A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Distorting Climate Change Threats, Solutions

Two potential Republican candidates for president distorted the facts about climate change and casually dismissed well-established threats and potential solutions:

  • Rick Santorum falsely claimed that U.S. policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions “will have zero impact” on climate change. The U.S. is the world’s second-biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, and a reduction in its GHG emissions could slow global warming.
  • Santorum claimed that even those who accept the science on climate change agree that U.S. action will accomplish nothing, which is also inaccurate.
  • Mike Huckabee said Islamic extremism poses a greater threat than climate change. That’s his opinion. But in expressing it, he grossly understated the potential impact of climate change by saying it threatens to give Americans “a sunburn” — an issue almost entirely unrelated to climate change. Military leaders have long warned that climate change poses a national security threat.

Santorum’s ‘Do-Nothing’ Plan

Santorum, a former Republican senator from Pennsylvania who ran for president in 2012 and is preparing to run again in 2016, appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Jan. 25. Michael Smerconish, the show’s host, asked Santorum how he would have voted on a “sense of the Senate” amendment to the Keystone XL Pipeline Act that declared “climate change is real and not a hoax.” The measure overwhelmingly passed, with only Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, voting against it.

Smerconish, Jan. 25: The Senate voted this week 98 to 1 that climate change is not a hoax. If Rick Santorum were still in the Senate, would you have supported that?

Santorum: Is the climate warming? Clearly over the past, you know, 15 or 20 years the question is yes. The question is, is man having a significant impact on that, number one.

And number two, and this is even more important than the first, is there anything we can do about it? And the answer is, is there anything the United States can do about it? Clearly, no. Even folks who accept all of the science by the alarmists on the other side, recognize that everything that’s being considered by the United States will have almost — well, not almost, will have zero impact on it given what’s going on in the rest of the world.

Smerconish: So, is your answer do nothing?

Santorum: Again — well, the answer is do something. If it has no impact, of course do nothing. Why would you do something and with the — with people admitting that even if you do something, it won’t make a difference?

Santorum’s larger point is correct. The U.S. can’t solve the problem of global warming all by itself. President Obama himself agrees with that.

In a Jan. 27 speech in India, Obama urged collaborative action: “Even if countries like the United States curb our emissions, if countries that are growing rapidly like India — with soaring energy needs — don’t also embrace cleaner fuels, then we don’t stand a chance against climate change.”

But that doesn’t mean U.S. policies will have “zero impact” on global warming.

Emissions reductions by the U.S. could indeed play a role in slowing the rise of global temperatures. The U.S. could also have an indirect impact, because its leadership on the issue could spur a global movement to cut down on the carbon dioxide emissions that are warming the planet.

SciCHECKinsertThe U.S. is the second-biggest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, after China. In recent years the U.S. has been responsible for about 16 percent of all global emissions. In 2012, the U.S. emitted about 6.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide and other GHGs. Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann told us that if the U.S. continues to emit GHGs at that level, it alone would cause about half a degree Celsius warming by the end of the century (just under 1 degree Fahrenheit) in addition to the about 1 degree Celsius of warming we have already seen since the start of the Industrial Revolution. “That is hardly ‘zero impact,’ ” Mann said.

The Obama administration has taken several steps and is working on others to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed rules in June 2014 that would cut power plant emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. The power sector is the biggest source of GHG emissions in the U.S. at 32 percent, so a reduction of that size would have an impact. EPA estimates the proposal would cut about 730 million metric tons of carbon pollution per year.

The administration also finalized rules in August 2012 that will increase fuel-economy standards for vehicles to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. The administration projects this will cut in half greenhouse gas emissions from affected vehicles throughout the program’s life, and transportation is second only to electricity in terms of sources of carbon dioxide emissions. The administration estimated that the new fuel standards could reduce oil consumption by 12 billion barrels through 2025. A simple calculation shows that would mean a reduction of 5.16 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide through the life of the program, more than all of Europe emits in a single year.

A recent study published in the journal Nature suggested that to avoid catastrophic warming, about one-third of all the remaining oil reserves (and higher percentages of coal and natural gas) needs to stay in the ground. The Middle East, for example, alone would need to leave 260 billion barrels unused. A single U.S. policy — increasing fuel-economy standards to 54.5 mpg — would represent almost 5 percent of that amount.

