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Paul Burka’s Climate Idiocy

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Readers of this blog will know that I frequently post about climate change and the campaign by the denialist community to confuse the public about the science. I do so mainly because the mainstream Texas press has fallen down on the job.

Case in point: Over the weekend, I was catching up on some reading and happened across Paul Burka’s column in the November issue of Texas Monthly. The column, “Cap and Tirade,” is a perfect example of how the climate skeptics use credulous journalists to amplify their message.

In his piece, Burka takes a brief tour of the arguments for and against the cap-and-trade system at the heart of congressional climate legislation. Nothing wrong with that: It’s certainly debatable whether cap and trade is the best way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

However, almost everything else in the column (not to mention Burka’s comments on his own blog) is a chapter-and-verse recitation of climate skeptic talking points, from wildly inflated claims about job losses because of cap-and-trade to jotting down whatever nonsense the fossil fuel crowd tells him.

Entirely missing from the piece is any acknowledgment of the overwhelming body of evidence that climate change is underway, largely caused by human activity, and could be catastrophic if a concerted effort isn’t undertaken very soon to get greenhouse gas emissions under control.

Instead, Burka mocks the Democrats’ plan to reduce greenhouse gasses as an attempt to “save the planet” (as if that’s a bad idea).

The first sign of trouble is in the opening paragraph when Burka writes (favorably) about the “Energy Citizens” rally in Houston this August without noting that the event was organized and paid for by Houston energy companies. It was about as pure an Astroturf event as you can get, but you’d never know from this column. Other news outlets noted the nature of the rally near the top of their stories. The Houston Chronicle for instance (via Lexis-Nexis news database:

The event was the first of more than a dozen planned throughout the country in the next few weeks, pushed by a number of companies and business organizations but organized in Houston largely by the American Petroleum Institute. Several companies, including Woodlands-based Anadarko Petroleum Corp., bused employees to the event at the Verizon Wireless Theater, while others encouraged workers to attend.

What’s really infuriating though is Burka’s treatment of climate science. He relies exclusively on the musings of Michelle Foss, the chief economist for UT’s Center for Energy Economics.

As I wrote here, Foss is a climate denialist who has spent most of her career working for the oil, gas, and utility industries and co-owns a company that drills for coal-bed methane gas in Louisiana. She has no known training in atmospheric science or any related field. Burka fails to mention any of this yet he allows her to spew some of the silliest pseudoscience one is apt to find in a mainstream publication.

Foss is also skeptical about the impact of greenhouse gases on the atmosphere, which, of course, is the reason for implementing cap and trade in the first place. (She referred me to recent developments in climate science that suggest that variations of solar activity are one of the principal determinants of climate.)

Using data gathered by the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies, she has calculated that if all carbon dioxide from U.S. coal-fired power plants were captured or eliminated, we would remove only .00000382 percent of the weight of the atmosphere. “We can’t predict a benefit,” she said.

I hope this doesn’t sound too harsh but who gives a rip what Foss thinks about climate science? She’s an oil-and-gas economist who has a PhD in political science. Her agenda is to ding cap-and-trade by producing studies that assume the absolute worse about the economic impacts of the legislation.

For example, in her study for the Texas Comptroller, which predicts massive job losses, Foss failed to consider what new jobs might be created by investments in renewable energy and conservation. That’s like trying to balance your checkbook without taking into account deposits.

She says that she’s “skeptical” that greenhouse gasses have an impact on the atmosphere. What does that even mean? It’s beyond scientific dispute that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses have a “forcing” effect on the climate (i.e. they lead to an increase in surface temperatures). Reducing them, in turn, leads to a mitigation of warming.

There’s no indication that Burka has bothered to even learn this basic fact. Nor did he bother to check with the dozens of climate experts in this state to see if Foss’ wild assertions bear out.

You’d think a reporter would be interested to know that every single faculty member of A&M’s Department of Atmospheric Science has endorsed the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the global authority on the issue.

Burka should be embarrassed for relaying, uncritically, the idea that “solar activity” is a major factor in climate change at present, especially because he makes no reference to any published study in the scientific literature that would allow us to check the claim. I asked Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech, to respond to Foss’ assertions.

“It is very sad that TM chose to re-print such complete fiction,” wrote Hayhoe.

On solar activity: “It’s been well-established for well over a century now that the sun is one of the primary sources of *natural* climate variability and long-term cycles in the earth’s climate. This is nothing new. They were talking all about it in the 1800s.” “However, the most recent analyses of solar energy over this past century prove that the sun has contributed to no more than 7% of the warming during the 1900s. Not only that, but since the 1980s, the amount of energy the earth receives from the sun has been *decreasing*. That’s right–if our current climate change were controlled by the sun, we’d be cooling right now, not warming!”

Click for larger imageChanges in climate

Even more ludicrous is Foss’ analysis about the “weight” of carbon dioxide from coal in the atmosphere. Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeller at the NASA Goddard Institute and contributor to RealClimate.org, weighed in on this one: “First off, the ‘weight of the atmosphere’ has nothing to do with the greenhouse effect of added CO2. It’s just a random big number used to make the changes insignificant.”

The important measure is the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, currently near 400 parts per million and climbing by 2ppm each year. Most scientists believe we need to limit the total to 450ppm to avoid catastrophic effects from a warming planet.

Schmidt points to data that show that CO2 emissions from U.S. coal-fired power plants are about 7 percent of the world total. 

“Given that increases in CO2 are roughly 2ppmv/year, a 7% cut in emissions would indeed be measurable in pretty short order (though obviously would not be sufficient to stabilise concentrations),” Schmidt wrote.

Hayhoe also responded with a lengthy answer, reprinted in full below the fold. In a nutshell, Hayoe said, “[I]t is an apples and oranges comparison that makes no sense. …Weight is completely irrelevant. All we care about is the percentage of the increase in CO2 above natural levels for which the US is responsible, which is 30%.”

And so there you have it: Burka reprinted a bunch of garbage.

But the most revealing remark of all comes in a comment Burka posted on his blog. In responding to a reader criticizing him for calling cap-and-trade “ideological,” Burka wrote:

Oh, let’s not weep tears for the planet. It can get along fine without climate change legislation, which is based upon controversial science. (See my column in the November issue of Texas Monthly.) And while health care costs are a serious concern, climate change legislation would be a far greater burden on the economy than health care currently is.

And so you see, Paul Burka has swallowed the skeptic argument hook, line and sinker: Climate change isn’t a grave threat to the planet; doing something about it is! And, um, the science is “controversial.”

For a story on new coal-fired power plants in Texas that’s coming out in the next issue, I talked to several Texas climate scientists. One thing I asked them is what they think about Texas elected officials’ understanding of climate change.

“The political leadership has no clue,” Gerald North, a professor of atmospheric science at Texas A&M, told me. “They are in total denial. The governor and TCEQ and all these people are in total denial.” It’s no surprise then that Paul Burka, who often perfectly reflects the conventional wisdom of the state’s political elite, doesn’t have a clue either.

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.