Tuesday, June 11, 2013

America's climate century

In November 1989, then Senate Democratic Leader George Mitchell of Maine proposed an amendment to the Clean Air bill then under consideration by the Environment and Public Works Committee. It was, as far as I know, the first significant legislative proposal to address climate change. The measure would have raised the fuel efficiency requirements to 50 miles per gallon by 2003. It was vigorously opposed by the administration of George H.W. Bush, on the grounds that fuel efficiency requirements made American cars less marketable and less safe. The committee agreed to remove the provision, and a floor amendment to the Clean Air bill brought by Senators Richard Bryan of Nevada and Slade Gorton of Washington was blocked by a filibuster in April 1990.

That may have been the right decision for that time. Even without climate change provisions, the Clean Air Act of 1990 was a major piece of legislation. Including the provision over the President's objection may have led to a veto instead of a law, and prevented much progress on sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxides. Moreover, evidence on climate change was still emerging.

Nearly a quarter-century later, a consistent and growing body of evidence has accumulated that increased concentrations of atmospheric carbon and methane have passed a dangerous threshold; that this increase is attributable to human activity; and that the effects, while mostly in the future, are starting to be felt, from melting ice caps in the polar regions to increased incidence of floods, droughts and severe weather elsewhere. It stands to reason, if we believe that actions have consequences: more people burning more things create more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (NOAA data: nearly 400 ppm now, up from 320 ppm 50 years ago), and more and more carbon dioxide is eventually going to affect something.

(carbon dioxide concentration over time, swiped from NOAA website:

In an ideal world, U.S. policy makers would have taken note of this phenomenon and the risks it poses. Conservatives and liberals, with their differing political philosophies, would produce a variety of different measures with various levels of intensity to address it. And, given the prevalence of divided government during this period, the result would be a mix of market mechanisms, regulations and subsidies.

This is not, however, an ideal world. The U.S. Congress is in the grip of climate change deniers, such that if anyone is tempted to propose meaningful legislation they haven't bothered. The fuel efficiency requirements--about which I'm ambivalent, but never mind--will finally get above 50 mpg in the mid-2020s, and we have new energy-saving light bulbs. Any serious conservation measures are pipedreams for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, today's Gazette, for some reason, included an op-ed by someone from the misnamed International Climate Science Coalition. It's the usual stuff--none of this is settled, there's a lot of uncertainty, people are mean to skeptics, and attributing climate change to Al Gore and writer Bill McKibben while ignoring the 99+% of climate scientists who have done the research on which Gore and McKibben opine. The writer violently misstates the state of argument, and otherwise sows confusion. There's not a datum in the piece.

So thank God for people like Rob Hogg who are willing to take up the case for climate change action, and to take it up repeatedly and relentlessly. Hogg, who represents me in the Iowa Senate, has just published America's Climate Century, a small, handy review of what we know and what we should do about it. It's easy to read, and easy to find what you're looking for. Chapter 2 summarizes research on what has already happened to the atmosphere; chapter 3 discusses likely future atmospheric changes given what's happened already; chapter 4 talks about what this will mean for human life on earth. Subsequent chapters discuss what individuals can do in lifestyle changes and policy advocacy. The appendix lists 18 common objections to climate change data, most of which will be familiar to anyone who reads this. It makes for a quick reality check for those times when you've been rhetorically spun once too often.

A key piece of advice Hogg states several times throughout the book is "a Doubting Thomas today can be a leader for climate action tomorrow." It's important to remember this in any political discussion. People who disagree with us aren't our enemies, or America's enemies. Snarkiness and hostility don't get us anywhere. We all have to live together, remember. Even if you're talking with someone who is resistant to persuasion, someone might be listening who is persuadable.

My only complaint about Hogg's book is that it is very light on references, although there are clues for the curious to follow (such as the names of numerous professional organizations that have endorsed climate change policy action). References to studies would be helpful for those who want to dig more deeply into the science. On the other hand, lists of references would have made the book longer and more expensive to produce.

