Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) is on a roll. For several years he’s flirted with denying that humanity’s use of fossil fuels is the driver behind climate change. But earlier this month Rubio put all his chips on the table: “I don’t agree with the notion that some are putting out there, including scientists, that somehow, there are actions we can take today that would actually have an impact on what’s happening in our climate.”
Rubio followed that up several days later with a total failure to name a single source for his suggestion that human activity and global warming are unconnected.
Which brings us to Tuesday, when Rubio dug his hole even deeper on Bill O’Reilly’s show. The Senator claimed in quick succession that there’s no scientific consensus on human responsibility for climate change, that surface temperatures have stabilized over the last two decades, that cutting carbon emissions would destroy the economy, and that U.S. policies won’t do anything about the problem.
This is a greatest hits list of lies-via-half-truth and straight-up falsehoods regarding climate change, and it’s worth taking each of them in turn.
“How much is [the climate] changing, and how much of it is directly attributable to human carbon emissions? There’s no consensus on that.”
According to the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change — a massive international effort to compile climate research by scientists around the world — there is a 95 percent likelihood that human activities drove 74 percent of the observed global warming since 1950. To put that in perspective, 95 percent is roughly the level of certainty scientists attach to the evidence that cigarettes kill and that the universe is 13.8 billion years old. Of the 10,855 climate studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals in 2013, a grand total of two rejected human activity as a cause of climate change. You don’t get more consensus than that.
In fact, this is obvious just by looking at the data. Scientists have been using ice core readings and other evidence to reconstruct historical temperatures going back tens of thousands of years, in order to compare current temperatures to the planet’s natural cycles. What the data show is a plateau in temperatures roughly ten thousand years ago, then a slight drop in the last few thousand — followed by a dramatic upward spike in the last 200 years. That jump roughly lines up with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution and mankind’s mass use of fossil fuels.
“Despite 17 years of dramatic increases in carbon production by humans, surface temperatures on the Earth have stabilized.”
Yes, some measurements of average surface temperature show they have stabilized for roughly the last two decades — though not others. But even the measurements showing a surface temperature “pause” do not tell the whole story about global warming, because there are other places an overall increase in the heat content of the Earth’s climate system can go. Like the oceans.
Oodles of studies and research show that some 90 percent of all global warming goes into ocean temperatures rather than the atmosphere at the Earth’s surface. Most of this warming goes into the water between the ocean’s surface and 700 meters down, but anywhere from 30 to 40 percent goes into the lower depths.
Add all that heating up and global warming has not slowed down — and scientists anticipate the Earth’s natural cycles will eventually bring that ocean heat back to the surface where it will re-enter the atmosphere.
“These laws they want us to pass would destroy our economy.”
Technically this is a prediction rather than a factual claim, so it’s impossible to say it’s wrong. It is possible to say that literally none of the historical or analytical evidence backs up Rubio’s prediction.
Over the last four decades America passed a slew of regulations covering everything from coal furnace operation to urban air quality to chemical emissions from power plants. In nearly every instance, political opponents and industry groups warned the regulations would lead to massive job loss. In no instance did that damage ever actually materialize. That’s mainly because regulatory skeptics fail to account for the economic benefits of environmental regulations, primarily to human health. It’s estimated that the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 alone added 137 million work days and 26 million school days to the economy by 2010, while preventing over one million heart attacks and nearly two million deaths.
Now, the economic damage from climate change is still mostly in the future, and carbon dioxide emissions don’t affect human health. But cutting those emissions will inevitably also reduce the other pollutants produced by fossil fuels that do harm humans. More importantly, theory and computer modeling has lead to widespread agreement among economists that a carbon tax — the sine qua non of market-friendly policy to cut carbon emissions — would have a negligible economic impact as long as it plowed its revenue back into the economy, either through offsetting tax cuts elsewhere or direct rebates to taxpayers. The Canadian province of British Columbia has had a carbon tax based on that design in place since 2008. And its economy is doing fine.
“None of these proposals that liberals want us to impose on ourselves would do anything about the problem.”
Rubio’s starting premise here is that the United States accounts for only a modest portion of the world’s annual carbon emissions; that it will account for even less once China and India fully modernize; and that, without a coordinated global commitment to reduce emissions, cuts in the United States alone will do little to address the problem. Which is all true. What’s false is his implied conclusion that unilateral carbon reductions by the United States have nothing to do with achieving that commitment.
A global effort to fight climate change will require international negotiation, which will require trust and good will between countries. While America may not be the biggest carbon emitter now, it’s certainly been the biggest historically. That fossil fuel consumption has also made it the world’s richest country, meaning it can afford to sacrifice far more to tackle climate change than China and India, which are far poorer per capita.
If the United States — the world’s ostensible leader and superpower — is unwilling to show good faith to the world by stepping up on climate change, how can it expect any other country to follow? Indeed, President Obama has explicitly pointed to the need to build international trust as a reason to push through the Environmental Protection Agency’s new rules for carbon emissions from power plants.
This post has been edited for clarity.