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April 18, 2006

Congressional Opinions on Climate Science and Policy


Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change

Thanks to Chris Weaver who posted a link yesterday in the comments to a very interesting recent poll (here in PDF) from the National Journal on views of members of Congress on climate science and policy. The poll provides some empirical evidence to support a number of arguments made here on Prometheus. Here is my interpretation of the significance of the poll:

1) The poll asks, “Do you think it’s been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the Earth is warming because of man-made pollution?” The replies are interesting with 98% of Democrats saying “Yes” and only 23% of Republicans saying “Yes.” Presumably, “beyond a reasonable doubt” means with greater than 95% certainty, so the question requests a level of certainty greater than that expressed by the 2001 IPCC which expressed a 64%-90% certainty on the same question. So members of both parties need to go beyond the most recent IPCC to answer this question. They could be steeped in the most recent science, but I’d guess there is more than a small ideological element at play here, on both sides. I haven’t seen the most recent drafts of the 2007 IPCC, but I assume that it will come out much more consistent with what the Democrats believe. Nonetheless, an important observation here is that, as has been found in many areas, the views of members of Congress are more ideologically determined than those of their party membership among the general population. In opinion polls of the public asking the same question, Democrats do not show such unanimity of opinion, and Republican views are not so consolidated. I chalk this down to the effects of gerrymandering of Congressional districts which has often been pointed to as a key factor in a legislature far more ideological than the people who they actually represent.

2). But what should not be overlooked, is that even with the party divisions, a clear majority of members of both the House and Senate believe that global warming is real and caused by humans. If the poll numbers accurately reflect Congressional perspectives, then 55 members of the Senate and 251 members of the House (!!) believe that “it’s been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the Earth is warming because of man-made pollution.” This seems to be inescapable evidence that there is exceedingly little value left in continuing to argue the science of this particular question. Clearly, there are other factors at play here beyond “skepticism” which shapes how decision makers act on climate change. Efforts to educate Congress on the reality of climate change are in my view completely wasted on a majority of the convinced.

3) The poll asks a second question, “Which of these actions to reduce pollution could you possibly support?” and the answers included five options, Mandatory limits on carbon dioxide emissions, Increased spending on alternative fuels, Greater reliance on nuclear energy, Higher fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles, and a Higher gasoline tax. For each of these issues, except a gasoline tax which is not favored by members of either party, there is far more agreement than was displayed on the question of science. And in each case there is evidence of enough support to suggest that agreement across parties might be found on particular policy options. The devil is of course always in the details, but what this poll shows is that debate on climate policy show be taking place in terms of policy options, and not science. There is ample evidence that there is room for compromise across partisan boundaries, without the need to turn Republicans into Democrats or vice versa.

Bottom line: The nation awaits politically creative policy options that can navigate the complicated set of interests of 535 members of Congress to start taking effective action on climate policy. All of the precursors for such action are in place, minus of course the politically creative options. Efforts to debate the science are simply misplaced in such a context. Die hard partisans will no doubt come up with a range of excuses why they cannot compromise, and will gravitate back to the science as a comfortable home for maintaining the present debate. Such partisans typically point the finger of blame at their political opponents, though they should be looking in the mirror. The evidence from this poll suggests very strongly that such reactions are grounded more in a desire to maintain the present gridlock, rather than to move the issue of climate policy forward.

Posted on April 18, 2006 07:47 AM

Comments

Living on Earth relayed, yesterday, an opinion poll of the public that had similar results Roger.

I took from the poll the same thing, that there is a certain ideological component to how we process information in this information-overloaded society.

Best,

D

Posted by: Dano at April 18, 2006 08:48 AM


Thanks, Roger, for disseminating this. I'll just transplant the gist of my original comments on the poll here, which more or less mirror a number of Roger's points:

1. As far as the first poll question is concerned (the science question), the democrats are much more certain and unified. Compare percentages (98% vs. 77%) and also confident and/or aggressive language (e.g., "beyond a shadow of a doubt," "no controversy," oil and coal-industry funded scientists, etc., vs. "respected scientists from both sides of the issue," and "a preponderance of evidence in this [presumably human cause of GW] direction"). This is perhaps consistent with the Frank Luntz observations that the window of opportunity to dispute the science (for better or for worse) appears to be closing.

