Michaels and Cato Unwittingly Accept the Climate Threat

As we know, it is absolutely critical that we reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as much as possible, as soon as possible, to minimize the damage that climate change will do.  Thus the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) endangerment finding - which concluded that GHGs are pollutants as defined by the Clean Air Act and must therefore be regulated - is a critical document.  Although there have been steps taken by individual states (i.e. RGGI and California) to regulate GHG emissions, we have had little success in implementing measures to reduce emissions on a national level, other than piecemeal steps like higher vehicle fuel efficiency standards which are often implemented for other non-climate reasons.  There are of course many individuals who oppose the EPA endangerment finding for two main reasons, (i) they oppose any steps to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and (ii) they oppose any government regulations. 

Unfortunately the American political party environmental policy positions have shifted.  In the 1980s, political liberals tended to favor government regulation as the solution to environmental problems, while political conservatives in the Reagan and Bush administrations came up with the concept of cap and trade systems to use the free market to solve them.  To the conservatives' credit, cap and trade systems have worked remarkably well - the up-front costs were much lower than originally predicted, and they have saved Americans tens to hundreds of billions of dollars.   Now cap and trade is the favored solution to GHG emissions amongst political liberals in the USA, while the conservatives who originated the concept now generally oppose it, instead choosing to reject climate science and deny the problem exists at all.

Since these conservatives have successfully blocked attempts to implement a cap and trade or other carbon pricing system, we are left with government regulation (via the EPA and its endangerment finding) as the only alternative to reduce GHG emissions from large emitters.  Into this scene enter serial data deleter Patrick Michaels and his fossil fuel-funded Cato Institute political think tank, which have released a voluminous report attempting to undermine the endangerment finding, with their misguided efforts of course being promoted by the usual climate denial enablers.

In this post, we will examine some of the key findings in the Cato report and demonstrate how they are flawed, and that Michaels and Cato unwittingly acknowledge that the EPA is correct about the threat of human-caused climate change in the process.

Global Warming is Primarily Human-Caused

The EPA endangerment finding was based on several major climate science reports, such as the IPCC report and the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) report Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States.  The USGCRP report listed 10 key findings which Michaels and Cato have 'tweaked' to reflect their own perception of the science.  The first key finding of each:

USGCRP: Global warming is unequivocal and primarily human-induced.

Cato: Climate change is unequivocal and human activity plays some part in it.

In other words, Michaels and Cato dispute that humans are the primary cause of the 20th Century global warming/climate change.  To support this position, they refer to page 16 of their report, which essentially just rehashes the myth that because the 1910-1945 rate of warming was similar to that since 1975, the latter warming may be natural.

"The first warming is not likely to be associated with greenhouse gas changes, and the lack of statistically significant warming since 1996, which is concurrent with the greatest increases in greenhouse gases, is of unknown importance at this time."

As it so happens, there were significant human GHG emissions in the early 20th Century, which caused atmospheric CO2 levels to rise from 300 to 310 parts per million by volume (ppmv) from 1910 to 1945.  This CO2 rise alone would have caused approximately 0.1°C surface warming, which is approximately 20% of the total observed warming during that period.

More importantly, the Cato argument is intellectually lazy, because it fails to actually examine the causes of these warming periods.  A number of climate scientists have conducted attribution studies and universally find that while the 1910-1945 warming was predominantly caused by natural effects (i.e. increasing solar activity and an extended period of low volcanic activity), the warming over the past 50 years has been dominated by human GHG emissions (Figure 1).

HvA 50 years

Figure 1: Net human and natural percent contributions to the observed global surface warming over the past 50-65 years according to Tett et al. 2000 (T00, dark blue), Meehl et al. 2004 (M04, red), Stone et al. 2007 (S07, green), Lean and Rind 2008 (LR08, purple), Huber and Knutti 2011 (HK11, light blue), and Gillett et al. 2012 (G12, orange).

And of course while the warming since 1996 (this date being selected with a juicy cherrypick) may not quite be statistically significant at a 95% confidence level, surface temperatures have most likely warmed approximately 0.2°C over the past 15 years - a fact which Cato and Michaels conveniently neglect to mention.

In short, on this point the  USGCRP report and EPA endangerment finding are based on a sound review of all the scientific evidence, while Michaels' Cato argument is based on two characteristics of scientific denialism - misrepresentation and logical fallacies, and cherrypicking.

More Michaels Logical Fallacies

In fact, misrepresentation and logical fallacies are the preferred method by which Michaels and Cato dispute the USGCRP report and EPA endangerment finding.  For example, in response to the conclusion that climate change will stress water sources, Michaels and Cato argue that water sources have been stressed in the past, and therefore will be stressed in the future "with or without human-induced climate change."  While this is certainly a true statement, it does not follow that we should increase the frequency and magnitude of water resource stress by increasing evaporation, drought frequency, water loss from plants, etc., as the USGCRP report notes will occur as human-induced climate change increases.

