TCEQ Chairman Bryan Shaw (TCEQ)

‘Both Sides’ Heard at Climate Change Panel


The global scientific authority on climate change released its fifth global assessment this month, finding that human-induced warming of the planet is “unequivocal” and warning that unless “substantial and sustained” reductions in greenhouse gases occur we will cross dangerous temperature thresholds in the coming decades. Meanwhile, a Yale University poll found this month that Texans are not so different than the rest of the country when it comes to views on climate change. A solid majority (55 percent) even believe that the U.S. should cut emissions regardless of what the rest of the world does.

The climate panel at the Texas Tribune Festival yesterday, in contrast, might as well have taken place on some other planet—a planet where the laws of physics are suspended and the mere act of thinking makes things so. Invited to the panel, “The Fight Over Climate Change,” were three climate deniers and two people—a journalist and a scientist/environmentalist—who reflect mainstream views on the issue.

With U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) away in Washington voting to delay Obamacare, and inch the federal government toward a shutdown, that left the discussion evenly “balanced” between the “two sides.” On one side: Kathleen Hartnett White, former chairwoman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and energy analyst with the corporate-funded Texas Public Policy Foundation, and current TCEQ chairman Bryan Shaw. On the other: Ramon Alvarez of Environmental Defense Fund and David Sassoon, publisher of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Inside Climate News.

Moderator Kate Galbraith did her best to challenge Shaw and Hartnett White by pointing out the overwhelming scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change. And the audience generally responded to the duo with grumbling; one gentleman even loudly said “liar” while Shaw was speaking. But the two stuck to their potpourri of long-discredited talking points and red herrings: the models are flawed (Shaw); warming stopped 16 years ago (White); the IPCC—which produced the recent report—is politicized (Shaw), and the costs of doing something about climate change are too high (Shaw and White).

“Perhaps CO2 may not be the culprit,” said Shaw at one point. Carbon dioxide, he conceded, is a greenhouse gas. But, “we don’t know if additional CO2 is having the additional warming” effect.

Shaw also briefly pointed to the “recovery” of Arctic sea ice this summer as proof-positive that global warming, if it ever existed, has stopped.

During the question-and-answer session, an audience member pointed out that the extent of sea ice in the Arctic hit a record low last summer and this year it was the sixth lowest ever, well below the historical average. The suggestion was that Shaw’s point wasn’t really a point at all, but a flimsy, almost lazy, isolation of a single data point that, given just a bit more context, actually counters Shaw’s argument.

Extent of Arctic summer sea ice
Extent of Arctic summer sea ice  National Snow and Ice Data Center

Still, Shaw was unperturbed. “Glaciers, oceans and temperature—none have been doing what the models suggest.”

(For the record, the IPCC reported: “Over the last two decades, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass, glaciers have continued to shrink almost worldwide, and Arctic sea ice and Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover have continued to decrease in extent.”)

David Sassoon, the Inside Climate News publisher, looked a man who had gotten off at the wrong stop and found himself in Crazytown.

“Let’s not argue science,” said Sassoon to Shaw. “You’re not a climate scientist. … It’s silly for us to be arguing over science. That’s what’s been going on for 20 years and in that time a lot more could’ve been done to resolve differences and take action. Let’s not waste any more time on that.”

Texans believe climate change is happening and that government should take action. Yet, we’re almost evenly divided about whether there is agreement among scientists.

Yale climate poll of Texans
Yale climate poll of Texans  Yale University

I wonder why.