Science, Politics, and Climate Change

The relationship between scientific evidence of global warming and governmental policy is inherently complex and increasingly reflects the role partisan politics is playing in attempts to address this pressing phenomenon.  In some ways, the realities of science and politics have operated in a mutually reinforcing manner – scientific discoveries pertaining to climate change provide fodder for the political machine, prompting both positive and negative political responses, while political rejection of science evidencing climate change often motivates additional scholarly inquiry into the subject.   At the same time, however, these phenomena are decidedly antagonistic – scientific evidence of global warming undercuts political arguments undermining its legitimacy, and political opposition to climate change casts doubt on a topic enjoying nearly universal scientific approval.  In the past two weeks, this complex relationship has been on display, demonstrating that, like the scientific reality of global climate change, the political importance and divisiveness of the issue simply won’t go away.

On October 21, 2011, renowned physicist Richard A. Muller, professor at the University of California at Berkeley and Faculty Senior Scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, a longtime critic of the science on global warming, released the preliminary findings of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project and an editorial in the Wall Street Journal that amounted to a stern rebuke of climate change skeptics.  Muller, after outlining several reasons for his initial cynicism regarding global warming, explained “global-warming skepticism seems sensible. But now let me explain why you should not be a skeptic, at least not any longer.”  Muller’s findings include that measurements from the world’s temperature stations unequivocally demonstrate global warming (even at so called “poorly ranked stations”); that prior publications on climate change had indeed utilized unbiased, reliable methodologies; and that his group’s results were “close to those published by prior groups” (including measurements published about temperature increases in very rural areas).  Although Muller expressed no independent judgment as to whether global warming is attributable to human activities, his ultimate conclusion is clear – “global warming is real.”

By way of contrast, on October 24, 2011, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 2594, the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme Prohibition Act of 2011.  On October 31, 2011, the Bill was received in the Senate.  As the name accurately conveys, the House Bill would prevent operators of U.S. civil aircraft from participating in the European Union’s (“E.U.”) Aviation Directive.  The Directive, set to begin in 2012, is a part of the broader Emissions Trading Scheme established by the E.U. which seeks to address global climate change by instituting a “cap and trade system” for certain greenhouse gases.  These gases include “CO2 emissions from installations such as power stations, combustion plants, oil refineries and iron and steel works, as well as factories making cement, glass, lime, bricks, ceramics, pulp, paper and board.”   In particular, the Aviation Directive brings commercial airlines under the ETS scheme by imposing the cap and trade requirements on “all domestic and international flights that arrive at or depart from an EU airport.”  Accordingly, U.S. airplanes utilizing airports in the E.U., while subject to no cap and trade regulation under the laws of the United States, would be required to comply with the particulars of the ETS greenhouse gas trading design.  It is also worth noting that the House Bill complements a lawsuit filed by several major American airlines challenging the legality of the E.U. law, which a recent opinion from the European Court of Justice Advocate-General indicates is compatible with international law.

The interplay between the rapidly deteriorating scientific opposition to global warming (of which, it is worth noting, there was ostensibly quite little) and the increasing political opposition to both international and domestic efforts to ameliorate this pressing global problem is revealing.  In a Congress largely concerned with the United States’ economic follies and dominated by the perception that environmental regulation undermines our economic viability, the EPA, certain states, and other international institutions are attempting to assert a more prominent role to address serious threats to human health and safety posed by global warming.  But, as evidenced by the House Bill, the Obama Administration’s choice to withdraw the draft NAAQS for ozone, and the Supreme Court’s recent decision in American Electric Power v. Connecticut, these other efforts are often unavailing.  The future of efforts to address global climate change is indeed in a tenuous position.

Written by Chris McCall, GIELR staff