In his February 19 column (“John Kerry’s Phony Climate War”), Rich Lowry attempts to take the Obama administration to task for its perceived over-the-top rhetoric when it comes to discussing weather and climate change.
Against the backdrop of a damaging drought in California, Lowry points to a New York Times article quoting climate scientists as saying that, contrary to statements from the president, climate change probably did not cause the drought.
Lowry takes this as a cue to dismiss the magnitude of the threat: “This isn’t climate change so much as climate redux. The more the climate changes, apparently, the more it stays the same.”
This statement is a misreading of the evidence laid out in the Times piece, as well as additional research on how human economic activity is affecting the climate.
While it would be a mistake to ascribe every episode of atypical weather to climate change, Lowry is missing some important qualifiers. Had he cited the Times article fairly, he might have run into this key statement:
“What may be different about this drought is that, whatever the cause, the effects appear to have been made worse by climatic warming. And in making that case last week, scientists said, the administration was on solid ground.”
Indeed, while a drought in California may be in line with past historical experience, it is taking place in an environment with a higher temperature baseline. Much of the western United States has experienced drought for years, in part because rain is displacing snow as the primary winter precipitation, which means there is no longer a snowpack whose springtime melt can replenish water supplies.
The fact is that the planet is warming at a rate that should give everyone pause. According to the Physical Sciences Basis adopted in the latest Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—a consensus document created using the latest, best science—the changes we are experiencing are “unequivocal” and “unprecedented over decades to millennia.”
The stakes, as the report makes clear, are quite high:
“Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system. Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.”
On that last point, Lowry is right to expect that the Obama administration is gearing up for a “regulatory offensive,” since Congress’ appetite for a comprehensive plan to tackle climate change, either through a national cap and trade program similar to the failed Waxman-Markey bill, or a carbon tax, is nonexistent.
Since no willing interlocutors on the right have stepped forward, the Obama administration is sensibly looking at the regulatory levers open to it by prior legislation.
Under the authority of the Clean Air Act (an interpretation that has been upheld by the Supreme Court), he will introduce rules to limit carbon dioxide pollution emitted from existing power plants (the Environmental Protection Agency introduced rules for new power plants previously). The president is also moving forward on fuel efficiency standards for heavy-duty trucks.
These and other measures, while inadequate compared to congressional action, are necessary if this country is to get serious about its obligations to curtail greenhouse gas emissions, the only pathway that has any hope of reversing damaging trends impacting weather in the United States and around the world.