So Wrong in So Many Ways – Part Two: The Scientific Illiteracy of the EPA’s Proposed New Carbon Regulations

So Wrong in So Many Ways – Part Two: The Scientific Illiteracy of the EPA’s Proposed New Carbon Regulations
June 5, 2014

David L. Applegate

David Applegate is a Chicago-based trial lawyer and partner at the law firm of Williams Montgomery... (read full bio)

We wrote yesterday about how the EPA’s new “Carbon Pollution Emission Guidelines for Existing Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units,” proposed June 2, violate the Constitutional separation of powers and, more fundamentally, disrespect Americans as individuals. 

Now let’s examine why they’re scientifically flawed. 

Among its 645 pages of new red tape for power plants, the EPA states that its proposal “would result in significant reductions of GHG [Green House Gas] emissions that cause harmful climate change, while providing states with ample opportunity to design plans that use innovative, cost-effective strategies that take advantage of investments already being made in programs and measures that lower the carbon intensity of the power sector and reduce GHG emissions.”


As skeptical scientists, let’s look at some key words and phrases in that statement, starting with “cause harmful climate change,” which requires a little unpacking.  Let’s begin with “climate change.”

We all agree that climate changes, starting with the weather.  In addition to daily weather changes, the earth goes through longer cycles of heating and cooling, such as the Ice Ages that have left behind evidence like Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraines, the Great Lakes, and the Finger Lakes of New York.  That also includes the “Little Ice Age” out of which the world has been coming since the 19th Century. 

But despite the current administration’s protestations, the science of climate change is hardly “settled,” or it wouldn’t be science.  Science is a process, a method of inquiry.  It relies on data collection, observation, hypotheses formation, hypotheses testing, and experimentation, leading ultimately to theories that become more widely adopted the more they seem to explain the universe until scientists come up with something better. 

Some early civilizations thought the earth rode on the back of a giant turtle.  Later ones thought earth was flat and that the sun revolved around it.  Their descendants figured out that the earth was closer to spherical, and that the earth revolves around the sun.  Now we know that the earth is very slightly “pear-shaped,” but not enough that anyone notices. 

Astronomers in time have discovered other planets in earth’s solar system.  But from 1930 until 2006 the planets include Pluto.  Now even the comic strip “Brewster Rockit: Space Guy” recognizes that Pluto, being smaller than many moons, qualifies only as a “dwarf planet.” 

To coin a phrase, science changes.

Climate changes, too, but predicting it is hard as hell, especially more than a week in advance.   Today’s weather forecasters mostly track prevailing weather patterns as they move across the globe and let viewers know where storms and fronts will likely be the next day and the next.  In general they’re pretty good.  But it’s a bit like predicting where a car – if it keeps moving at the same speed and the driver stays on the road – will wind up down the road:  a helpful exercise, but lacking long-range reliability. 

As investment advisors constantly inform us, past performance is no guarantee of future success.  Even if you know where you’ve been it doesn’t mean you know where you are going.

So what about causation? 

Nobody knows what the temperature will be a hundred years from now in Miami Beach or Salt Lake City – much less just what will cause it – and anyone who claims to know with certainty is pushing an agenda.  Odds are that climate change has more to do with solar activity, changes in earth’s orbit and axis (we “wobble” like a top; it’s called “precession”), volcanic and tectonic activity in earth’s crust, and – our second new word for the day – “albedo,” a measure of reflectivity that is influenced by gamma ray fluctuation.  All are contributing factors to climate change and are constantly under study. 

As for the fabled “greenhouse effect” itself that the EPA purports to combat, most of that is probably due to water vapor, which every plant and animal gives off and is constantly naturally recycled through evaporation and condensation in the form of rain, snow, ice – and even steam.   “For humans to presume that they are more than a gnat on an elephant’s rump in terms of impact on climate change,” as Mark Hendrickson of Forbes has put it, “is vain and delusive.”

Finally, suppose the earth were truly getting consistently warmer all the time and that it were all due to human activity.  Would that necessarily be “harmful,” as the EPA’s proposed regulations presuppose? As Hendrickson has pointed out, for plants and animals and people, warmer is generally better.   

The lesson of history, as our President might say (although not in this context), is that human beings thrive more during warmer periods than colder ones.  From a scientific standpoint, the EPA needn’t be so alarmist.

[Coming Monday, Part Three: The Economic Illiteracy of the EPA’s Proposed Carbon Regulations]

David L. Applegate

David Applegate is a Chicago-based trial lawyer and partner at the law firm of Williams Montgomery... (read full bio)