Only approved climate change views need apply

Let us behold the “debate” over climate policy now unfolding at the European Union Parliament. Its most prominent feature is a serious effort to deny ExxonMobil (EM) the ability to lobby on climate policy and other related matters with members of the parliament.

This effort to redefine debate as non-debate will be voted upon by the parliament at the end of this month, a European manifestation of the EM-as-bogeyman story line.

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That stance was promoted in recent testimony by one Geoffrey Supran, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University's Department of Science, with Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard, in a 2017 co-authored paper, that EM in the 1970s was making one set of scientific arguments about the effects of greenhouse gas emissions internally, while making a very different set of arguments publicly.

Oreskes and Supran failed to notice that Exxon and Mobil did not merge until 1999, before which time Exxon was making one set of arguments (actually, Exxon was examining a range of scientific hypotheses), while Mobil was making a different set of policy arguments.

Contrasting views and approaches by different companies are not the stuff of front-page news. This trivial truism was pointed out by Cleveland State University Professor Kimberly Neuendorf, who was retained by ExxonMobil to review (see page 41) Oreskes and Supran's work.

She highlighted the “fundamental errors in their analysis,” their failure to meet “basic standards of scientific inquiry,” and who then concluded that their study was “unreliable, invalid, biased, not generalizable and not replicable.” And she added that Oreskes and Supran “provide no scientific support for a claim that ExxonMobil misled the public.”

There's simply no evidence that EM “knew” that a man-made climate Armageddon was looming but was disingenuous in its public pronouncements. An Exxon scientist in 1977 argued that “doubling CO2 could increase global average temperatures 1°C to 3°C by 2050AD.”

In contrast, the latest peer-reviewed findings, in summary, are that man-made effects are responsible for about a third of the 1.5°C of global warming since 1850. So the Oreskes-Supran argument, amazingly, is that “Exxon knew” four decades ago that anthropogenic warming would be two-to-six-times greater than has proven to be the case. Wow.

One would think that such a paltry track record would give pause to policymakers on either side of the ocean considering the choice of witnesses endorsing the Oreskes-Supran argument. But one would be wrong.

The Subcommittee on Environment of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform just held a hearing on “Climate Change, Part 1: The History of a Consensus and the Causes of Inaction.”

One of the witnesses was Professor Jeffrey Sachs, who, specifically referencing the Supran/Oreskes paper, argued in 2017 that “Some oil companies have (misled the public) about climate change. ExxonMobil, for example, knew internally for decades that its products contribute to global warming, according to a peer-reviewed Harvard University study published last month, but publicly downplayed the linkages and the resulting risks.”

The “Part 1” in the title suggests that subsequent hearings will be held, and it is reasonable to fear that this utterly false storyline will be repeated: EM has been dishonest about the climate change issue, is therefore one important source of “inaction” and thus has no standing to participate in the marketplace of ideas. 

Policymakers confronted with complex policy questions are correct to hold hearings at which those holding contrasting viewpoints can confront each others’ arguments; but wasting time with the propaganda exercise is deeply perverse.

It would be far more useful for the committee to delve into the state of what is known and what is not, as a path toward policymaking constrained by evidence rather than loud assertions.

That evidence can be summarized as follows:

  • Temperatures are rising, but as the Little Ice Age ended around 1850, it is not easy to separate natural from anthropogenic causes.
  • There is little trend in the number of “hot” days for the period 1895-2017; 11 of the 12 hottest years occurred before 1960.
  • The global mean sea level has been increasing for thousands of years; it may or may not be accelerating.
  • The Northern and Southern Hemispheres' sea ice changes tell very different stories.
  • U.S. tornado activity shows either no trend or a downward trend since 1954.
  • Tropical storms, hurricanes and accumulated cyclone energy show little trend since satellite measurements began in the early 1970s.
  • The number of U.S. wildfires shows no trend since 1985.
  • The Palmer Drought Severity Index shows no trend since 1895.
  • U.S. flooding over the last century is uncorrelated with increasing greenhouse gas concentrations.
  • The available data do not support the ubiquitous assertions about the dire impacts of declining pH levels in the oceans. 
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Let us look back about 20 years when dissent purportedly was the highest form of patriotism. For the political left at that time, dissent from various policies with which they disagreed was the sine qua non of free debate in a free society.

How times have changed. For that very same political left, the marketplace of ideas now is to be closed to those dissenting from received wisdom, defined as the arguments and assumptions serving the left’s political interests, particularly in the context of the great crusade of the day, man-made climate change.

This “shut up” stance is unlikely to prove salutary in terms of the quest for greater understanding and policy formulation yielding net benefits for Americans. Oreskes and Supran and others who believe the reverse should be ignored.

Benjamin Zycher is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he works on energy and environmental policy.