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How to Hoist Sen. Whitehouse and Rep. Lieu on their own Petards

On Monday, nineteen Senators led by Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) launched a series of floor statements denouncing fossil fuel companies and more than 30 conservative and free-market organizations for allegedly waging “a massive campaign to deceive the public about climate change to halt climate action and protect their bottom lines.”

Ho-hum, another day, another attempt to silence dissent and punish political opponents under the guise of combatting fraud.

To kick off the speakathon on Monday, Sen. Whitehouse and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) introduced a Concurrent Sense of Congress Resolution bashing the same companies and organizations for supposedly obfuscating and denying science in order to feather their own nests. Comparing fossil fuel companies to tobacco companies, the resolution urges the alleged wrongdoers to “cooperate” with “active or future” investigations to determine what they knew about climate change and when they knew it.

Were it not for the prospect of shaking down Big Oil for mega-billions in settlement awards, no reasonably sane pol would build his career around the silly narrative that Exxon is “polluting our democracy” so it can keep “polluting our atmosphere.”

What Exxon Knew

Whitehouse and Lieu make a big deal of recent reports purporting to expose “what Exxon knew” about climate change during the late 1970s and 1980s. The reports, however, confirm only the banal fact that Exxon closely monitored, and participated in, climate science in its formative decades. Then even more than now, climate change science was almost wholly based on climate models. The models are used to make forecasts (“projections”) of how the climate will change as greenhouse gas concentrations increase. Yet even today, several model generations later, state-of-the-art models increasingly fail to hind-cast what has already occurred.

Since the start of the satellite record of global temperatures in 1979, warming projections and observations have increasingly diverged. The figure below compares the average and range of state-of-the-art IPCC model projections with satellite and weather balloon measurements in the tropical mid-troposphere over the same period.

Figure 1: Global average mid-tropospheric temperature variations (5-year averages) for 32 models (lines) representing 102 individual simulations. Circles (balloons) and squares (satellites) depict the observations. The Russian model (INM-CM4) was the only model close to the observations. Source: John Christy

Model projections also increasingly diverge from surface-based monitoring systems going all the way back to the mid-1960s.

Figure 2: The annual average global surface temperatures from 108 individual CMIP5 climate model runs (thick black line) compared to the linear trends of five surface datasets. During all periods from 10 years (2006-2015) to 65 (1951-2015) years in length, the observed temperature trend lies in the lower half of the collection of climate model simulations, and for several periods it lies very close (or even below) the 2.5th percentile of all the model runs. Source: Michaels and Knappenberger

So, what Exxon “knew” in the '70s and '80s was not the state of the climate but the state of climate modeling. Or, as skeptical blogger David Middleton quipped, “Way back in 1982, Exxon knew what [NASA scientist James] Hansen knew. They knew that CO2 would cause nearly twice as much warming as would actually transpire over the subsequent 30 years.”

Figure 3. Red: Hansen’s business-as-usual (no climate policy) scenario. Orange: Hansen’s emission freeze at 1980s level scenario. Yellow: Hansen’s drastic emission-reduction scenario. Light blue: Remote Sensing System (RSS) satellite temperature record. Dark blue: University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) satellite temperature record. Although emissions increased as much as in Hansen’s BAU scenario, observed temperatures are lower than in Hansen’s drastic emission-reduction scenario. Source: John Christy

Back in March, Rep. Lieu and two House Democrat colleagues sent a letter to Securities and Exchange Commission Chair Mary Jo White asking her to investigate Shell Oil based on a Los Angeles Times article titled “Big oil braced for global warming while it fought regulations.” The reporters argue that in the late 1990s, Exxon made investments to protect its Sable offshore gas facilities in Canada from potential sea-level rise, hence must have known how dangerous climate change is. Yet Exxon opposed the Kyoto Protocol, claiming scientists “cannot predict with certainty if temperatures will increase, by how much and where changes will occur.”

That juxtaposition may seem like a big gotcha but it's an empty suit. First, however prudent it may be for an individual energy company operating in an extreme environment to spend its own capital to prepare for an improbable worst-case scenario, that is not evidence it is wise or moral to compel millions of other firms and billions of consumers to ‘invest’ in energy rationing. For reasons detailed here, market-driven climate adaptation is superior to politically-mandated climate mitigation.

Second, a greater degree of scientific certainty is required to justify coercive restructuring of global energy markets over many decades than to support a one-time investment in engineering modifications for facilities planned to be built in any event.

Third, the very example cited by the Times shows how untrustworthy climate models are as a basis for policymaking. In 1997, Exxon modeling estimated sea levels could rise 0.5 meters in 25 years. The actual rate of sea-level rise over the past 24 years is 3.3 mm/year, which works out to a 25-year sea-level increase of about 0.08 meters—only one-sixth the rate Exxon reportedly “assumed.” 

