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Scientists, lawmakers clash over climate change

February 20th, 2010 Posted in Opinion

By Chris Romriell

As blizzards pounded away at the East Coast last week, Utah lawmakers passed a resolution questioning whether global warming actually exists.

The “Climate Change Joint Resolution,” submitted by state Rep. Kerry W. Gibson, focuses on possible damage to Utah’s economy from proposed cap-and-trade policies regulating carbon emissions, and questions the legitimacy of climate science.

“Cap and trade” policies put a cap on companies’ greenhouse gas emissions; companies whose carbon emissions exceed their cap may then purchase, or “trade” for, additional carbon allowances to cover the excess emissions.

In Utah, Texas and other states, the nexus of the debate over climate change has come to focus  on states’ rights and federal power, and a collision of between economic interests and what some consider bad policy growing from unproven science.

State Rep. Fred Hunsaker, who represents Utah’s fourth district, was one of three Cache Valley lawmakers who voted for the resolution. He said he believes the resolution is more of an economic statement than an attack on global warming.

“There are others that would interpret [the resolution] quite differently, I’m sure,” said Hunsaker, who is also USU’s vice president for business and finance. “On all of these issues you can find a lot of opinions. I saw it more as a statement on the economy, and the effect on the economy.”

Hunsaker said one of the resolution’s sponsors is a dairy farmer who complained that the proposed federal greenhouse gas regulations would cost him about $175 per cow, more than a cow will yield in its lifetime. The regulations would put a lot of people out of business, the farmer argued, in more areas than farming, Hunsaker said.

But for USU physicist Robert Davies of the Utah Climate Center, the threatened regulations rely on legitimate science that concludes that humans need to lower greenhouse gas emissions dramatically. Similar previous cap-and-trade efforts were very effective, Davies said, noting sulfur dioxide pollution problems of the 1970s and ’80s.

“The cap-and-trade system has been solidly effective in doing this in a couple of different cases,” Davies said. “The most prominent is sulfur dioxide emissions, where sulfur dioxide was creating acid rain.”

Cap-and-trade regulations were hugely successful in reducing sulfur emissions and acid rain, Davies says, and the measures weren’t nearly as expensive as industry claimed they would be.

Local environmentalist Bryan Dixon says that because state lawmakers don’t want to agree to the proposed regulations suggested by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), they are attacking whether global warming even exists. “They are trying to discredit the science, and that is pretty ludicrous,” Dixon said.

“The resolution on the surface has a lot of different aspects to it,” Dixon said. “The representatives are saying they don’t believe that climate change is real, and they don’t think humans have caused any changes.”

But that’s not what the Utah resolution—H.J.R. 12—is really about, he said. “H.J.R. 12 is really an argument over whether the federal government should be regulating carbon dioxide.”

The Utah legislative resolution urges the EPA not to attempt to regulate carbon dioxide emissions until climate data and global warming science are substantiated.

“Out of 15 statements made in the H.J.R.12, I think eight of them have to do with climate science,” Davies said. “All eight of them are patently false.”

In a letter addressed to Utah lawmakers last week, 15 BYU scientists argue that several of H.J.R. 12’s claims are problematic. A number of University of Utah science professors and researchers also signed onto the BYU protest, as did Davies.

The resolution claims that findings regarding carbon dioxide are based on “flawed climate data.”

The claim of “flawed” data refers to information uncovered when criminals hacked into the email system of England’s Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia, a world-renowned organization focused on the study of climate change. In those emails, a scientist refers to fabricating climate data.

H.J.R. 12 says these “emails and other communications between climate researchers around the globe, referred to as ‘climategate,’ indicate a well organized and ongoing effort to manipulate and incorporate tricks related to global temperature data in order to produce a global warming outcome.”

But Davies points out that the claims of anti-environmental groups are themselves flawed, at best. “What the legislators have done is to accept at face value the cherry-picking of very specific statements in these emails,” Davies said, “I have read the emails, and legislators claim scientists have manipulated the temperature data. There is no evidence for that.”

Meanwhile, the Utah resolution’s sponsors offer no supporting evidence for any of their claims challenging scientific evidence of climate change, Davies said.

“There’s not a single footnote, there’s not a single reference in the whole thing,” Davies said. “They don’t reference a single thing—they just state it, and it’s nonsense.”

H.J.R. 12 claims that global temperatures have been level and even declining in some areas over the past 12 years, and that “climate alarmists” have been unable to account for recent cooling of temperatures worldwide.

But Davies argues that fluctuations don’t change the fact that over time, the climate is steadily warming.

Dixon agrees. “We aren’t talking about changes next Tuesday, we are talking about changes in 20 to 30 years,” he said. “It might not happen, but, boy! the evidence sure does point that it’s likely to happen, and it’s going to be really disastrous.”

One of the biggest problems, says Davies, is that lawmakers and other interest groups who oppose big government and support free-trade/capitalism have turned what should be a debate over policy into a debate over scientific evidence. What should be a conversation over national and global policy has been transformed into a liberal-conservative, us-versus-them partisan struggle.

“If you self-identify as liberal, you are strongly likely to accept the science of climate change as legitimate,” Davies said. “And if you self-identify as conservative, you‘re strongly unlikely to accept it as illegitimate.”

This takes the conversation out of a fact-based frame into an ideological one, which gets in the way of finding solutions.

“So now when I ask someone to accept the science of climate change,” Davies said, “I’m not just asking you to accept the science of climate change, I am asking you to accept a position that in your mind makes you believe that you are a liberal.”

Davies says he has no doubt that climate change will be the pre-eminent global issue of the 21st century.

The issues will range from melting polar icecaps and glaciers, to rising oceans, to violent shifts in weather patterns, threatened plant and animal species, economic and health impacts.

“The science tells us that unquestionably these anthropogenic, human emissions of greenhouse gases need to be reduced 80 or 90 percent by mid-century if you want to have a chance of keeping the damage to a minimum,” Davies said.


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