Inside GOP science policy, Part 3: climate change

GOP science leader on climate change: We still don't have enough data!

In Part 3 of our interview with Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), we turn to climate change, which is surely the most politically contentious topic under his jurisdiction as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on commerce, justice and science. 

Culberson, who represents the Houston area, long has played a role in legislative policymaking on climate change. Among other positions, he's opposed to cap-and-trade programs. His approach to climate change legislation emerged most strongly in 2013, when he introduced a measure to bar the Environmental Protection Agency from using a "social cost of carbon" calculation in assessing the costs and benefits of environmental regulations.

The EPA wanted to increase its social cost figure, which would make it easier to show that any limitation on fossil fuel emissions was cost-effective. Culberson maintains that the EPA calculations for the social cost of carbon were unclear. His amendment drew a broadside from Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), who said it "denies that carbon pollution causes harm." Culberson's response is part of the interview below. We mentioned the amendment in an earlier piece alluding to Culberson's appointment to the subcommittee. His phone call to object that our treatment of the amendment was unfairly narrow led to our extensive and frank interview. Waxman retired from Congress last year.

The article from the U.K. Telegraph mentioned by Culberson, alleging falsification of climate change data, is here. The article's assertions have been comprehensively challenged by Steven Mosher of Berkeley and Australian earth scientist Neville Nicholls, among others. 

As for the question of whether the data on man-made climate change are adequate and compelling, there is almost universal agreement in the scientific community that they are, and that, in the words of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, "Scientific evidence for warming of the climate system is unequivocal," and evidence that much of the warming is caused by man is compelling.

"NOAA," referred to below, is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an important federal Earth science agency that falls within Culberson's jurisdiction.

As we explained previously, our phone interview with Rep. Culberson took place last month. The transcript has been lightly edited, chiefly for clarity and to remove extraneous and repetitive material. Earlier installments of our interview are Part 1, covering NASA funding, and Part 2, covering the Congressional fight over National Science Foundation grants. We're deeply grateful to Rep. Culberson for giving so generously of his time and sharing with us his candid insights into these important issues.

Michael Hiltzik: Please give me your thoughts on what we should be doing on climate change, how we should be researching it and thinking about it, where you think the state of the science is, what our response should be.

John Culberson: My first priority is to ensure that we have accurate data, period. NOAA's responsibility is to ensure that the data is accurate and complete--that they're not assuming anything, that they're not extrapolating data, that they're not filling in gaps in the data with made-up numbers. There's first and foremost an urgent need for accurate data on temperature trends, on ice pack at the North Pole and in the Antarctic and, frankly, around the world. You need accurate data from our constellation of Earth-orbiting satellites and weather station and buoys and sensors in the ocean.

I think the problems have arisen because the data has been inaccurate, incomplete--for example, the story that ran recently in the Telegraph that as I recall--and I have to go back and look at it closely--but there was a story in the U.K. Telegraph a couple of days ago that talked about tremendous numbers of data points that NOAA and the weather service were using for analyzing the temperature trends in the United States, for example--a lot of those data points were essentially made up. They just filled in blanks where they had no data for a particular weather station on the temperature. They just made it up and stuck it in there, and then they extrapolated or assumed the temperature was warming and trends were invented that were not there.

I just want to follow the facts. We need accurate, honest data. My top priority as subcommittee chairman is to follow the facts, follow the science. Whatever decisions we then make as policymakers have to be based on accurate data on weather, on temperatures, on the size, thickness and location of ice, etc. Once you know that, then you can move forward.

At this point, we don't have accurate data, and the data's in conflict and obviously the Earth's climate has varied widely over the planet's lifetime. Even really in the last several million years you’ve had wildly different sea levels and different temperatures in the atmosphere. There have been times in our history where we’ve been frozen solid and other times when sea levels have been far higher and virtually all the ice on Earth was gone. It's been far hotter and far colder in the past. We just need accurate data. And then we can begin to figure out why those patterns are emerging the way they are.

MH: On the question of extrapolating and filling in, I’m not sure that all scientists would agree that that's not responsible. Extrapolation is an accepted statistical method, and in these cases, the data points from which extrapolations are made have been published. I’m aware of the Telegraph story and I’m also aware that there's been a dispute over whether it's correct.

The question is: do you disagree that there's a scientific consensus that the climatological trends of the last 50 to 100 years do in fact reflect human effect on the environment and the effect is toward warming?

JC: I'm confident humans have had some effect on the climate. We just don't have enough data or accurate data to say with certainty what that effect has been. For example, I have great faith in the constellation of Earth-observing satellites NASA has launched, many of them being used by NOAA.

The most important thing is to get accurate data, particularly when it comes the monumental policy changes being proposed by the Obama administration and the United Nations. We certainly should never make any decision based on incomplete or inaccurate data, especially when it's a monumentally important and expensive decision, like the decision whether or not to impose a carbon tax on people. There's clearly a tremendous amount of holes in the data. Extrapolation is certainly valid, where you have sufficient data points from which to extrapolate. In many of these cases the information that I’ve seen says that they don't even have enough accurate data points from which to extrapolate all their temperature trends. That's just something that they're going to have to prove to me and show the subcommittee and the Congress that their extrapolations are valid and based on sufficient data points.