2. When we switch to the second poll question (the policy options question), we find a lot of shared values and room for compromise. For example, increased spending on alternative fuels has very broad support, and it looks like there might also be enough political will to move on higher fuel efficiency standards, whereas a higher gasoline tax appears to be off the radar of both sides for the moment. When we put more options on the table, we are likely to identify points of agreement even in an extremely polarized debate, and then we can craft strategies based on this commonality.

Posted by: Chris Weaver at April 18, 2006 09:15 AM


By the way, thanks to Peter Ashcroft, a fellow AAAS fellow, for calling the poll to my attention.

Posted by: Chris Weaver at April 18, 2006 09:29 AM


I tell ya, Roger, a paper that looks at what would be appropriate technology prizes for reaching different technological milestones in the development of non-tokamak fusion alternatives would end up being a more famous policy document than Albert Einstein's letter to Roosevelt on atomic weapons.

You don't have to make any kind of representation that the any of the technologies will work:

http://markbahner.typepad.com/random_thoughts/2006/04/alternatives_to.html

You would only need to say, "If one of them DID DID work (i.e. become commercial), this is what they'd be worth."

Pick whatever you consider to be the most important technological public policy documents in history. That paper would be up there with them.

Posted by: Mark Bahner at April 18, 2006 10:49 AM


Roger,

Interesting post. I generally agree with your analysis, however, if Dano is right, then the huge gulf between republicans vs. democrats on the anthropogenic warming issue can't be explained entirely by your suggestion that redistricting has led to a more ideological legislature. The simplest explanation is that Republicans, in general, have swallowed their own (Luntz) propaganda:

"You need to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate."

Occam's Razor... and all of that.

Thanks. -James

Posted by: James Bradbury at April 18, 2006 10:58 AM


Link to aforementioned LOE piece:

http://www.loe.org/shows/segments.htm?programID=06-P13-00015&segmentID=5

And what James said is what I left unsaid (thx, JB).

Best,

D

Posted by: Dano at April 18, 2006 11:51 AM


James- Thanks. Surely this is the case, as I wrote, "They could be steeped in the most recent science, but I’d guess there is more than a small ideological element at play here, on both sides." And it is probably safe to also conclude that the Ds have swallowed their own propoganda as well. But the larger point remains -- none of this is an obstacle to action. Thanks!

Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at April 18, 2006 12:33 PM


All (except Bahner)-

I'll second the statement that there is "little value left in continuing to argue the science of this particular question."

In addition, I will provide an explanation for lack of progress in Congress despite seeming majorities of those who believe in climate change. The rules of the House are such that the leadership of the majority party has a virtual deadlock on setting the agenda. As long as those few members are not putting AGW on the agenda, it won't get there. And combined with an Administration that is actively hostile to mitigation, there is virtually no prospect of any action.

This means that if you replace about a dozen people in DC --- President and close advisors, Speaker of the House and associated flunkies --- then I think something like McCain-Lieberman could pass.

And I agree with James Bradbury that arguments about science are made for tactical advantage in the debate, not because these are honest arguments.

Regards.

Posted by: Andrew Dessler at April 18, 2006 12:44 PM


Andrew Dessler writes, "All (except Bahner)- I'll second the statement that there is 'little value left in continuing to argue the science of this particular question.'"

Oh, I agree that there is virtually no value in arguing whether anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases have caused at least SOME of the warming from the 1880s to the present. The answer to that question is, "Almost certainly yes."

But I completely reject any claim that, because human emissions of greenhouse gases may have caused 0.5 degrees Celsius temperature rise in the last ~125 years, that such knowledge has any significant effect on what public policies should be followed.

A far more important and relevant question regarding what public policies should be followed is what the warming in the future will be, with and without various government policies.

