Posted by: bmeverett | July 8, 2013

Obama’s Climate Change Speech

On Tuesday, June 25, President Obama gave what was billed as a signature speech on climate change at Georgetown. Alas, the President offered the same old tired arguments we’ve been hearing for years. I’m tempted to go through the speech and comment line by line, but let’s cut to the chase and look instead at the two critical parts of the speech.

First, the President asserted that “So the question is not whether we need to act. The overwhelming judgment of science – of chemistry and physics and millions of measurements – has put all that to rest. Ninety-seven percent of scientists, including, by the way, some who originally disputed the data, have now put that to rest.” I’m assuming that the President is referring to a May, 2013 article in Environmental Research Letters by John Cook of the University of Queensland and several colleagues entitled “Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature”. Prof. Cook surveyed the abstracts of about 12,000 peer-reviewed articles on the subjects of “global climate change” or “global warming” and found that 66.4% of the articles expressed no position on anthropogenic global warming (AGW), while 32.6% endorsed AGW, 0.7% rejected AGW and the remaining 0.3% were uncertain. He then asked these authors directly about their positions on AGW. Based on these results, Prof. Cook concludes that 97.2% of the authors who expressed a position on AGW supported “the consensus”.

There are three logical problems with this analysis. The first issue is what Cook means by “consensus.” His paper defines consensus as the view that “human activity is very likely causing most of the current GW [global warming]”. This definition is inadequate. The argument for decisive (and very expensive) action on climate change is not that anthropogenic atmospheric warming has occurred but that it will accelerate based not on increased carbon emissions alone, but on the amplifying effects of the feedback loops created by cloud formation, ocean acidification and other factors. If a scientist agrees that humans have caused most of the warming to date, but doubts whether warming will accelerate, is he part of the consensus?

Prof. Cook’s work is part of a troubling trend of surveys designed to prove a point rather than gain information. (See my May 3 post on “Sexual Assault Awareness”.) If Prof. Cook wanted to know what scientists truly believe about climate change, he should have used a more rigorous methodology. First, he should have asked a much more set of detailed questions about the various components of the climate change issue. Has the atmosphere warned over the past 150 years? Is this warming beyond the range of the natural variability of the climate? Does atmospheric carbon enhance the greenhouse effect leading to warming? Are the feedback loops created by clouds, etc. positive or negative? Given the uncertainty, how much economic sacrifice should we endure to reduce our carbon emissions?

Furthermore, Cook should have been careful to differentiate between the opinion of each scientist on these issues and the scientists’ conclusions on what the evidence actually shows. As an analogy, let’s take the question of whether there is life on Mars. If you ask all the scientists studying this issue whether there is life on Mars, you might get different answers than if you asked them whether there is clear evidence of life on Mars. The first question asks an opinion and allows subjective judgment and speculation. The second does not.

The second problem with Cook’s argument is that science does not operate by consensus, but by evidence. During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church addressed the pressing scientific issues of its day (such as whether the Sun revolves around the Earth or vice-versa) by convening councils of experts, usually clerics, who would review scripture and the writings of authoritative philosophers to determine the truth by consensus. The scientific method, as presented by Galileo and others, is quite different: Truth is established by stating a hypothesis and testing it against evidence. In reality, the evidence shows that the Earth revolves around the Sun even if 100% of the designated experts believe otherwise. The consensus offered by the Church as a basis for persecuting heliocentrists was meaningless. The hypothesis that human-generated carbon emissions will cause catastrophic climate change can be validated when and only when climate models can make reasonable predictions about how climate will respond to additional carbon concentrations. So, far, they can’t. For example, none of the models predicted or can even explain the 15-year plateau in global temperatures experienced since the late 1990s, even as carbon emissions have increased.

At any given time, the scientific community is wrong on many issues (geocentrism, Newtonian physics, the age of the universe, continental drift, acid rain and others). The only way to find out which “consensus” views are right and which are wrong is, well, science.