MH: We’ve talked about the need to follow what the scientists say, and it just seems to me that the scientific consensus is very, very clear, that, first of all they, have enough data and they have enough data points, and that the conclusions--it's not just the Obama administration and the U.N., there are any number of climate science organizations that are all pretty much in accord that there's a serious effect going on and it needs a pretty significant response around the globe.

JC: I know that years ago, when I was in high school, there was an effort to ban fluorocarbons from being used in air conditioning refrigerant and spray cans because it was shown with certainty that fluorocarbons would combine to eliminate--there essentially was a hole over the poles that was created by fluorocarbons combined with--

MH: Ozone, I think.

JC: --it was proven scientifically and it was shown that there was absolutely a real possibility that the ozone hole over the poles could expand and expose the entire planet to additional damaging levels of ultraviolet radiation. We had accurate data, a careful review of that data, we knew the cause of the depleted ozone and therefore that this specific policy change would result in essentially higher ozone levels and greater levels of protection against ultraviolet radiation. That was carefully thought through, the cause and effect was demonstrated, very specific policy change has had a good effect. And you can tell, you can actually see that it's not even an issue any more, because the damage to the ozone holes has stopped growing and you can see that that's had a real beneficial effect.

Here, not only is the data incomplete, but because of the absence of good data, then you’ve got to move on to the question of--even if you did have good data, could it make reasonable extrapolations from that data, what is the cause of the change in that temperature. With the chlorofluorocarbons and the ozone, it was a real cause and effect.

There's multiple reasons, there's so many variables in the Earth's climate, there's vast weather systems under the ocean that we only recently became aware of. And there's the importance of the salinity in the North Atlantic, as to whether or not there's too much fresh water coming off the ice sheets in Greenland or North America and what effect does that have on the flow of the Gulf Stream, for example. There's so many variables, and the policy change that is being proposed by the Obama administration and the U.N., essentially a carbon tax again, is not going to have--even if you assume for the sake of argument that the data is accurate, the data's complete, that the climate is warming and it is primarily the result of human activity--even if you assume for the sake of argument that all that is true, the recommended policy change they make, unlike prohibiting fluorocarbons, is not necessarily going to have the effect that they desire, which is a reduction in carbon output. First and foremost, China and India are going to pay no attention to it. They’re going to haul off and continue to burn and pollute as fast as they can.

To me, ultimately, in the face of all that incomplete and in many cases inaccurate data, inability to produce accurate and verifiable extrapolations, the uncertainty about cause and effect, and then finally the uncertainty about the beneficial impact of the policy change that they recommend, all that being said, I think it's absolutely vital that we first and foremost got to start with just the facts, as Joe Friday said in "Dragnet." We can't make good decisions, you can't make good policy decisions without accurate data.

So I strongly resist the effort of the Obama administration and the U.N. to impose carbon taxes, [first] because I'm genetically opposed to raising taxes in general--I’m genetically incapable of raising taxes--and then number two, I’m not sure that the policy they're proposing is going to achieve the desired result. And number three, the cost to consumers is going to be incalculable. It's going to add immense costs to everything that we consume or purchase in our economy in the United States, while in the meantime, the Chinese and the Indians are just polluting away and pouring carbon and soot into the atmosphere. The air in [Beijing] is literally unbreathable. I've had friends who were there, and you can't even run.

MH: I've been there and I've seen it at its worst.

JC: That's why I did the amendment that put me on your radar screen. Henry Waxman, who's a friend, we're at different ends of the political spectrum, but a decent, nice guy who served his district well, offered an amendment. I had language in the bill that simply said, before the administration can impose a social cost of carbon calculation in the energy efficiency rating of electrical appliances, they have to do the rulemaking process. That's all my amendment did.

We ultimately got a version of it in the bill that requires the agency to essentially follow the rulemaking process before they can impose a social cost of carbon calculation, because it's fundamentally a carbon tax. What they did is a backdoor carbon tax by having a lower-level, invisible, unelected, unaccountable bureaucrat at the Department of Energy just invent this factor that they called the social cost of carbon.

They stuck it in the energy efficiency rating of microwave ovens, and they then intended to stick it into the energy efficiency rating of every other electrical appliance manufactured or sold in the United States, which would add a huge cost not only to manufacturers but to consumers. They didn’t run it through the rulemaking process, and Henry Waxman came out on the floor with his amendment and his speech and everything that "Culberson was denying climate change." That never came up, I just wanted to follow the rules and [say] prove it if you believe that the social cost of carbon factor is valid and accurate, just prove it , just go through the rulemaking process. That's all I was trying to do. We got it into law, a version in the appropriations bill. The law now is they have to follow the rulemaking process. That was one of many benefits in the "cromnibus" appropriations bill [the year-end funding bill passed last December].

I’m a great believer in transparency and sunshine and accurate data. Follow the science, follow the facts. Sunshine is always a healthy thing, no matter which side of the political spectrum you're on.

MH: All right. This has been a great conversation, and I really appreciate your taking all this time. 

JC: Mike, I appreciate it very much. I enjoyed the visit.

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