Climate Change: Deal with It

President Obama’s much-heralded climate change speech got lots of applause this afternoon—from the moment he invited all to remove their suit jackets, through multiple references to Apollo 8,until he ended with “God bless the United States of America.” If you missed the broadcast on Georgetown University’s website, you can read the text here.

While the president’s plan is ambitious, it’s not self-executing. The president can use executive order to put some parts into action, such as setting White House goals for renewable energy. However, reaching those goals will take time. Likewise, the president can tell the Environmental Protection Agency to set carbon emission limits for both existing and new power plants. Yet the rulemaking process takes time, and then there those rules will likely face challenges.

Similarly, the idea of preparing to adapt to climate change is wise. Indeed, much of the country’s infrastructure already needs work. However, most of those steps will take time too.

In short, the president’s plan won’t take effect overnight. But reactions to the plan didn’t even need to wait until overnight. By late afternoon, I received press releases from a variety of organizations, including the Ohio Environmental Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, Americans United for Change, Trout Unlimited, the New York Attorney General’s office, various mayors, and the Heartland Institute.

The Heartland Institute is a free market policy advocacy organization. Its spokesmen say action on climate change is unnecessary because there hasn’t been any warming over the last 15 years. “The restrictions are unnecessary because global temperatures have remained flat for the past 15 years, proving alarmist climate models predict far too much warming and have no basis in reality,” says attorney and policy advocate James M. Taylor. Heartland’s science director Jay Lehr likewise claims there’s “clear evidence that the planet has not warmed in the past 15 years while carbon dioxide has increased.”

If you look only at the last 15 years, that seems to be true. However, as Peter Sinclair has previously noted, one can cherry pick various short-term periods over the last century to argue that global temperatures are going up, down, or staying the same. What matters are long-term trends.

Moreover, Sinclair explains, using 1998 as the benchmark is critical to this kind of argument. El Niño made that year extraordinarily warm. Thus, several years after it were cooler—allowing for the plateau noted by Heartland’s spokespeople. What matters much more is the trend over time—and that shows a warming trend.

You can watch Sinclair explain in the “Party like it’s 1998” video he made as part of his Climate Denial Crock of the Week series. Granted, Sinclair’s series title makes it clear that he’s got a particular point of view. However, he uses NASA data in his explanation. And his view is the consensus of 97 percent of all scientists who express a position in published work in the field.

Also, it’s not enough to look at just the last few years and say the rate of climate change is slower than previously predicted. The last few years have included some of the hottest on record, along with a slew of extreme weather events. And the overall trend is still upward.

While worldwide emissions keep increasing, United States policy actions have generally been very limited. When it comes to climate change, says The Economist, “the world still needs to deal with it.” That could keep us all out of hot water.

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