Climate

Libertarians Sue White House Over Climate Change Video

CREDIT: AP Photo/Seth Perlman

Jim Houston struggles to cross snow covered streets is in below zero temperatures Monday, Jan. 6, 2014, in Springfield, Ill. A whirlpool of frigid, dense air known as a "polar vortex" descended into much of the U.S. and plunged temperatures to record lows.

A libertarian think tank has sued the White House over a video that claimed global warming might be tied to last year’s extreme cold spell, commonly referred to as the “polar vortex. ”

The Competitive Enterprise Institute’s lawsuit filed Wednesday says White House Office of Science and Technology director John Holdren was wrong when, in the January video, he cited a “growing body of evidence” linking the so-called “polar vortex” to climate change. Specifically, Holdren said he believes that the United States will see “more of this pattern of extreme cold” as global warming gets worse. The group also says OSTP Senior Communications Advisor Becky Fried was wrong to make the same claim in a White House blog post published at around the same time.

The reason Holdren and Fried likely made this claim is, in fact, because there is a growing body of evidence that links global warming to an increased likelihood of more mid-latitude cold fronts. Jennifer Francis, a research professor at Rutgers University’s Institute of Marine and Coastal Science, has been publishing peer-reviewed papers for years about what she believes are ripple effects of a warming Arctic — ripple effects that make weird weather events more likely in different parts of the world.

Her research claims that Arctic warming affects the jet stream, which determines local weather. She theorizes that the warming causes a less drastic change in temperatures between northern and southern climates, leading to weakened west-to-east winds, and then, a wavier jet stream. A wavy jet stream can bring the Arctic’s coldness down to the temperate United States, leaving Alaska and the Arctic strangely warm, and the United States strangely cold. She says this will happen more often as global warming worsens.

It’s not settled science. In fact, it’s disputed by some well-respected climatologists, including Dr. Kevin E. Trenberth, a distinguished senior climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. In January, when the polar vortex was at its peak in the United States, Trenberth told Climate Progress that he was skeptical of Francis’ assessment, and that it showed “a correlation, but correlation is not causation.”

Holdren acknowledges the uncertainty in the video over which his employer is now being sued. “As in all science, there will be continuing debate as to exactly what is happening,” Holdren said. “But I believe the odds are that we can expect, as a result of global warming, to see more of this pattern of extreme cold in the mid-latitudes and extreme warm in the far north.”

The uncertainty surrounding the science, mixed with the requirements of the federal Data Quality Act, is where CEI bases its lawsuit. The Data Quality Act requires federal agencies to maximize the “quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity of information” of the information it uses. Under that law, the CEI said it brought its demands to the White House before the lawsuit was filed, but the White House refused, saying Holdren and Fried’s statements did not represent the official agency position. Instead, the White House said, they represented their “personal opinions.” Agency employee personal opinions are not covered under the Data Quality Act.

Unsatisfied with that response, the CEI then made a Freedom of Information Act request for all White House documents and e-mails discussing whether the validity of the science really does constitute Holdren and Fried’s personal opinions, and all documents related to the cost of producing Holdren’s video. The White House allegedly responded with some material, but did not include “documentation of agency resources expended on the video.” The CEI appealed, and the White House allegedly responded that it had 47 additional pages of information, but that it claimed contained “privileged material.”

Getting those 47 pages of privileged material is the core of CEI’s lawsuit. If the group gets it, it likely hopes it will be able to prove that Holdren and Fried’s statements were not really their personal opinions, and the opinions of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. But even if it does, it seems unlikely that they’ll be able to get the statements “corrected,” as they are indeed based on peer-reviewed science. The science is questioned, yes — but that is how emerging research works.