It’s often a futile task to argue with those who continue to deny that man-made greenhouse gases are causing climate change. It’s a special kind of mental torture pushing that boulder up the hill, only to watch it roll back down again, especially because the boulder is made of such dense material.
Still, my curiosity was piqued when I saw that a particularly avid denialist named Ken Van de Burgt had included a list of citations – so rigorous! – to support an essay-length Facebook comment that he posted in response to my last climate change-related column. (He also called my column “fake news” and said the “author should be fired.”)
Van de Burgt’s essay (which is about 500 words long, not counting endnotes and bibliography) claims to summarize the “best available climate science.” It states that man-made CO2 emissions represent a “physically small” effect on the climate system and that “severe weather phenomena and sea level rise show no significant trends” that can be attributed to human influence, among other unconvincing claims.
I checked out Van de Burgt’s citation for the “best available climate science” section, and it’s remarkable. The document is a 22-page “tutorial” that was presented to a United States court earlier this year by a group of three professors – William Happer, Steven Koonin and Richard Lindzen – in a case called the People of California vs. BP et al.
The case involved the cities of Oakland and San Francisco suing the oil companies BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon and Shell to pay for the construction of seawalls and other infrastructure. The reasoning is that those companies have caused a public nuisance by “knowingly contributing to global warming,” and therefore causing sea-level rises.
Judge William H. Alsup of the US District Court dismissed the lawsuit in June, but not because of doubts over climate science. His reasons for dismissing the case were legal and technical, and had to do with his view that the problems of climate change are international in scope and therefore best left to Congress and diplomacy.
In fact, he wrote in his June 25 decision that the court “fully accepts the vast scientific consensus that the combustion of fossil fuels has materially increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, which in turn has increased the median temperature of the planet and accelerated sea level rise.”
This position reflects evidence given by the oil companies themselves, for the judge had requested a lesson on climate change from experts on both sides. Chevron gave a presentation on behalf of the five defendants that relied heavily on materials from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, including this assertion: “[E]vidence indicates that the global mean sea level is rising, and that this is likely… resulting from global climate charge.”
The multinational energy corporation also said, “From Chevron’s perspective, there is no debate about the science of climate change.”
Summing it all up, Alsup wrote, “All parties agree that fossil fuels have led to global warming and ocean rise and will continue to do so, and that eventually the navigable waters of the United States will intrude upon Oakland and San Francisco.”
So where does Van de Burgt’s evidence fall into all of this? Weren’t we promised the “best available climate science” to bolster his denialist claims?
It turns out the evidence provided by those three professors – Happer, Koonin and Lindzen – was a non-party submission that didn’t even merit a mention in Alsup’s decision. If their science is so good, why are energy companies apparently unwilling to associate themselves with it publicly?
It’s tempting to simply dismiss these men (whose financial backers include Peabody Energy, a coal company) as irrelevant cranks masquerading as bold truth tellers. Sadly, their influence isn’t limited to the comments section of this column. President Donald Trump, who once described climate change as a “hoax invented by the Chinese,” recently appointed 79-year-old Happer as an adviser on emerging technologies.
As for that lawsuit, Oakland and San Francisco have appealed the dismissal. And if those cities can squeeze some money out of BP et al to pay for their seawalls, it’s food for thought as Campbell River prepares for the deluge.