Similarly, while the USGCRP report notes that continuing climate change will cause various thresholds to be crossed, leading to large changes in ecosystems, Michaels and Cato respond again by saying that ecosystems will change with or without human-induced climate change.  Again, it does not follow that we should increase the frequency and magnitude at which a dangerous event happens just because this type of event will eventually happen naturally.

While this is a glaring logical fallacy, Michaels and Cato follow with perhaps an even greater fallacy, arguing that climate change does not pose a threat because we may be able to adapt to it.

Mitigation, Adaptation, and Suffering

Throughout the report, Michaels takes a similar position as that espoused by his colleague Chip Knappenberger with regards to heat fatalities.  In fact, Michaels references the same paper as Knappenberger when making this argument, which the two co-authored with Robert Davis in 2003.

The long and short of it is that the EPA endangerment finding is predicated on the fact that human-caused climate change poses a threat to public health and welfare, but Michaels and Cato argue that it's not a threat because we can adapt to it.  As one example (though the Cato report contains many other similar arguments) they point to their Davis et al. (2003) paper which argues that heat-related deaths are less common in hotter cities.  From this Knappenberger actually argued that more frequent heat waves will actually lead to fewer heat-related deaths, which is another rather glaring logical fallacy, and also not borne out by the data.

However, the most glaring logical fallacy here involves the conclusion that climate change does not pose a threat because we can adapt to it.  In reality, if climate change did not pose a threat, we would not need to adapt to it.  For example, the only reason people would need to adapt to more frequent heat waves is because they pose a threat to human welfare.

As Lonnie Thompson put it, "The only question is how much we will mitigate, adapt, and suffer" to human-caused climate change.  Adaptation has a cost, and a much greater overall cost than mitigation, but the point that Michaels and Cato miss is that the possibility that we may be able to adapt to a threat does not negate the existence of that threat - quite the contrary.  We may or may not be able to successfully adapt to those threats, but that question is predicated on the fact that the threats exist, and therefore the EPA endangerment finding is correct. 

By arguing that climate change poses threats that we may be able to adapt to, Michaels and Cato have unwittingly acknowledged that the EPA is right to regulate GHG emissions due to the threat they pose to public welfare.

The Tragedy of the Cato

The final USGCRP 'key finding' notes that "future climate change and its impacts will depend on choices made today", effectively echoing the conclusions of the Australian Climate Commission's The Critical Decade report that we are running out of time to sufficiently reduce our GHG emissions.  Michaels and Cato responded by claiming that developed nations' emissions reductions won't matter, because our emissions will be dwarfed by those from developing nations like China.

This is of course the CO2 limits will make little difference 'Tragedy of the Commons' myth.  In reality, developing nations like China are making efforts to limit their GHG emissions growth, because they recognize the threat posed by human-caused climate change.  However, developing nations understandably want developed nations - which are responsible for most of the human-caused climate change thus far - to lead the way in emissions reductions.  If developed nations like the USA sit on our hands and say "our emissions don't matter," then China will have no incentive to reduce their emissions either.  This is an example of Tragedy of the Commons whereby everybody looks out for their own best interests at the detriment of the collective best interest.

Every nation can say "our emissions by themselves are too small to matter," and if everybody takes this approach, nobody will reduce emissions.  This is why we need international climate agreements in which all nations commit to reducing their emissions.  However, the USA (which should be leading the way as the largest historical emitter) cannot commit to serious emissions reduction goals if groups like Cato are successful in undermining climate legislation on a national level.

It's an effective Catch-22.  Cato argues that US emissions won't matter because China's emissions will be too large, China won't commit to emissions reductions unless the USA leads the way, and the USA can't lead the way with groups like Cato successfully undermining national climate legislation.

Until US policymakers move beyond the Cato-style climate logical fallacies, the EPA regulation of large GHG emitters via the endangerment finding is the only large-scale emissions reductions effort we have.  Instead of using the characteristics of scientific denialism to deny the threat exists, the Cato Institute should return to its conservative roots and support a free market solution to the problem via a carbon pricing mechanism.  In the meantime, the climate threat will only continue to grow until it eventually reaches the point where it becomes undeniable - but at that point it may be too late to avoid the suffering Lonnie Thompson has warned us about.

Note: A federal appeals court this week emphatically upheld the endangerment finding, concluding that the EPA was “unambiguously correct” that the Clean Air Act requires the federal government to impose limits once it has determined that emissions are causing harm.  In a blow to climate contrarians like Michaels and Cato, the judges wrote "This is how science works.  EPA is not required to re-prove the existence of the atom every time it approaches a scientific question."

Note also that Judith Curry has attempted to critique this post, but did not raise any substantive criticisms, and seems to have missed the point entirely.  Chris Colose does however raise some substantive criticisms of the Cato report in the comments beginning here.

Posted by dana1981 on Saturday, 30 June, 2012

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