Santorum is also wrong when he says “even folks who accept all of the science by the alarmists on the other side” agree that U.S. policies will have “zero impact,” although Ken Caldeira, a professor at the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University in California, described the direct impact as “rather minor.”

“Unfortunately, Santorum is largely correct that U.S. policies in place will have rather minor direct effects on global climate,” Caldeira said.

Minor, of course, is still some impact, and implementing more aggressive policies to cut emissions, of course, could change that.

In addition to direct impact, Caldeira and all climate scientists we interviewed agreed that leadership on the issue is crucial from the United States.

“It is a little bit like littering,” Caldeira said. “Would Rick Santorum say that it is okay to litter because my bit of littering is not going to make a big difference in the total amount of litter that is produced each year? Or would he say that littering is wrong, and good, responsible people should not litter. … If we are littering, we cannot compellingly ask others not to litter.”

NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt also said that Santorum ignores the potential for this country’s leadership to affect change abroad.

“Indeed, efforts to reduce climate change have to include all major emitters,” Schmidt wrote to us in an email. “However, the implied conclusion that nothing need be done is a fallacy. … If the U.S. starts credibly reducing emissions, that sends a signal to others (i.e., China, Europe, etc.) and prevents them from using the U.S. lack of action for theirs.”

This has been borne out in recent months when Obama announced a climate deal with China and a “personal commitment,” as the president called it, to work on global warming with India, which is the world’s third-largest emitter of GHGs. Though it has been criticized by some as too timid, the China deal illustrates how pressure from some of the biggest emitters can have an impact.

Santorum also questioned whether “man [is] having a significant impact on climate change. The answer from the scientific community, as we have written before, is “yes.”

In its latest report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that human influence on climate is clear. “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century,” according to the report. “Extremely likely” means the issue in question has a probable outcome of between 95 percent and 100 percent.

Huckabee Mischaracterizes Threats

In his speech to the Iowa Freedom Summit, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee criticized the president’s State of the Union call to combat climate change.

Huckabee, Jan. 24: When [Obama] said, “the greatest threat this nation faces … is climate change.” Not to diminish anything about the climate at all, but Mr. President, I believe that most of us would think that a beheading is a far greater threat to an American than a sunburn.

Huckabee is certainly entitled to his opinion that the Islamic State, the terrorist group responsible for the beheading of American hostages, is a far greater threat to America than climate change.

But his joke about a sunburn is both a drastic understatement of global warming’s potential impacts and simply wrong. Sunburn is related to increased sun exposure, rather than to warming temperatures. Huckabee may have been confusing climate change with depletion of the ozone layer, which could in fact raise the risk of sunburns. The gases primarily responsible for ozone depletion, such as the chlorofluorocarbons previously found in refrigerants, spray cans and elsewhere, are also potent greenhouse gases that can contribute to warming. The increased sunburn risk related to ozone depletion, however, is entirely unrelated to warmer global average temperatures.

The threats posed by a warming climate have been well-documented. These include national security threats about which Huckabee expressed concern.

In a report released in October 2014, the Pentagon wrote that “rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels, and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict. They will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe.”

The report calls climate change a “threat multiplier,” meaning it could exacerbate many problems apparent today. Notably, the report includes terrorism among those threats that climate change could worsen, by creating “gaps in governance” that might allow extremist ideologies to spread.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report included a section on “human security,” and concluded that: “Climate change will have significant impacts on forms of migration that compromise human security.” Though the IPCC notes that “there are no robust global estimates of future displacement” due to climate change — in other words, exactly how many climate refugees we may see — the United Nations Refugee Agency wrote in a September 2014 report that the “vast majority” of 51.2 million “persons of concern” to the agency — which includes refugees, stateless persons and others — are in climate change hot-spots.

The threats to national security are not a new revelation.

In 2007, the federally funded Center for Naval Analyses (which provides research and analysis to military and other government agencies) released a report led by 11 retired three- and four-star admirals and generals; among its primary findings was the assertion that “projected climate change poses a serious threat to America’s national security.” That report as well highlighted the issue as a threat multiplier, and added that “projected climate change will add to tensions even in stable regions of the world.”

Editor’s Note: SciCheck is made possible by a grant from the Stanton Foundation.

— Dave Levitan