Contributors

Trump, remove your blinders on climate change

You would have to be a fool to deny that the climate is changing.

Hurricane Harvey was the biggest rain event ever to hit the continental United States and wreaked havoc in Texas at a cost likely to exceed all previous storms on record. Hurricane Irma, was the strongest Atlantic hurricane ever observed. Additionally, two weeks of flooding have devastated communities across India, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Globally, 2014 would have been the hottest year on record if 2015 hadn't surpassed it. And 2015 would have been the hottest, if it hadn't been for 2016

The Antarctic recently saw the largest iceberg - nearly the size of Delaware - break off from the continental ice shelf. And the Arctic Ocean is on the verge of becoming ice free.

Despite all the overwhelming evidence, we have a president, who tweeted in 2012 that "The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive."

And his sidekick, Scott Pruitt, who heads the Environmental Protection Administration, has made a mockery of climate science in a trifecta:

  • By denying that carbon dioxide is "a primary contributor" to global warming
  • By removing academic scientists from the EPA Science Advisory Board
  • By removing webpages that provide access to climate change information and data on the EPA website

We do not expect our political leaders to be experts on everything, but we do expect them to have knowledgeable advisors who can help them understand things they don't know or haven't studied. If they only have poor advisors, or if they don't pay attention to the good ones, we get what we seem to have on climate change, which in truth is not so hard to understand, at least at a cursory level.

Since nearly all the energy that heats the earth comes from the sun, almost any high-school student who has taken an AP physics course can calculate what the average temperature of our planet would be without the greenhouse effect and compare it to what we actually have.

Our high-school student can determine that the average temperature of the earth with no greenhouse effect would be about 5 degrees below zero in Fahrenheit. Instead, it is 60 degrees above zero. The difference is the greenhouse effect.

You can play the same game with Mars, and you will find its average temperature would be 60 degrees below zero. Mars has almost no atmosphere, so it has no greenhouse effect. And the average, as expected, is 60 degrees below zero.

The same analysis for Venus predicts an average temperature of 100 degrees above zero. But the actual temperature is about 700 degrees above zero, about the same as a self-cleaning oven. Venus has a very dense atmosphere composed mostly of carbon dioxide and a runaway greenhouse effect.

The greenhouse effect, itself, is real. The question is how does adding greenhouse gas to the atmosphere change the temperature? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been studying the problem for almost 30 years.

In its 5th Assessment issued in 2009, the IPCC concluded that with business as usual the average global temperature would rise by the end of the century between 5 and 10 degrees Fahrenheit with a mean value of about 7 degrees. It would rise by about twice that in the Arctic.

Investing in real estate above the Arctic Circle might be a real long-term winner, but at our latitude, where it will be very hot, it would be a loser. Tropical diseases will move north, and life will be very uncomfortable without both very good air conditioning and medical treatment.

There are knowledgeable people who say the temperature increase is over estimated. There are others who think it is underestimated. We need much work to improve forecasting, and we need to support it well.

But hiding the data or suppressing discussion as Pruitt seems bent on doing helps no one, other than people who hope to make money following a business as usual scenario. For the rest of us, Pruitt seems to have little or no use.

But if he were willing to listen, we would remind him that saving the planet can actually save money. For example, electricity generated from natural gas or some other low-emission sources costs less than electricity generated from coal. And that's before factoring in the health care costs.

A 2010 report from the National Academy of Science, "Hidden Costs of Energy," estimated that health effects and losses in agriculture from coal burning cost the nation about $62 billion per year, far more than the hidden costs from any other energy source.

Clean coal - which President Trump and Pruitt believe is a panacea - does not exist in any realizable form. Without deploying extremely costly, untested and largely impractical technologies that can remove all the very small particulates from the smoke stack and all the greenhouse gases, too, coal would be even more of an economic loser than it already is.

For coal, our advice is to let capitalism take its course. Let's find other ways to deal with the health and future of the miners - perhaps, as a first step to follow Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and federalize the cost of their health insurance.

Tackling climate change is a remarkable opportunity. Doing something about it now can actually begin to save us money. Denying its existence only makes deniers look like fools.

Burton Richter is an emeritus professor of physical sciences at Stanford, a Nobel Laureate and National Medal of Science winner and the author of "Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century."

Michael S. Lubell is a physics professor at City College of the City University of New York and the author of the forthcoming book, "Science and Technology Policy: A Practical Guide to Navigating the Maze."

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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