What did Exxon know about sea-level rise in 1997? That there would be six times as much over the next quarter century as would actually occur. How fortunate we are that Exxon only decided to risk its own capital based on errant speculation rather than lobby, as Enron did, for the Kyoto Protocol. Kyoto could have cost the U.S. economy hundreds of billions of dollars in lost GDP and higher energy prices, yet would theoretically reduce 21st century sea-level rise by only 1.4-3.7 cm, according to Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Finally, it is ludicrous for Whitehouse and Lieu to claim “Exxon knew” in the ‘70s and ‘80s how dangerous global warming is when the First Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in 1990, did not even assert as a fact that anthropogenic warming had begun:

The size of the warming is broadly consistent with predictions of climate models, but it is also of the same magnitude as natural variability. Thus the observed increase could be largely due to this natural variability; alternatively this variability and other human factors could have offset a still larger human-induced greenhouse warming. The unequivocal detection of the enhanced greenhouse effect is not likely for a decade or more.

The Hunt for Scapegoats

The environmental movement has waged a multi-decade campaign to regulate America and the world “beyond” fossil fuels. It hasn’t worked. Fossil fuels supplied about 84.5 percent of global energy consumption in 1970 and 81.2 percent in 2013, according to the World Bank. Oil, coal, and natural gas accounted for 85.9 percent of world primary energy consumption in 2015, according to the latest BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

However, rather than acknowledge that fundamental economic and technological realities thwart their agenda, Whitehouse and Lieu blame a vast rightwing conspiracy, dubbed the “web of denial.” It's a childish theory of social causation  as if consumers would stop filling their tanks if only Exxon confessed that global warming is real and dangerous.

The tobacco analogy also implodes upon inspection. Consuming energy is not an unhealthy addiction. Rather, it is the great life-enhancing enabler that puts superhuman power at the beck and call of ordinary people. As White House science advisor John Holdren wrote years ago, "Affordable energy in ample quantities is the lifeblood of the industrial societies and a prerequisite for the economic development of the others​."

Consequently, it is much easier to quit smoking than it is to quit using motorized transport or unplug from a grid powered chiefly by energy sources other than the politically-correct renewables, wind and solar power. Anti-fossil-fuel demagoguery is particularly unseemly coming from senators and congressmen, whose lifestyles are among the most carbon-intensive on the planet. Whitehouse and Lieu bite the hand that feeds them.  

What amazes though, is not that Whitehouse and Lieu want federal and state prosecutors to crack down on political opponents and extort boodle from companies with deep pockets. It’s that these self-anointed guardians of climate orthodoxy have no clue how easily they can be hoist on their own petards. They and their allies routinely mislead the public about the core issues of the climate debate.

Who’s the Fraudster?

First, Whitehouse and Lieu fundamentally distort what the climate debate is about. It’s not about whether climate change is real or whether climate change has potentially serious risks. It’s about how those risks compare to the risks of the “solutions” on offer. It’s also about the cost-effectiveness and political feasibility of those “solutions.” As climate scientist John Christy often says, “If it's not economically sustainable, it's not sustainable.”

The critical stumbling block that Whitehouse and Lieu prefer not to discuss is that the usual suite of climate policies range from costly exercises in futility to “cures” worse than the alleged disease. For example, the Kyoto Protocol might cost the U.S. economy hundreds of billions of dollars in lower GDP and compliance costs, yet avert only 0.15°C of global warming by 2100. More than anything else, it was Kyoto’s abysmal cost-benefit ratio that deterred the Clinton-Gore administration from submitting the treaty to the Senate for a ratification debate.

To be sure, free-market groups, including several supported by Exxon, popularized the message that Kyoto was “all pain for no gain.” But that was not fraud. That was truth. Similarly, EPA’s so-called Clean Power Plan would avert less than 0.02°C of warming by 2100, yet have significant adverse effects on employment, GDP growth, and household income.

The rebuttal, of course, is that if the whole world regulates carbon, governments can take a big bite out of global warming. The problem is that if we accept “consensus” climatology, achieving the Paris climate treaty's goal to limit global warming to 2°C will require developing countries to dramatically reduce their current energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions between now and 2050. Yet those are countries where more than 1 billion people have no electricity at all, and billions more have too little commercial energy to support development. The potential for humanitarian disaster is obvious. You will never hear about it from the likes of Whitehouse and Lieu.

Second, Whitehouse and Lieu deliberately confuse spotlighting real uncertainties with manufacturing false uncertainties. As noted above, climate models increasingly diverge from observations of global temperature. Also, contrary to some modeling, there has been no overall increase in the strength and frequency of hurricanes, or in the magnitude of hurricane-related damages once changes in population, wealth, and the consumer price index are taken into account. Were it not for skeptical scientists, organizations, and blogs, the general public would never know about those issues, because the Whitehouse-Lieu faction would never tell them.

