Rebuttal to Rep. Tom McClintock’s “Plan” to Avoid Addressing Climate Change. by John Henry Beyer, Ph.D. Geophysicist

Truckee, CA…In his Opinion piece in the March 24th edition of ThePineTree.Net, Rep. McClintock acknowledged, to my surprise, that, “No one denies that our planet is warming, carbon dioxide levels are increasing, and ocean levels are rising.” Of course, that’s not really true. There are many deniers, particularly politicians on the right, who claim global warming is a hoax, starting with the current President. Rep. McClintock then proceeds to use accurate snippets of science in an apparent effort to justify inaction on climate change. In each case he avoids describing the complete issue, which invariably highlights the urgency of taking action.

Rep. McClintock agrees that atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels have varied throughout Earth’s history, but ignores the crucial and compelling ice core data from Greenland and Antarctica, indicating that over the last 800,000 years, CO2 levels have never been above 300 parts per million (ppm). Now CO2 is at 408 ppm. This rise occurred over the past 150 years or so. Over the same 800,000-year period, the current abrupt jump in atmospheric CO2 has never before been observed. And over that long period, Earth’s average surface temperature has never been hotter than it was 150 years ago. However, since the late 1800s, the temperature has risen about 2oF (1.2oC), and the past four years have been the hottest on record.

Rep. McClintock suggests that we should just keep debating global warming. Never mind the report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released last October – with more than 6,000 scientific references cited, contributions from thousands of expert and government reviewers worldwide, 91 authors, and review editors from 40 countries – urging dramatic action to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Never mind the National Climate Assessment released last November, written by scientists at 13 U.S. government agencies, calling for urgent action to curtail GHG emissions over the next 12 years to avoid increasingly severe impacts of climate change.

Never mind the fact that 97 percent of climate scientists agree:
Global warming is real
It’s happening now
Human activities are the primary cause.
This percentage is not a guesstimate. It was initially studied by a researcher, Dr. John Cook, in 2013, and validated in subsequent studies. Within the scientific community there is, in fact, no justifiable debate about global warming and the consequent climate change since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Among scientists the issue is settled. The remaining three percent deny the consensus or are unsure. For comparison, about two percent of Americans believe the Earth is flat, and 26 percent think the Sun revolves around the Earth! Should we still be debating these issues?

Many of the deniers receive funding, directly or indirectly, from the fossil fuel industry. People seldom bite the hand that feeds them. Perhaps it’s worth noting that, according to Center for Responsive Politics, collectively over the past five election cycles, Rep. McClintock has received more than $138,000 from oil & gas industry campaign committees and PACs. (Note: The author of this article is a retired scientist who has no financial interest in the topic.)

Rep. McClintock says that modern sea level rise does not correlate with CO2 levels, but this is a red herring. Rising sea level is the result of global warming-induced CO2 emissions, but it takes time for ice sheets and glaciers to melt, and it takes time for warmer ocean surface water to circulate deep into the ocean and produce significant thermal expansion. Because of this delay, we would not expect them to be directly correlated. If you put an ice cube on the pavement, it does not melt instantly.

There is evidence, as Rep. McClintock notes, that the frequency of tropical hurricanes is reduced, but the important issue is the severity of the storms. Hurricanes and cyclones get their energy from warm ocean surface water. Heat is energy. Also, with higher water temperature there is more water vapor in the air above the ocean, which is picked up by the storm. The combination produces more violent storms: higher wind speeds and heavier rain. Compounding this are higher sea level and higher storm surge from increased wind speeds, enabling the storms to inundate larger areas of coastal land.

Rep. McClintock states that California wildfires pumped 68 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, and somehow that makes “a mockery of CO2 restrictions.” Why a mockery? It underscores the importance of constraining emissions from sources we can control. Last year, worldwide emissions were 37 billion metric tons of CO2. Americans were responsible for seven percent of that, or 14.6 million tons per day. So these wildfires released less than five days of our ongoing CO2 emissions. We could – and should – offset that (and more).

Let’s look at Rep. McClintock’s proposals for adapting to – not mitigating – climate change. Adaptation is going to be increasing essential, and expensive. Some are worthwhile, some are problematic.

1. With less snow to delay runoff from the mountains, build more reservoirs.
Capturing more runoff may be a good plan, but it will not help if there is less total precipitation (drought). I may be wrong, but I think of Rep. McClintock as an advocate for smaller government. Would he seek federal and state funding to build these reservoirs?

