.Com. She supported EPA’s Clean Power Plan, the poster child for rebureaucratic overreach. She attacked Pruitt as soon as President-elect Trump picked him to head EPA. In a December 14, 2016 NPR interview, Whitman called Pruitt a “denier of climate change.” Asked to verify that allegation, Whitman said “Well, it’s been more in action.” In other words, opposition to Obama’s climate policies equals denial of climate science. Such sophistry is a favorite rhetorical trick of the “resistance”—a movement more aptly described as illiberal.

Whitman frets that Pruitt’s recent “installation of a political appointee to ferret out grants” containing the term “climate change” will politicize the agency. As if EPA were not already politicized! The vast majority of EPA grants are not competitively awarded, inviting grant selection based on political criteria. Federal grants to municipal and non-profit climate programs are more likely to grease activist networks and spread alarm than advance science or foster resiliency. Hillary Clinton would have retained or ramped up such patronage, but she lost. Enhanced vetting of EPA grants is part of a broader “back to basics” effort to refocus the agency’s resources on congressionally-directed responsibilities.

Whitman claims a Red Team-Blue Team review of climate science, which Pruitt endorsed in June, “will serve only to confuse the public” because “the basic physics of the climate are well understood. Burning fossil fuels emits carbon dioxide. And carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere. There is no debate about that. The link is as certain as the link between smoking and cancer.”

It is Whitman who confuses the public. The climate debate is not about “basic physics” and the smoking analogy is bogus. Medical science tells us smoking causes cancer and quitting is the healthy choice. Basic physics does not tell us climate change is catastrophic. Nor does it tell us that “Keep It in the Ground” fossil-fuel cessation will make us healthier, safer, or more secure.

The magnitude of climate change impacts critically depends on climate sensitivity—how much warming results from a given increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration. Climate sensitivity cannot be inferred from basic physics due to large persistent uncertainties about the relative strengths of the feedbacks, positive and negative, that may amplify or damp down the warming effect of greenhouse gas emissions.

The good news is many recent empirically-based studies estimate lower climate sensitivity than “consensus” climatology has assumed since the late 1970s. Consistent with that research, the observed rate of warming in the lower atmosphere—about 0.13°C per decade since 1978—is less than half the 0.27°C/decade average rate of UN climate models.

Basic physics is also no substitute for long-term empirical observation to determine how much the climate is changing.  For example, rising sea surface temperatures will increase the energy available for hurricane formation, but other factors also affect hurricane genesis, intensity, and storm tracks. The world is about 1°C warmer today than in 1900. Yet since 1900, there has been no trend in the frequency and power of U.S. land-falling hurricanes, and none in U.S. hurricane-related damages once economic losses are adjusted for increases in wealth, population, and the consumer price index.

Basic physics also does not tell us whether, from a human standpoint, the state of the climate is getting worse or better. Consider the following:

  • Since 1990, weather-related losses as a percent of global GDP have declined by about one-third. Despite global warming, our largely fossil-fueled civilization is becoming less vulnerable to climate risk.
  • Since 1960, U.S. urban air temperatures increased by about 1°C. Yet during that same span of time, U.S. heat-related mortality continually declined.  
  • Since the 1920s, about 90 percent of all energy-related carbon dioxide emissions entered the atmosphere and the world warmed by about 0.8°C. Yet by the end of the 20th Century, global deaths and death rates related to drought—historically the most lethal form of extreme weather—had decreased by 99.8 percent and 99.9 percent, respectively.

Human beings using fossil fuels did not take a safe climate and make it dangerous; rather, they took a dangerous climate and made it dramatically safer, notes energy scholar Alex Epstein.

Finally, basic physics sheds no light on the other side of the risk ledger—the potentially harmful impacts of today’s popular “climate solutions.” Consider the Paris Climate Agreement, which aims to limit global warming to “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial levels. If mainstream climate sensitivity estimates are correct, meeting that target will require developing countries to make draconian cuts in their current consumption of fossil fuels. Yet more than one billion people in those countries have no access to electricity and billions more have too little energy to sustain development. The economic, health, and security risks of climate policy can easily exceed those of climate change.

Whitman writes that “Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the enormous wildfires in the Western United States and widespread flooding from monsoons in Southeast Asia are potent reminders of the cost of ignoring climate science.” But the science on hurricanes, wildfires, and monsoons gives Whitman no grounds for castigating Pruitt.  