If we Americans are going to live together, we need to deal with the world as it is, not the world as we wish it would be. We can and should try to make the world a better place, but that requires starting with what is. There is room for plenty of debate about climate change: its extent, its effects, policy responses, and how the costs of response should be spread are all up for grabs. But to deny that human production of greenhouse gases doesn't have any impact on the world, and that the vast preponderance of data so far point to exactly that, requires a ferocious desire not to believe it. I understand that people wish climate change weren't real. Heck, I wish climate change weren't real. But wishing something doesn't make it true. We need to start with the best information we have--understanding that we could always have more and better information--and work from there.


Senator Rob Hogg, America's Climate Century: What Climate Change Means for America in the 21st Century and What Americans Can Do about It. Zion, 2013.

Tom Harris, "Why We Need 'Calm' Approach to Climate Change," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 10 June 2013, 6A.

Cindy Hadish, "Book Review: America's Climate Century," Homegrown Iowan blog, 28 April 2013 [http://homegrowniowan.com/book-review-americas-climate-century/].

"Fuel-Efficiency Effort Defeated in Senate," CQ Almanac 46 (1990): 279-281.


  1. Just some corrections here:

    You say “Meanwhile, today's Gazette, for some reason, included an op-ed by someone from the misnamed International Climate Science Coalition.”

    Response: ICSC is named properly. Why do you think it is not?

    You say: “It's the usual stuff--none of this is settled, there's a lot of uncertainty, people are mean to skeptics, and attributing climate change to Al Gore and writer Bill McKibben while ignoring the 99+% of climate scientists who have done the research on which Gore and McKibben opine.”

    Response: None of “this” (meaning the causes of climate change) is at all “settled”. Every month new science comes out that demonstrates how “unsettled” it is. For example, you must have missed the peer reviewed paper that just came out showing CFCs, not CO2, are the main cause of recent warming – see ICSC’s highlighting of this interesting research as the first item on our home page right now at http://climatescienceinternational.org/.

    Yes, people are mean to skeptics, as many of the skeptics are to their opponents. It is an angry field indeed, which is why I wrote the article. People should read the article for themselves to judge whether they agree or disagree with what I have written and whether or not I “violently misstates the state of argument, and otherwise sows confusion”, as you state that I did. Here is the link to my piece:


    You can see I did not “attribute[e] climate change to Al Gore and writer Bill McKibben”. That is silly.

    The issue of what “the 99+% of climate scientists who have done the research on which Gore and McKibben opine” think is simply guesswork on your part since there has never been a reputable poll of experts in the causes of climate change that ask the only question that matters from a policy perspective: “Do you support the hypothesis that emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from human activities are causing, or, in the foreseeable future will cause, dangerous global warming and other deleterious climate change?”

    I am open to readers’ suggestions of other ways in which the debate can be “calmed” so that rational decision making can be carried out.


    Tom Harris, B.Eng., M. Eng. (Mech – thermo-fluids)
    Executive Director
    International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC)
    P.O. Box 23013
    Ottawa, Ontario K2A 4E2



  2. 99+ percent is apparently wrong. According to NASA, it's only 97 percent [http://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus]. They cite publications in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Transactions of the American Geophysical Union and Science, and list 200+ scientific organizations that endorse this position. The International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC) is not among them. They may all be wrong, but it misrepresents the state of debate to ignore them and focus on Gore, McKibben and Obama.

    According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007, reprinted on page 25 of Hogg's book--see how handy it is already!) the impact of carbon dioxide on global climate is +1.66 watts/square meter. The impact of CFCs is 4th, at +0.34, If it's all CFCs that's good news because they've been phased out and so their lingering effects should run down and everything will be ducky very soon.

    I am, obviously, not a scientist, climate or otherwise. (Political doesn't count, alas.) So I'm way outgunned when it comes to debating the value of this or that paper. I can only do what a prudent policy maker should do, look at the accumulated research and the state of debate over 30 years and act accordingly.... while, it must be added, remaining aware of and open to changing information. That is how rational decision making is carried out.

  3. "The same stuff" as in here's a Wall Street Journal column from two years ago, in which innocent hard-working scientists are outgunned by Al Gore and other feckless politicians:

    Again with Al Gore already.


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