As far as that question goes, the science is very clear there, too. In fact, it's so clear, Andrew, that you are afraid to honestly discuss it (instead preferring to lie and run, to put it bluntly).

The simple facts are:

1) Mandatory limits on U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide will have absolutely no detectable effect on temperatures in the 21st century (unless the limits are so stringent that they could not possibly pass Congress, or any other legislative body). The total amount of temperature increase caused by all carbon dioxide emissions in the 21st century will be approximately 1.5 degrees Celsius. U.S. emissions are currently 25% of world emissions…and will FALL as a percentage of world emissions as the 21st century progresses. That means that, at most, total U.S. emissions over the entire course of the 21st century will cause at most approximately 0.4 degrees Celsius temperature increase. So even if the U.S. mandated an immediate and permanent 25% cut, it would cause only a 0.1 degree Celsius temperature reduction by 2100. That is laughably small, and no one in 2100 will be grateful in the slightest for any sacrifices made. (And even a 25% cut probably would never pass a legislative body.)

2) Alternative fuels for U.S. vehicles will have even LESS impact than mandatory CO2 cuts on 21st century temperatures. We're now talking about a small fraction of 0.1 degree Celsius. Further, the trend is toward electrification of cars...so alternative fuels funding diverts money from that important trend.

3) Greater reliance on nuclear energy (from fission) will meet so much resistance from a significant enough percentage of the population that it I doubt nuclear energy from fission will ever supply even one third of U.S. electrical power (let alone total U.S. energy). Non-tokamak fusion is an entire matter entirely. I would not be surprised if as much as 50% of the U.S.’s energy use comes from non-tokamak fusion in 50 years. (So of course, no one in Congress or the Executive Branch even have that on their radar screens!)

4) Higher fuel efficiency standards for cars...what can I say? If ever there was an economically brain-dead idea for reducing CO2 emissions, that's it. Increasing fuel efficiency decreases the cost per mile to travel...so it encourages increases in the number of miles traveled. Simple economics.

5) Higher gasoline taxes. Well, it least they’re not economically foolish, like #4. And they don’t interfere with progress towards electrification of automobiles, like #2. Higher gasoline taxes will have no effect on world temperatures (again, a fraction of 0.1 degree Celsius over the course of the 21st century). But they’re one of the least stupid policy choices offered. So of course, no Congressional majority will ever support them.

In short, Andrew, you and the rest of the world can pretend all you want that McCain-Lieberman or any of the 5 policy alternatives mentioned in the poll will have any significant effect on global temperatures in the 21st century. The simple fact is that science doesn’t support such notions. (But as you have already acknowledged, *you* aren’t interested in discussing science, anyway.)

Posted by: Mark Bahner at April 18, 2006 08:40 PM


If man is causing the earth to warm we must do something. I think most agree that dealing with the consequences of a warmer earth will be more harder than whatever policy we construct now.

Posted by: tpiddy [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 19, 2006 12:54 PM


I certainly agree with Roger's main point:

"This [the poll] seems to be inescapable evidence that there is exceedingly little value left in continuing to argue the science of this particular question."

But, while it has no impact on the above conclusion (and from that regard is really an incidental), I can't agree with Roger's statement that

"Presumably, “beyond a reasonable doubt” means with greater than 95% certainty, so the question requests a level of certainty greater than that expressed by the 2001 IPCC which expressed a 64%-90% certainty on the same question."

The simple fact is that no definite probability WAS attached to "beyond a reasonable doubt" in the above poll.

Furthermore, there is no universally accepted number that fixes the correspondence between "reasonable doubt" and probability.

In fact, in the place where "reasonable doubt" is used most frequently (and where it originates -- the courtroom), the LACK of a fixed number is almost certainly by design.

I think most reasonable people would agree that reasonable people can DISAGREE about the meaning of "reasonable doubt" -- and undoubtedly DO disagree, in courtrooms across America every day of the week.

