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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Blackburn Takes on ‘The Science Guy’

Arguing against White House efforts on climate change, Rep. Marsha Blackburn mangled the facts and misrepresented the words of EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, claimed “even Director McCarthy … said reaching all of the 26 U.S. goals is not going to have an impact globally.” But the “goals” cited by Blackburn aren’t goals at all — they are 26 “climate change indicators” that the department tracks to measure the effect of the changing climate. McCarthy said it is “unlikely that any specific one step” can have an impact on those indicators, but she also said the idea is to coordinate “a broader array of actions” with other countries to make a meaningful global impact.

Blackburn’s comment came in a back-and-forth with Bill Nye “The Science Guy” on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” They discussed whether any single weather event can be tied to global warming.

Nye, Feb. 16: Well, I’ve got to say once again, what people are doing is introducing the idea that scientific uncertainty, in this case about cold weather events in what we call back east, are — is the same as uncertainty about the whole idea of climate change. And this is unscientific. It’s not logical. It is a way apparently that the fossil fuel industry has dealt with our politics. And this is not good. Everybody — you don’t — this is not– you don’t need a Ph.D. in climate science to understand what’s going on. That things — that we have overwhelming evidence that the climate is changing. That you cannot tie any one event to that is not the same as doubt about the whole thing. …

Blackburn: Let’s say everything that Bill says is wrong is wrong. Let’s just say that. Then you say what are you going to do about it? What would the policy be? And will that policy have an impact? Now, even Director McCarthy from the EPA in answering questions from Congressman Pompeo before our committee, said reaching all of the 26 U.S. goals is not going to have an impact globally. And, David, what we have to look at is the fact that you don’t make good laws, sustainable laws when you’re making them on hypotheses or theories or unproven sciences.

Blackburn went on to make the point that policies ought to be based on a “cost benefit analysis.” But she badly botched the facts with her claim that the EPA administrator said “reaching all of the 26 U.S. goals is not going to have an impact globally.”

She was referring to a discussion between Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy during a House Energy & Commerce Committee hearing on Sept. 18, 2013. The hearing was to discuss “The President’s Climate Action Plan,” which Obama introduced during a speech at Georgetown University on June 25, 2013. Among the proposals in the president’s action plan were “activities that range from new standards for power plants and trucks, to a 30 percent increase of funding across federal agencies for research, development and deployment of ‘clean energy’ technologies, to restrictions on financing of fossil-fuel projects abroad.”

In the committee hearing, Pompeo zeroed in on an EPA report titled “Climate Change Indicators in the United States, 2012” and repeatedly asked how White House policies might impact those indicators, as a way to assess the performance of the past and proposed environmental regulations. (The exchange begins at the 2:16:00 mark.) One of the indicators noted by Pompeo was heat-related deaths. Other indicators include atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, tropical cyclone activity, sea levels, the decrease of Arctic sea ice and snowfall.

Pompeo, Sept. 18, 2013: Do you think it would be reasonable to take the regulations you promulgated and link them to those 26 indicators that you have on your website? That this is how they impacted us?

McCarthy: It is unlikely that any specific one step is going to be seen as having a visible impact on any of those impacts — a visible change in any of those impacts. What I’m suggesting is that climate change [policy] has to be a broader array of actions that the U.S. and other folks in the international community take that make significant effort towards reducing greenhouse gases and mitigating the impacts of climate change. … They are indicators of climate change, they are not directly applicable to performance impacts of any one action. … What we’re attempting to do is put together a comprehensive climate plan, across the administration, that positions the U.S. for leadership on this issue and that will prompt and leverage international discussions and action.

When Pompeo suggested there was “literally no connection between the activities you’re undertaking” and the 26 indicators, McCarthy emphatically replied, “I did not say that.”

McCarthy said the indicators are “broad global indicators of impacts associated with climate change. They are not performance requirements or impacts related to any particular act. … They indicate the public health associated with climate change.”

