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Texas State Climatologist Disputes State’s Denier Petition: Greenhouse Gases ‘Clearly Present A Danger To The Public Welfare’

By Brad Johnson  

"Texas State Climatologist Disputes State’s Denier Petition: Greenhouse Gases ‘Clearly Present A Danger To The Public Welfare’"

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John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas State Climatologist
John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas State Climatologist

Texas’s own state climatologist can find no scientific basis in his state’s effort to roll back the Environmental Protection Agency’s finding that greenhouse gases endanger the public. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (R-TX) filed paperwork to challenge the EPA endangerment finding yesterday, with the approval of Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX). Dismissing threats like sea level rise, droughts, and floods that global warming poses to Texas, the petition calls for the finding to be reconsidered, based on the argument that the EPA relies primarily on the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an institution guilty of “serious misconduct“:

Thus, in light of the serious misconduct the State has demonstrated—data manipulation, loss or destruction information, reliance on questionable source materials, abuse of the peer review process, suppression of dissent, conflicts of interest, and failure to comply with freedom of information laws—the EPA should grant this petition and reconsider the Endangerment Finding.

Abbott’s petition takes the “Climategate” conspiracy theories of climate deniers as fact, spinning a tale of “a cadre of activist scientists colluding and scheming to advance what they want the science to be.”

If there is such a conspiracy, it’s extended its tendrils deep into the heart of Texas. In an email interview, Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon utterly dismissed the attacks on climate science in Attorney General Abbott’s petition. After explaining that natural concentrations of greenhouse gases are essential to life on this planet, Dr. Nielsen-Gammon continues:

However, it is also apparent that if atmospheric concentrations of the six greenhouse gases continue to rise due to human influence, the Earth would eventually reach a point where there would be massive disruptions of ecosystems, changes in sea level, decreases in air quality, and so forth that would, in particular, substantially harm the public welfare of those generations forced to experience them. So anthropogenic increases of greenhouse gas concentrations clearly present a danger to the public welfare, and I agree with the EPA’s findings in that sense.

Nielson-Gammon — who notes at his blog Atmo.Sphere that he did not participate in preparing the petition — also concludes that the IPCC, United States Global Change Research Program, and National Academy of Science reports on climate change are the “most comprehensive, balanced assessments of climate change science presently available”:

Do I think that the EPA based its assessment on sound science? I think, by basing its assessments on the IPCC, USGCRP, and NAS reports, it was basing its assessments on the best available science. I have the expertise to independently evaluate the quality of these reports, and on the whole they constitute in my opinion the most comprehensive, balanced assessments of climate change science presently available.

Although he expressed concerns with the potential cost of greenhouse gas emissions controls, and believes that climate science has “a tendency to focus on the risks and bad consequences of global warming” instead of “potential benefits,” he knows of no reason to doubt that the planet is warming, that greenhouse gases are involved, and that sea levels are rising.

Full text of email interview with Dr. Nielsen-Gammon:

WONK ROOM: I would like to know if your research and/or your understanding of the science of climate change gives you any reason to believe that the assessment that greenhouse gases are threatening public welfare (through such means, with varying degrees of certainty, as adverse impacts in the areas of water resources and sea level rise and coastal areas, increases in wildfires, changes in air quality, increases in temperatures, changes in extreme weather events, increases in food- and water-borne pathogens, changes in aeroallergens) is not based on sound science.

NIELSEN-GAMMON: There are two separate questions interwoven here. One might be phrased as follows: Based on your research and understanding of the science of climate change, do you believe that those six particular greenhouse gases endanger both the public health and public welfare of current and future generations in the United States? In other words, do you agree with the EPA’s finding?

Unfortunately, the EPA is compelled to give a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down” to a statement that doesn’t really fit greenhouse gases very well. CO2, for example, contributes several degrees to the greenhouse effect, and without CO2′s contribution, we would still be in a glacial period, with much or most of the continental United States covered by an ice sheet. So these gases as a whole can be regarded as essential to the public welfare, even limiting consideration to their greenhouse properties and ignoring the other essential aspects of CO2 for life on this planet.

However, it is also apparent that if atmospheric concentrations of the six greenhouse gases continue to rise due to human influence, the Earth would eventually reach a point where there would be massive disruptions of ecosystems, changes in sea level, decreases in air quality, and so forth that would, in particular, substantially harm the public welfare of those generations forced to experience them. So anthropogenic increases of greenhouse gas concentrations clearly present a danger to the public welfare, and I agree with the EPA’s findings in that sense.

But an important question becomes the point at which the danger to the public welfare exceeds the cost to the United States of attempting to reduce the global concentrations of greenhouse gases, or at least check their rise. I’m not a legal expert, but it’s not clear to me that the Clean Air Act allows the EPA to do that sort of balancing. To the extent that there are win-win regulations (net immediate collateral benefit to the public welfare, net long-term benefit through reduction in greenhouse gases), they should be fair game for the EPA, but beyond that it’s quite a challenge to balance the short-term harm vs. long-term benefit of any EPA regulations.

I also assert that my own assessment of these issues is based on sound science.

The second question would be: Do I think that the EPA based its assessment on sound science? I think, by basing its assessments on the IPCC, USGCRP, and NAS reports, it was basing its assessments on the best available science. I have the expertise to independently evaluate the quality of these reports, and on the whole they constitute in my opinion the most comprehensive, balanced assessments of climate change science presently available. I also believe that the reports, as well as climate impact science in general, have a tendency to focus on the risks and bad consequences of global warming at the expense of discussing potential benefits.

WONK ROOM: Do you know of any particular reason to doubt that the planet is warming, that greenhouse gases are involved, and that sea levels are rising?

NIELSEN-GAMMON: No.

WONK ROOM: I’m also interested if there are any specific risks relevant to Texas.

NIELSEN-GAMMON: Potential Texas vulnerabilities include sea level rises, droughts, floods, estuarine ecosystems, and agricultural productivity. The possible adverse economic impact of future greenhouse gas emission control strategies on Texas industries also represents a risk associated with global warming.

Update

Dr. Andrew Dessler, a climatologist at Texas A&M University and author of The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change, tells the Wonk Room in an email interview that the entire Department of Atmospheric Sciences agrees with the IPCC:

I, along with all of the other faculty in the department, agree with the main conclusions of the IPCC.”

In 2007, the Texas A&M Department of Atmospheric Sciences issued a statement that global warming from emissions of greenhouse gases risks “serious adverse impacts on our environment and society” — the key basis for the EPA’s endangerment finding:

1. It is virtually certain that the climate is warming, and that it has warmed by about 0.7 deg. C over the last 100 years.
2. It is very likely that humans are responsible for most of the recent warming.
3. If we do nothing to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases, future warming will likely be at least two degrees Celsius over the next century.
4. Such a climate change brings with it a risk of serious adverse impacts on our environment and society.

When asked if the latest attacks on the IPCC affect their stance, Dr. Dessler responded that “the Department stands by its statement. You can quote me on that.”


Update

,Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon comments:

Just to be clear, I do not “utterly dismiss” the Texas petition. I have contributed to pointing out errors in the IPCC reports in my own blog, and it is appropriate for the State of Texas to inquire how much of the IPCC findings will ultimately be called into question. Nor would my considered scientific opinion constitute adequate independent grounds for an EPA finding.


Update

,Dr. Kenneth P. Bowman, the head of the Texas A&M University Department of Atmospheric Sciences, writes:

I believe that EPA finding is based on good science, as do all of my colleagues in the Atmospheric Science Department here at Texas A&M.


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