That is NOT to say that there was no political or ideological factor involved in the outcome of the above poll, just to say that pinning a number on "reasonable doubt" and then using this number to conclude that "the question requests a level of certainty greater than that expressed by the 2001 IPCC" (64%-90% certainty) is not warranted.

Posted by: laurence jewett at April 19, 2006 01:45 PM


Laurence- Thanks for your comment. You raise a fair point. In the poll "reasonable doubt was not specified quantitatively leaving plenty of room for interpretation. If I were on a jury and I had evidence that a defendant was inoocent with 10%-34% probability, I'd almost assuredly decide that this is reasonable doubt.

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. at April 19, 2006 03:00 PM


tpiddy writes, "If man is causing the earth to warm we must do something."

I definitely agree with you, if man is causing the earth to warm by more than 5 degrees Celsius by 2100. But what if it's only 2 degrees Celsius by 2100 (which is less than the temperature increase of moving a couple hundred miles south)? What if it's only 1 degree Celsius by 2100?

"I think most agree that dealing with the consequences of a warmer earth will be more harder than whatever policy we construct now."

Don't you agree that people in 2050 or 2100 will be much more wealthy than we are, and have more more technological capability than we do? If so, why wouldn't they have an easier time dealing with a warmer world than we have in keeping the world from warming?

Also, are you sure they will even think that a warmer world is worse, if the warming is only 1 degree Celsius or so? (That's the equivalent of moving from Cleveland, OH, to Cincinnati, OH.) After all, the population in the United States is generally moving south, not north. And Canada and Russia are much less densely populated than countries near the equator.

Posted by: Mark Bahner at April 19, 2006 07:11 PM


I would say that man's activies beyond a doubt are contributing to global warming. The true question, as Mark keeps saying, is "How much?" And do we want to accept the economic costs of doing something about it?

Posted by: Carolynn at April 20, 2006 12:27 PM


"I would say that man's activies beyond a doubt are contributing to global warming. The true question, as Mark keeps saying, is "How much?" And do we want to accept the economic costs of doing something about it?"

Uh-oh! Someone who agrees with me. Do you know what "they" say, Carolynn, about people with thoughts like yours? (Hint: You aren't a VP at Exxon, are you? ;-))

Posted by: Mark Bahner at April 20, 2006 03:05 PM


Mark,

I agree with you too. In fact, you are the only one who makes any sense.

The statement: "The science no longer matters...", is extraordinarily disturbing, especially from scientists. I suppose what this means is that scientific debate is no longer required to get a sufficient number of votes to enact policy, as the votes are already there. If that is so, then take the time to say it. Simply stating that the science no longer matters is both factually incorrect and counter productive. Such statements can surely be used and abused elsewhere.

The main point, however, is exactly what Mark has stated. What good is a policy that will do more harm than good, and quite possibly no good at all? Why would anyone from a background of logic and reason be in favor of such a policy, much less advocate it stridently?

The debate has never been about whether or not increasing CO2 had a warming influence on the atmosphere. The debate has always been about how much influence it will have; will it be a serious problem; and, if so, what solutions will be cost effective.

The science of the last 5 years has simply confirmed that there has been warming over the last several decades. This warming has no impact on the skeptic’s argument, which has always included warming and cooling cycles, but it does indicate that AGW supporters MAY not be COMPLETELY wrong.

How much of the warming is man-made is still very debatable. Since the total warming is below the minimum predictions of the climate models, it seems very foolish to buy into the more pessimistic forecasts of the AGW models and then promote policies that will generate costs but do no measurable good, regardless of what the actual threat turns out to be.

If we simply want Congress to ‘act’, why bother to educate them about anything? If, however, we want them to produce energy policies that benefit the citizens of the United States, then the science is and always will be extremely important!

Perhaps Roger is simply making an observation, but the underlying sentiment appears to be that the observation is favorable. Most of the comments that follow express the same sentiment that 'finally, something can be done!' If I am reading this right, then I am disturbed by the sentiments expressed here, except for Mark’s, who is the only one keeping the issues in the proper perspective!

Posted by: Jim Clarke at April 20, 2006 08:49 PM




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