Despite McCarthy’s repeated rejection of the premise that the proposed environmental rules are not meeting expectations if they do not measurably impact the indicators, Blackburn cited this exchange as evidence that “even Director McCarthy from the EPA in answering questions from Congressman Pompeo before our committee, said reaching all of the 26 U.S. goals is not going to have an impact globally.” We reached out to the EPA to respond to Blackburn’s comment, and EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones released a statement reiterating that the 26 climate change indicators “are not Agency goals.”

Jones, Feb. 18: The 26 climate change indicators are not Agency goals, but instead are a compilation of evidence from peer-reviewed sources that shows that the composition of the atmosphere and many fundamental measures of climate in the United States are changing, with effects already being observed across the U.S. The fact that the effects of climate change are already being observed in the U.S., only reinforces the need for continued, sensible steps to address emissions of GHGs. The indicators are not intended to describe the effect of any one program or action to address climate change since climate change is driven by global concentrations of GHGs.

We spoke to several climate scientists, who told us Blackburn’s comment, and overall point, is misinformed.
“Goals and indicators are different concepts,” said Reto Ruedy, a climate scientist with the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “There is only one goal: Stabilizing our climate at a level that keeps this planet habitable. To do that we have to stabilize greenhouse gas concentration. Needless to say, this requires a global effort. … It is true that the actions of a single country cannot achieve this goal. However, it seems reasonable that the industrialized countries most responsible for the current atmospheric composition take the first steps.”

Richard C. J. Somerville, a climate scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said Pompeo and Blackburn have both confused “goals” and “indicators.” Besides, he said, the first four “indicators” on the EPA list “could certainly be impacted by U.S. policies.” They are: U.S. greenhouse gas emissions; global greenhouse gas emissions; atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases; and climate forcing.

“The misleading aspect of the language used by Rep. Blackburn is the implication that, because U.S. actions alone cannot solve the global problem, U.S. policy will not have any impact at all,” Somerville said. “That is simply wrong. First, U.S. reductions of GHG emissions will have a direct impact on global emissions, hence on concentrations and forcing, because the U.S. is responsible for more emissions than any country other than China. Second, the failure of the U.S. thus far to set and meet serious GHG emissions reductions targets has clearly been a factor in the failure to get international agreement and action. More positively, if the U.S. decides to act energetically, its example, its technical abilities, and its influential superpower status can greatly increase the chance of other countries also acting. This is exactly what happened, for example, in the successful global effort to stop the production of chemicals such as CFCs that cause the ozone hole.”

John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas’ state climatologist, likened climate change mitigation to recycling.

“Assume that if everybody recycled their aluminum cans, it would greatly benefit the environment,” Nielsen-Gammon told us. “However, if only one person recycled his or her aluminum cans, it would have no measurable effect on the environment. Should a person recycle aluminum cans or simply throw them away? Blackburn’s argument is equivalent to saying that no intelligent person should recycle, because they should know that their own recycling will not affect the problem of aluminum mining. However, most of us do not think or behave that way. Instead, we tend to follow the Golden Rule: do what you would have others do.”

The climate scientists also took issue with Blackburn’s comment about basing laws on “hypotheses or theories or unproven sciences.” As we have noted before, there is overwhelming consensus among climate scientists that greenhouse gases are responsible for an overall warming of global temperatures. A paper published in 2010 by the National Academy of Sciences found that 97 percent to 98 percent of climate researchers “most actively publishing in the field” agreed that climate change was occurring.

Blackburn’s comment “exploits the common use of ‘theory’ to connote hunch or conjecture, which is not what that word means in science,” Somerville said. “And it implies that mainstream climate change science is not sound or well-founded or trustworthy enough to serve as a useful input or basis for policy.” Somerville said that may be the view of many people, including some Republican leaders, “but it is emphatically not the view of some 97% of the scientists most actively publishing research on climate change.”

— Robert Farley