Commission Does Little About Climate Change

June 19, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Richmond Times‐​Dispatch on June 19, 2008.

For months, I have had lures in the waters of Gov. Tim Kaine’s Commission on Climate Change. The bobber hasn’t jiggled. I guess they don’t want to hear from the guy who was state climatologist from 1980 through last summer.

That’s too bad, because I support the idea that climate change is an object worthy of public scrutiny, and, as a scientist, the only way I can scrutinize is with numbers.

Citizens may or may not believe climate change is all it’s cracked up to be, and this might bother them, but I have to say it. The commission’s climate‐​change goal is to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2025. It’s high time people see what they’ll get for their money.

This is a 30 percent reduction from the total that would accrue if we did nothing — that is, stayed on the same emissions trajectory we’ve been on for decades.

A 30‐​percent target sets Virginia’s emissions back to the level they were at in the year 2000. Let’s be charitable and say that people around the country think so highly of Virginia’s ambitions that every state in the nation decides to mandate the same cuts. Let’s be even more charitable and say that every nation on Earth that has obligations to reduce emissions under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on global warming follows Virginia’s lead. The protocol was an appendage to a 1992 United Nations’ “framework” treaty of climate change.

Remember Kyoto? It would have reduced global emissions to about 5 percent below 1990 levels for the years 2008–2012. Instead, they rose at double‐​digit levels, and only two significant nations actually met their obligations: Germany and the United Kingdom. (Each for reasons that had much more to do with local economics than environmental stewardship.) According to figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2000, the U.S. (which never ratified Kyoto) emitted roughly 10 percent more CO2 than its 1990 total.

That’s a pretty standard figure across all Kyoto signatories with growing economies. So applying the Virginia plan to this group of nations actually does less than Kyoto because it takes the developed world also back to 2000, rather than to somewhere around 1985 (when emissions were about 5 percent below 1990 levels).

As early as 1998, scientists at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., calculated how much global warming would be saved by full compliance with Kyoto. As a study published in the scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters found, that works out to 0.07 degrees C per half‐​century. That’s right: not 7 degrees or even seven‐​tenths of a degree, but seven hundredths of a degree.

Adopting the Virginia plan across all Kyoto nations would result in about 72 percent of the emissions reductions of Kyoto itself by 2050, again according to data from the Energy Information Agency. That means a savings of five hundredths of a degree of warming by then, and 0.13 degrees by 2100 (which is 72 percent of the warming projected for Kyoto). The 2050 figure is about 20 times less than the mean annual temperature difference between downtown Richmond and suburban Short Pump.

No one will be able to identify the changes Virginia’s policy makes in either state or global temperature histories, because temperatures vary naturally from year to year — thanks to changes in the sun, El Nino oscillations in the tropics, and random volcanoes — about as much as the Virginia plan would affect temperatures 100 years from now.

Incidentally, these figures assume that if atmospheric carbon dioxide is doubled, surface temperature will increase by 2.5 degrees C. The lack of any net global warming in the last decade, and recent projections published in Nature magazine indicating that there will be little, if any, through the middle of the next decade, argue that this number itself is probably too high. If that’s true, the Virginia Commission goal will prevent even less warming.

It’s hard to believe that any member of Virginia’s commission really thinks he’s doing much about global warming. And it’s equally hard to believe that the members haven’t made these numbers public.

They are now. People need to know that the proposed goal of the Governor’s Commission on Climate Change will simply have no detectable effect on global warming. So what’s the point?

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