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Jerry Patterson: Climate Change is “Really Unimportant”

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I try to keep a close watch on climate change denialism in the Texas political class. I know, I know – I admit that it’s largely an exercise in futility. Nothing short of Jesus himself explaining the science will pry Texas Republicans away from their climate fantasies.

Still, I think it’s worth documenting how horribly out of step the state’s top elected officials are with the rest of the world. There is a mountain of incontrovertible evidence that the emission of greenhouse gasses is rapidly changing the Earth’s climate.

Texas may be a whole ‘nother country but we are far from immune from the effects. Just today, we learn that 255 National Academy of Sciences members, including 11 Nobel laureates, have signed onto a letter defending the accuracy of climate science and denouncing the efforts of a small band of professional ‘skeptics’ to confuse the public. The letter opens:

We are deeply disturbed by the recent escalation of political assaults on scientists in general and on climate scientists in particular. All citizens should understand some basic scientific facts. There is always some uncertainty associated with scientific conclusions; science never absolutely proves anything. When someone says that society should wait until scientists are absolutely certain before taking any action, it is the same as saying society should never take action. For a problem as potentially catastrophic as climate change, taking no action poses a dangerous risk for our planet.

This should put to rest the delusional idea that there is a “debate” about the causes and consequences of anthropogenic global warming. But, of course, it won’t.

The latest Texas Republican to publicly air his errant views on climate change is General Land Office Commissioner Jerry Patterson. In a Texas Tribune-hosted conversation between Patterson and his Democratic opponent, Hector Uribe, Patterson had this to say:

I believe in climate change but I’m not sure which way it’s going. I’m not sure it’s man-made and frankly there have been a lot of questions about the scholarship related to climate change lately. It’s really unimportant.  It’s not my job to ferret out whether climate change is real or not. All I do is measure how much beach we lose every year.

(Patterson’s comments begin around the 18:50 mark on the video.)

This is like a doctor saying it’s not his job to figure out why somebody’s sick. He just measures how many pathogens have built up in the patient’s body.

One of the statutory roles of the General Land Office is to protect the Texas coast, which happens to be eroding in places at an alarming rate.

The GLO has spent millions dumping sand on beaches in Galveston Island and is continually plagued with the problem of homes stranded on the public beach.

There are multiple reasons why the Texas coast is eroding – subsidence due to groundwater withdrawal and oil extraction; the natural movement of barrier islands like Galveston Island; the loss of sediment from diminishing river flow; and global sea-level rise.

All factors are important of course but none is as paramount as accelerating sea-level rise driven by a warming planet. It’s basic physics. As oceans heat up, water expands and takes coastline. This is happening already. In the 20th century, the rate of sea-level rise tripled due to rising temperatures and the thermal expansion of oceans.

In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected that oceans would rise 18 to 59 centimeters by 2090. However, that’s a low-ball estimate because it didn’t include the effects of melting ice sheets and glaciers around the planet.

More recent estimates based in part on the observed loss of ice mass in Greenland and Antarctica predict that seas will rise in the range of half a meter to two meters by the end of this century. Sea-level rise of that magnitude poses an existential threat to Padre Island, Galveston Island, and low-lying mainland communities like Surfside and parts of Southeast Texas.

But, hey, Patterson’s got more important stuff to worry about, like selling off the Christmas Mountains.

Credit to Hector Uribe for taking the climate crisis seriously.

I think it matters whether climate change is caused by human intervention or is totally a natural phenomena. I think it matters a great deal because I think the response you take becomes part of your public policy plan.

If it’s not man-made and it’s happening then we can do nothing about it. That, I think, destines us to grow sea walls that grow higher and higher and puts us into this constant replenishing of the sands and the beaches.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.