As noted, there has been no trend since 1900 in the frequency, strength, and destructiveness of U.S. land-falling hurricanes. That may change. However, neither one hurricane season nor even several active seasons is long enough to detect a greenhouse “signal” in the noise of natural inter-decadal variability.  

Harvey and Irma were the first major (Category 3+) hurricanes to strike the United States since Wilma in 2005. That 12-year major hurricane “drought” beats the previous record holder, an eight-year period (1861-1868) with no major U.S. hurricane strikes, in a record going back to 1851. Since 1970, five hurricanes of Category 4 or 5 strength struck the United States. “In the previous 47 years, the country was struck by 14 such storms,” notes University of Colorado professor Roger Pielke, Jr. All we can reasonably infer about the climate system from Harvey and Irma is that our luck ran out.

Several facts weigh against claims that global warming caused or intensified Harvey and Irma:

  • There is no correlation between all major hurricane strikes in Texas since 1870 and sea surface temperature variations over the western Gulf of Mexico, according to University of Alabama in Huntsville atmospheric scientist Roy Spencer. For spawning major hurricanes, it really doesn’t matter whether Gulf water temperature is above average or below average.
  • Harvey produced extraordinary flooding because it stalled over Houston, dumping nearly all its rain on a relatively compact area. University of Pennsylvania professor Michael Mann claims global warming slowed Harvey’s movement by pushing the jet stream farther north. Weather data conflict with that hypothesis, Spencer contends: “We didn’t have a warm August” such as might shift the jet stream northward.
  • Meteorologist Cliff Mass similarly finds “no change in zonal winds over the Gulf of Mexico for the past 50 years” such as might account for Harvey’s meander after making landfall. He also reports there has been no trend in hurricane season precipitation around Houston during the past 50 years.
  • Climatologist Judith Curry reports that Irma developed into a major hurricane “over relatively cool waters in the Atlantic—26.5°C—the rule of thumb is 28.5°C for a major hurricane (and that threshold has been inching higher in recent years).”

All else equal, warmer weather will increase the likelihood of forest fires. However, the big picture is less clear than Whitman suggests. A study using remote sensing imagery to assess high-severity fire trends in the Sierra Nevada during 1984-2014 found “no trend in proportion, area or patch size of high-severity fire.” Natural climate cycles such as El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO), and Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) influence North American wildfire frequency, making it difficult to isolate a greenhouse signal. Further complicating the picture, the most important “anthropogenic” factor is simply people starting fires. A recent study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that human beings caused 84 percent of all U.S. wildfires during 1992-2012.   

As for monsoons, the UN IPCC reports that for several large-scale climate phenomena, such as “ENSO, Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), and monsoons, there are large observational and modelling uncertainties,” and “there is low confidence that changes in these phenomena, if observed, can be attributed to human-induced influence” (Fifth Assessment Report, Chapter 10, p. 899).

Whitman claims Pruitt’s Red Team proposal shows he does not understand “how science works.” There is no need for a Red Team to examine consensus climatology, she contends, because “The critical tests of peer review and replication ensure that the consensus is sound,” and “Government bases policy on those results.”

So, according to Whitman, there is no politics in climate research (ludicrous) and none in government’s use of science to make policy (preposterous).

Numerous retractions of published studies show peer review is at best a preliminary quality control filter. In practice, peer review may be little more than pal review, with allies approving each other’s work and editors functioning as gatekeepers to marginalize dissent. Climate science is fertile ground for such abuse, for two reasons. First, government is almost the sole funder, government’s number one interest is to expand, and the more terrible climate change is perceived to be the more likely the public is to endure costly new taxes, regulations, and mandates. Second, replication—the decisive quality control test in science—is severely constrained in climate research because the key predictions are so long-term that today’s researchers will not be around to test them against data.

If appropriately moderated, a series of on-the-record exchanges between teams of rival experts could make climate research both more accessible and trustworthy. Physicist and former Obama official Steve Koonin identifies several potential benefits:

It would allow the public and decision makers a better understanding of certainties and uncertainties. It would more firmly establish points of agreement and identify urgent research needs. Most important, it would put science front and center in policy discussions, while publicly demonstrating scientific reasoning and argument.

In July 2013, Gov. Whitman urged the Senate to confirm Gina McCarthy as EPA administrator. That despite McCarthy’s history of misleading Congress about the agency’s big-ticket climate regulations. Whatever her party label, Whitman is as partisan for EPA overreach as any Democrat to head the agency.