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Global Warming, Winter, and the President's Climate Action Plan

Dan Lashof

Posted January 22, 2014

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It’s snowy and cold today in the Eastern United States.

Yesterday NASA and NOAA announced that 2013 was among the 10 hottest years on record globally.

Last week, I testified at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing titled “Review of the President’s Climate Action Plan,” but Senators spent more time debating whether global warming stopped in 1998 than whether the president’s plan is a good idea.

Welcome to Climate Confusion, 2014 Edition.

Let’s be clear. Much of the confusion is being sown by big polluters and their allies in Congress. The Earth is a complicated place after all, and weather has a random, chaotic component, so there will always be fodder for professional obfuscators who cherry pick data for fun and profit.

This is particularly true in winter, it turns out, as Jim Hansen shows in his indispensable analysis of the temperature record released yesterday. Year-to-year variability is much greater in winter than in summer, so while our chance of experiencing a summer that is substantially cooler than the base period average globally is now very low, we still have a decent chance of experiencing a cold winter.

Local temperatures, of course, are even more variable. For example, December 2013 was much colder than average in North America, but on a global basis December 2013 was as much warmer than the base period average as the year as a whole.

The much discussed “global warming hiatus” since 1998 is another example of climate change deniers trading on complexity to sow confusion. As I have noted before, the argument is based on cherry picking the starting point of a too-short time period. Add to that some natural variability in sea surface temperatures and slight cyclical variations in the energy output of the sun and it’s easy pickings for obfuscators.

The “Going Down the Up Escalator” plot from Skeptical Science (which Senator Whitehouse showed at the Environment and Public Works Committee hearing) remains the best response to this line of argument. Hansen’s new analysis adds a useful buttress. It shows that using an 11-year running mean, the average rate of warming of summer land surface temperatures has not slowed down at all, let alone stopped.

In his testimony last week, Andrew Dessler, a Professor of Atmospheric Science at Texas A&M, urged the Committee to focus on what we know. That’s good advice.

Here’s a start:

  • Carbon dioxide traps heat. As I told the Committee, there are no Republican or Democratic CO2 molecules. This is chemistry and physics, not politics.
  • Carbon dioxide is a pollutant that EPA has an obligation to regulate under the Clean Air Act. This fact was disputed by some Republicans on the Committee, but the question has been settled by the Supreme Court, which gets the last word according to our Constitution unless and until the law is changed. Some Members of Congress have tried to do that, but they have not succeeded.
  • Power plants are the largest source of carbon dioxide in the United States, responsible for 40 percent of the total. As of now, they are allowed to dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into our air for free. That’s not right and it needs to change.

So getting back to the announced subject of the hearing, the President’s Climate Action Plan is not just a good idea, it’s the law. And if the climate plan is implemented effectively, the U.S. could reduce total emissions of heat-trapping pollution by 17% from 2005 levels by 2020, the goal President Obama set at the Copenhagen climate conference. My testimony notes that:

Provided that Congress does not prevent EPA and other agencies from doing their jobs, and provided that those agencies are ambitious in implementing the President’s Climate Action Plan, we can build on the progress to date and achieve this goal through cost effective standards to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and vehicles, methane emissions from oil and gas operations, and HFC emissions from the chemical and consumer products industries.

 For those who are interested in more details on the subject the hearing was supposed to be about, my full statement is here.

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GuthrumJan 25 2014 01:44 PM

One headline today was certainly fitting considering the “ice bowl” that the whole country has become. This appeared: “Scientists Believe Mini Ice Age Is Ahead” (Huffington Post, University of Reading).
Just when we thought it was safe to go out! This news could have a good impact: people will really get into insulating their homes and buildings, bringing about large decreases in energy usage. They will also update and install more efficient heating systems.
It is good that the president has been cautious and rational in not rushing into these international agreements concerning climate; treaties that could hurt the economy and limit our freedoms.
One other effect that may not be so good: fur coats will become popular again.
Al Gore will probably move to Rio.
See AOL, todays news.

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