2. Phase out flood insurance subsidies that encourage people to build in flood plains.
This is a good idea, but in other parts of the country, plans like this has been met with severe pushback from real estate developers and local officials who fear a decline in property values and seek property tax from new developments.

3. Forest management by harvesting excess trees.
Appropriate forest management is sorely needed, but much of the vegetation that needs to be removed is underbrush, small trees, and low branches on older large trees. None of this is economic for lumber companies, and heavy equipment in forests leaves paths for erosion. Additional federal and state funding is required to do this properly.

Note that none of the above proposals, even if realizable, would address the root cause. Global warming would continue unabated. Rep. McClintock’s sole proposal for actually addressing climate change is more nuclear power plants and hydroelectric dams, not wind and solar. Nuclear power – which produces 20 percent of our electricity in the U.S. – has divided the environmental community. Many of us who have been working on global warming solutions for many years have reluctantly come to the conclusion that, at a minimum, we need to keep existing nuclear power plants operating until we can, first, replace fossil fuel power plants with renewables, then replace the nukes with renewables. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily what is happening today. Some nuclear power plants, with many years still on their licenses, are being closed because of high operating costs. They are being replaced predominantly by coal and natural gas-fired plants. Small modular nuclear reactors are years away, and most Americans, for obvious reasons, fear anything nuclear and may not allow them to go into production. Regarding cost, nuclear is now the most expensive carbon-free electricity generation technology.

That leaves hydroelectric dams, which currently produce about seven percent of our country’s electricity. Does anyone realistically think we are going to build more Hoover Dams? What about drought? The Lake Mead water level behind Hoover Dam is at its lowest level since it was filling in the 1960s. Regarding ecological footprint, we have a lot more open land in windy or sunny areas than appropriate free-flowing rivers that could be dammed. And I suspect public opposition to any new large dam would be insurmountable.

Wind generation has grown to more than six percent, and solar (utility scale and rooftop) is nearly two percent. Frankly, we have a long, long way to go, and battery storage is not yet scalable to the level needed. At a minimum, our country needs to put a price on carbon at the source (wellhead, mine, border) and return the money to citizens to offset increased costs. This would be a revenue-neutral, market-based mechanism to incentivize efficiency, the development of new clean energy technologies, reduce GHG emissions and other pollutants, create jobs, and grow the economy. Not only many scientists, but also a bipartisan coalition of former Federal Reserve chairs, top economic advisers to recent presidents of both parties, and Nobel Prize-winning economists have endorsed a federal carbon tax, with the money distributed to American households, to combat climate change. 

A non-partisan, volunteer-driven organization with more than 100,000 volunteers, Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL), has been meeting with members of Congress for more than ten years to encourage them to adopt such legislation. CCL has been instrumental in the establishment of the bi-partisan Climate Solutions Caucus in the House of Representatives, which had 36 Republicans and 36 Democrats as members in the last Congress; the introduction of the bi-partisan Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (H.R. 763); and providing Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with a template for establishing Carbon Fee And Dividend legislation in all provinces that did not already have a price on carbon.

Rep. McClintock, like all extreme politicians on the right, derides the Green New Deal (GND) resolution, introduced in Congress on February 7, 2019, by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). The GND is largely aspirational in that it does not prescribe specific actions. What it does do is recognize that the growing impacts of climate change will disproportionally affect lower income Americans over the next few decades, whereas the wealthy can more easily move to safer, cooler locations. It’s an ambitious outline for addressing climate change and creating a more just society, with an increased minimum wage and reduced income inequality. Proponents of the GND say it would produce jobs and strengthen America’s economy by accelerating the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy; generate 100 percent of our electricity from clean, renewable sources within the next 10 years; upgrade the energy grid, buildings, and transportation infrastructure; invest in green technology research and development; and provide training for jobs in the new green economy.

It’s far from clear that it’s possible to achieve all of these goals, but many are convinced that we should adopt these ambitious goals. It does not bode well for the future of our country that even a fair and open discussion of these goals seems anathema to so many politicians on the extreme political right.

Robust opinion polling done by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication shows that growing majorities in the U.S. as a whole, as well as Mr. McClintock’s constituents in Congressional District 4, believe that climate change is happening, that climate change is largely caused by human activity, and that a variety of climate policy solutions should be implemented, including regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant and requiring fossil fuel companies to pay a carbon tax.