On the question of global warming control, the confirmation hearings for President-Elect Obama's choices for environmental leadership posts present a critical juncture for the future of America and the world. While running for election, Barack Obama repeatedly declared our planet to be in peril from global warming, which he presumably has come to believe is significantly caused by human activity. That augurs for extensive regulation, the expense of which can readily run into the trillion dollar range. Yet many highly competent scientists would say that there is no proof that human-caused CO2 emission is threatening the Earth, and there is no benefit to the environment from limiting CO2 emission.
According to Reuters, President-Elect Barack Obama has asked Congress "to act without delay" to pass legislation that includes doubling alternative energy production in the next three years and building a new electricity "smart grid." He said he also planned to modernize 75 percent of federal buildings and improve energy efficiency in 2 million homes to save consumers billions of dollars on energy bills.
It is important to understand that these pronouncements promoting energy efficiency and alternative energy are not propositions that have anything directly to do with the controversy over regulations of carbon dioxide or about the "global warming" that CO2 allegedly causes. The promoted activities address two separate and, I think, very worthwhile policy imperatives: 1) the nation's energy security, and 2) the need for efficient alternative and conventional energy sources and delivery systems. The global warming question is separate, and, if mishandled, it can lead to costly and ill-conceived interference with the two mentioned imperatives, and waste trillions of dollars.
On global warming, and man's role in it, my friends who were devoted to the election of Senator Obama as President, some very close to him, have assured me in terms like: "Obama's administration will be evidence-driven" and, "Anti-intellectualism in presidential politics is on its way out." Supporters like these are "confident that the new administration will be very thoughtful about using scientific evidence in making policy decisions, including [carbon control]".
While we will all be well-served if these voter expectations on executive process are met in President Obama's administration, there are reasons to be skeptical and very worried that the perception is not going to be the reality. One obvious reason is the President-elect's own pronouncements that the planet is in peril sound like his mind is fully made up. That's the rub.
As a lawyer concentrating in environmental issues for clients, I initially thought the advent of regulation addressing global warming issues would be something of a societal boon in the name of a good cause, despite the added regulatory burden and cost. It would be good for my livelihood too, because when new regulations come along, people need their lawyers, and over the course of a career as a lawyer, you get up on the next wave and ride it to the beach as far as you can. With clean water and clean air at stake, it was a process with a good purpose and result. Many national law and consulting firms are grabbing their surfboards for climate change. They are busily forming practice groups, holding seminars and doing whatever it takes to get this anticipated new wave of business. Investors and the SEC are pressuring industries to disclose their carbon-related "risk". States are already regulating the issue, and the Supreme Court bought into the alarmist science, even though USEPA demurred.
My problem with jumping on this eager bandwagon of CO2 control merchants is that the more I look at the subject, it appears that the science supposedly determining the earth is in peril due to human CO2 emissions is increasingly questionable. CO2 gas, which is a very tiny component of the atmosphere, is necessary food for plants and is breathed out by all breathing creatures. It is asserted to be a danger to the earth's climate, even though it now constitutes a bit less than 4 one-hundrecths of one percent of the atmosphere by volume. Even another one hundredth of a percent rise is asserted by some to get us in the serious peril range. For comparison sake, it needs to be said that in the Carboniferous Period and the Ordovician Period (geologic periods some 300 and 500 million years ago) which were the only geological periods during the Paleozoic Era when global temperatures were as low as they are today, there was an Ice Age while at the same time CO2 concentrations then were apparently nearly 12 times higher than today-- 4400 ppm.
When the Republican minority on the Senate Environment committee gets to voice a few questions of Obama's nominees (even if not in prime time), I hope they will stress two things: 1) the issue is critical, not just to the environment, but to the future of worthwhile energy efficiency and energy security policies for the United States, and 2) to live up to the President's promise of honesty, transparency and good science, the Administration needs to take a fresh look at whether human activity is really endangering the climate.
Republicans cannot expect the Obama nominees to recant the Inconvenient Truth mantra from the witness stand. Their best hope is to get a promise of good-faith, honest and serious review of the recent science, and a promise to demonstrate that the need is genuine. This is hopefully possible, since, for example, Lisa Jackson, Mr. Obama's EPA pick, is reputed to be capable of a measured approach to volatile issues. She has serious smarts and good science credentials, too.
Anyone serious about the policy issues here needs to start with the acceptance of the idea that some estimable amount of the observed rise in atmospheric concentrations of CO2 over the last century or two is due to human activity. The real issue is whether and how much that matters to the future of the planet. The environmentalist/alarmist theory (I stress the word theory) is that this human addition can throw our climate out of whack.
The theory is suspect because it depends on assertions about earth's climate history that omit or misstate important facts, and its predictions of doom are based on global climate models that have been shown by highly competent scientists to be incapable of the very predictions they purport to make. What led me ultimately to believe the theory is unsound is the publication of data and evidence that are not consistent with the theory itself being valid. When I went to school, facts contradicting a theory meant you better re-examine your theory. I would hope that the Obama appointees will have the intellectual and moral integrity to examine these questions
In March 2008, a group of scientists led by S. Fred Singer, Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia, produced the report of the Non-Governmental International Panel on Climate Change. It compiled a cogent and compelling list of reasons why it is not demonstrable that human induced CO2 rise is threatening the Earth's climate. The conclusion is that natural causes overwhelm any consideration of human causation, and that there is no serious evidence of human causation, either from so-called climate models or the data. There are dozens and dozens of publications and findings additional to the non-governmental panels that also support the weakness of the theory. Senator James Inhofe and other GOP members of the Environmental Committee have themselves compiled a growing list of scientists who doubt the role of CO2 from man's is significant and also a compendium of articles.
The minority needs to press the nominees with serious determination. In March 2009 a second non-governmental forum will be held in New York, with world status scientists like Richard Lindzen of MIT and Willie Soon of Harvard presenting. The UN IPCC will hold its own conference later in March.
Senator Inhofe should challenge Lisa Jackson and the other nominees to attend or send official representatives to the Second Non-Governmental conference, as well as to the UN. He should ask Ms. Jackson to commit to engage with the minority on the committee. In the context of lowered temperatures and actual predictions of renewed short term cooling, surely they can defer for a year. If not, they will be handing the Republicans a winning issue in 2010, because they will have begun to disrupt American industry in the cause of suspect science that is quite likely to prove deficient.Harvey M. Sheldon is a partner in a Chicago law firm, where he concentrates in environmental law issues. These comments are his and do not represent the position of his firm or of any client.