Fact Checking the Meet the Press “Climate Debate”

On Meet the Press on Feb. 16, 2014, there was a debate over climate change and its cause between Bill Nye (The Science Guy) and Republican Congressman Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee.  She is the Vice Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.  This is a link to her positions on energy.

The sides seemed to make some good points, but they were deficient on both numbers and their meaning. The host David Gregory started out the problem by stating that a majority of climate scientists believe in climate change. The networks seldom ever state that the actual number is 97% of scientists who have published in the field. When Rep. Blackburn stated that it was still debatable and only cited two deniers, Nye could have cinched the argument by stating the 97% figure, but did not. It is also the case that the draft of the new IPCC UN report stating the probability that it is human caused at 95% wasn’t brought up.

Rep. Blackburn brought up the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere only was from 350 parts per million (ppm) to 400 ppm. Bill Nye pointed out that that was only a recent rise, and the total was from 250 ppm (sic) to 400 ppm. The actual number should have been 280 ppm at the start of the industrial revolution and its pollution. Rep. Blackburn brought up the worst of the deniers arguments, that it is only a 0.004 fraction of the atmosphere, so how could it be causing anything. A climate scientist would have countered that CO2 is a fair part of the greenhouse atmosphere that we are lucky to have or the average world temperature would have been 0 degrees F, instead of 59 degrees F. Why then wouldn’t the temperature have risen by 400/280 since 1750? Because the CO2 increase only has a logarithmic effect on the temperature increase (hard to remind a general audience what a log is).

Bill Nye at one point held up a picture of the summer Arctic ice pack, but not a comparison to show how much it decreased, and attributed this to global warming. Since the Arctic temperature increase is 4.5 degrees F, while global warming is 1.4 degrees F, it has been realized that the Arctic increase is only partly due to global warming. Detailed theories for this are a current research topic, and I am going to a seminar next week on how it is partly caused by atmospheric waves from the tropics and the North Atlantic Oscillation.

However, I give credit to Meet the Press to even cover the topic, since a survey of NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox news Sunday shows for 2013 showed that totally they had only 27 minutes on the topic.

I also give credit to Bill Nye for taking the issue public with his reputation and being willing to engage in a debate (although the host had softened it to a “discussion”). Climate scientists writing thousand page IPCC reports know the complexity involved and the background needed by the audience to understand the details. They also have a vast scientific jargon, which complicates their explanations. Bill Nye also explained the difference between weather, like the horrid winter in the USA, and climate change. Sen. Blackburn also quoted a government scientist that you couldn’t blame an extreme weather event on climate change. That said, long term drought and heat waves are influenced by climate change, and scientists are still studying whether the Southern movement of the polar vortex is influenced by climate phenomena.

Bill Nye also said in answer to a question that we should start limiting climate change now. (Since new coal plants are built for 70 years, they should be carefully weighed before building them. Coal is also currently less cost effective than natural gas, but twice as CO2 polluting.)

One thing that I agree with Rep. Blackburn on is that we have to use a cost effectiveness measure in providing solutions. However, since we provide about 20% (and China 22%) of CO2 pollution, her argument is that the US doing anything is just a drop in the bucket, so we shouldn’t do anything. Since we and China are by far the two leading countries, this isn’t true.  Also, per capita, our emissions are four times that of China.

I would argue, as would other scientists, that the most cost effective investment is in research and development in clean energy systems. This includes continuing to improve nuclear reactors and to research safe small scale reactors, and thorium reactors. Fracking has to be well regulated, as well as the transport and flaring of natural gas.

Climate research also has to be well funded to better ascertain the various contributions to atmospheric heating, so that we can implement the most cost effective prevention strategies.

In order for clean energy to be deployed on a complete scale, only the most cost effective and reliable systems will be affordable.

About Dennis SILVERMAN

I am a retired Professor of Physics and Astronomy at U C Irvine. For a decade I have been active in learning about energy and the environment, and in lecturing and attending classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at UC Irvine.
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