Third, Whitehouse, Lieu, AGs United for Clean Power, the RICO-20, and the “climate action” movement generally serve up a distorted, one-sided picture of fossil energy's impacts on climate risk. Since the 1920s, deaths and death rates related to extreme weather have declined by 93 percent and 98 percent, respectively. Deaths and death rates from drought, historically the most lethal form of extreme weather, declined by 99.8 percent and 99.9 percent, respectively.

Those astonishing gains in public safety would not have occurred absent humanity's increasing access to affordable, plentiful, reliable fossil fuels, which support wealth creation and a host of empowering technologies. As energy scholar Alex Epstein put it, companies producing and using fossil energy did not take a safe climate and make it dangerous, they took a dangerous climate and made it vastly more livable.

Fourth, the Whitehouse-Lieu faction, especially their state AG allies, falsely claim that the RICO and other investigations they demand are designed to protect “shareholder value.” That's a big fat Orwellian inversion. Those investigations, like the carbon taxes, cap-and-trade schemes, renewable energy mandates, energy export restrictions, and various “Keep It In The Ground” policies popular with the global warming movement, are designed to bankrupt fossil fuel companies, inflicting massive losses on shareholders.

Fifth, if minimizing climate risk is fraud, then so is exaggerating climate risk, especially if undertaken to benefit renewable energy interests. That follows as the night the day, but for a detailed exposition see the recent dear colleague letter authored by Alabama attorney general Luther Strange and 12 other state AGs.

Hyping climate peril is a staple of global warming advocacy. President Obama calls climate change “an immediate risk to our national security.” Secretary of State John Kerry calls global warming “perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.” EPA warns that unchecked warming will kill 57,000 Americans annually in 2100 by intensifying air pollution—an estimate based on the ridiculous assumption that, contrary to the trend of the past 40 years, no further progress will be made in reducing air pollutant emissions.

Climate economist Richard Tol succinctly points out the error in all such scaremongering: “Humans are a tough and adaptable species. People live on the equator and in the Arctic, in the desert and in the rainforest. We survived ice ages with primitive technologies. The idea that climate change poses an existential threat to humankind is laughable.”

Sixth, if minimizing climate change risk is fraud, then so is minimizing climate policy risk. As already noted, if today’s errant climate models were correct, averting a 2°C warming will require drastic cuts in developing countries’ current consumption of fossil fuels. The Whitehouse-Lieu faction carry on as if global policymakers can put an already energy-starved planet on an energy diet, and nobody could possibly get hurt.

Whitehouse and Lieu cannot possibly be ignorant that interventions, medical or otherwise, carry risks, and cures may be worse than the supposed disease. Thanks to television pharmaceutical ads, it is increasingly well known that all medications have risks. Commonly reported side effects include suicidal thoughts or actions, decreased resistance to fungal infections, and increased risk of heart attack, cancer, stroke, and death. Only quacks and snake oil salesmen peddle risk-free remedies. Yet our climate physicians pretend governments can suppress the most affordable, reliable, abundant sources of energy, and no harm will come to anyone except a few greedy fossil fuel CEOs.

Civics 101

Time to restate the obvious. Democracy is an adversarial process. Interests that disagree on policy will inevitably challenge the certitude or accuracy of claims made by their opponents. Free societies rely on the marketplace of ideas to sort out the claims and counterclaims of rival interest groups, parties, and political movements. But those of authoritarian bent easily lose patience with a democratic process that does not guarantee them victory in advance.

So they cheat. They reimagine a narrow provision of the Clean Air Act to mean that EPA can restructure the U.S. electric power sector, even though Congress never delegated such authority and the policy would be dead on arrival if introduced as a legislative proposal. They deny that the “most ambitious climate change agreement in history” is a treaty to pretend the Senate has nothing to say about it. They hype climate risk, deny climate policy risk, and vilify their opponents. They concoct “social cost of carbon” sophistry to make fossil fuels look unaffordable no matter how cheap, and renewables look like a bargain at any price.

Finally, when all that fails to persuade Americans that carbon taxes and cap-and-trade are good for them, climate bullies like Whitehouse and Lieu call for “investigations” to chill speech and silence opponents.

Criminalizing policy differences is un-American and should be shunned. However, judged by their own criteria, Whitehouse and Lieu should be investigated for fraud. Prosecutors in such a case would ask: “How much money did you receive in campaign contributions from renewable energy companies, environmental groups, and billionaire donors when you deceived Congress and the public about the perils of restricting global access to affordable energy?”