The third problem is a potentially severe survey bias. Published articles do not span the entire range of scientific opinion, only the views of scientists both willing and able to publish. Many scientists who have relevant knowledge don’t publish articles. Some climate scientists might like to publish articles expressing skepticism but may be deterred from doing so by the very real fear of social rejection by their colleagues or at worst the kind of vicious reputational assault the Climate Community launches on people who disagree with them. The number of peer-reviewed articles can also reflect the distribution of funding rather than the range of scientific opinion. Finally, as was so clearly demonstrated by the “Climategate” scandal, the editors of scientific journals can easily exclude views they don’t like and can even collude in determining which articles are published and which are not. Cook’s survey should have been both blind as to who was conducting the research and anonymous, allowing the respondents to state what they really believe without risk of censure by their colleagues.

Overall, President Obama’s “97% consensus” is meaningless. As one of my former Fletcher students recently said, “Pretty soon climate science will have to be replaced by actual science.”

The second critical part of the President’s speech was his “plan”. Having declared with certainty the dire consequences of climate change and stating “I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing”, what exactly is President Obama proposing to do? Actually, all he did is reiterate his 2009 promise to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions by 17% by the year 2020 compared to the 2005 level.

Always be suspicious when someone chooses a historical year as their comparison basis. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), estimated US carbon emissions from energy use rose from 5.0 billion metric tonnes per year in 1990 to a 2004-2006 high of about 6 billion tonnes, and then began to decline, dropping below 5.4 billion tonnes in 2012. In other words, President Obama chose the peak of US carbon emissions as his base year. President Obama would like to claim credit for this decline, but he really can’t. Government energy policy may have made a slight contribution to the 2005-2012 decline, but high energy prices and a prolonged recession were the major drivers.

In any case, the President has committed to a 2020 emissions level of about 5 billion tonnes, 17% below the 2005 level of 6 billion tonnes. Fortunately for him, 60% of this reduction has already occurred. He is in fact promising a reduction of only about 0.4 billion tonnes or 7½% from the 2012 level – not quite so dramatic a promise. This commitment is rather like the Miami Heat promising their fans that they will win three NBA championships between 2011 and 2020.

As the President noted, carbon emissions are a global problem. Unlike smog, which can be mitigated by spreading pollution out over a wider area, it doesn’t matter where on Earth carbon is emitted. The EIA estimates that global carbon emissions (the only metric that really matters) will increase from about 32 billion tonnes in 2012 to about 35 billion tonnes in 2020. The president’s promise of a 0.4 billion tonne reduction is therefore just over 1% of the global total – essentially a rounding error.

What we see here is an astonishing gap between the desired end and the proposed means, an increasingly common problem in Washington. On July 19, President Obama spoke to a modest crown in Berlin about the need to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons. There are an estimated 4,000 nuclear weapons in the world today. Suppose President Obama had promised to address this dire threat by eliminating 40-50 nuclear weapons by 2020? There are an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the US today. Suppose President Obama had promised to solve this problem by giving 100,000 illegals a pathway to citizenship? President Obama ought to be embarrassed by his climate change speech, but he is counting on the public (or at least his left-wing base) not bothering to check the numbers.

I will agree with the President on one thing. He said, “We will continue to lead by the power of our example, because that’s what the United States of America has always done.” In fact, the United States has been leading the world on climate change for the last 15 years. Here’s the example we continue to set: (1) agree that anthropogenic climate change is real and a dire threat to humanity, (2) set phony targets that would have no impact on the problem even if met, (3) include lots of loopholes and accounting tricks (think emissions trading and land use) to make sure that nobody has to bear any real cost to meet the phony targets, (4) promise to do much, much more in the future and (5) pat yourself on the back as a visionary. The world is indeed following our lead.



  1. Obama’s expertise in science and mathematics is not even equivalent to a 9th grader. He does not recognize anything but what is published by the left or environmental activists. I am a geologist with strong credentials acquired over the past 60 years. Global cooling and global warming are not truly global – they are large regional areas on the globe. Only in Ordovician time was the Earth truly a global unit – it was a snowball. Even in arid geological periods the entire Earth was not a desert. The Ice Age of the Pleistocene was not global.
    You are absolutely correct – science is not consensus it is proof of a hypothesis by using facts, not opinions. Use the Christian religion as an example – belief and scientific facts are not the same in moist cases. I am an Episcopalian – I BELIEVE in one God, yet I cannot prove he exists – yet my faith is still strong in my belief.
    OBAMA – stop showing your ignorance of science and math.

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