June 30, 2006

Supreme Court Warms Up To Climate Change

Filed under: Climate Politics

The Supreme Court has agreed to review whether or not the federal government is currently required by law to limit emissions of carbon dioxide, the major human emission implicated in global warming.

How could they not do it? The public is being barraged daily by climate horror stories. Greenland is shedding ice at a fever pace. Antarctica isn’t far behind. Hurricanes are getting worse. Species are going extinct by the millions. And worst of all, it just rained a lot in Washington. All because of (ahem) global warming.

Face it: the Supreme Court is a judicial body subject to many of the same political pressures as everyone else, and, if this case runs true to form, it will be as narrowly split over Massachusetts v Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as Florida was over Bush and Gore.

This case is a result of a pleading by several state Attorneys General, enviro groups, and assorted other hangers-on, arguing that carbon dioxide is a “pollutant,” and therefore must be regulated by the EPA.

Folks on my side of the issue, know that there’s not a suite of regulations and/or technology that can significantly alter the course of the earth’s temperature evolution for the life of anyone on this court, or, for that matter, for any of the next several appointees. By then, society will likely be producing or using energy in ways that are so different than today that this huge catfight will look like what it really is—a silly diversion, compared to some real-world problems, like nutsos with nuclear weapons, or people flying airplanes into skyscrapers for the love of a bevy of non-experienced women.

Proving carbon dioxide to be a “pollutant” should be tons of fun. While Al Gore says we only have ten years left before certain disaster ensues, people continue to lead longer, richer lives, brought, in large part by a fossil fuel-powered economy and its technological base.

Nevermind that Gore’s contention is based upon the unrefereed ramblings of only one climate guy, NASA’s James Hansen, who has ventured from the mainstream in climate science, to somewhere in the Gobi Desert. He doesn’t have one computer model to back him up, and he’s a little short on data. And he’s a little inconsistent. He’s going around crabbing these days because, eight years ago I used what he calls his “scenario A” as my example of what should have been his standing forecast. In 1988, when “A” first appeared, he said it represented a 1.5% increase per year in carbon dioxide emissions. Just last month, he wrote that, since 1973, emissions increases have averaged 1.5% per year. Sounds like Scenario A to me!

But bet that he will be an Amicus to the Attorneys General. And that he will harp the rapid ice recession in Greenland as a result of a warming trend that began about eight years ago. Like we said, a little short on data. It was much warmer there for several consecutive decades in the early 20th century. If Greenland is sloughing ice now, think what it must have been doing back then, nearly a century ago, before carbon dioxide was a “pollutant.”

And, he will contend that Antarctica will do the same. Nevermind that the average temperature over the continent has declined for several decades, that it’s snowing more, and that every extant computer model for the 21st century has Antarctica gaining ice, contributing negatively to sea-level rise. Why does it gain ice? Because the surrounding ocean warms and gives up more moisture (snow) to the frigid continent, thanks to the “pollutant” called carbon dioxide.

Another one of the Court’s Amici is liable to be Paul Epstein, who occasionally works at Harvard. He’s likely to tell them that, due to the spread of malaria, that global warming is killing about 150,000 people per year. The logic is simple. Plasmodium falciparum (the responsible parasite) can be transmitted when temperatures exceed an average of 59°F and rainfall exceeds six inches for two consecutive months. So, increasing global temperature will increase malaria, right?

Oxford University’s Simon Hay has, well, made hay out of this simplistic notion, writing in the journal Nature. It turns out that where malaria shows major increases, in Kenya, there’s no associated temperature or precipitation trend. It’s also noteworthy that there are plenty of places in the U.S. that meet the climatic criteria for malaria, but the disease is virtually absent. In the 19th century, when global temperatures were about 1.4°F lower than today, the disease was endemic over most of the country, all the way to southern Canada.

Consequently, Hay wrote, “Economic, social, and political factors can therefore explain recent resurgences in malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases with no need to invoke climate change.”

Then there’s the problem of adaptation. Static projections of global warming death and destruction assume what is known as the “stupid people hypothesis,” which is that people will just sit around and slowly fry and die, without any attempt to adapt via technological change. In other words, “stupid people” in heating cities (which get warmer with or without global warming) will not increase air conditioning demand.

But, adaptation to urban warming is easy to demonstrate. Since the 1960s, population-adjusted death rates associated with hot spells have dropped dramatically in most North American major cities; indeed, in some locations, it is now impossible to even detect a significant association between hot weather and mortality. But the same technology (electrically powered air conditioning) that emits “polluting” carbon dioxide is also prolonging life and making it more comfortable.

These examples are typical of the problems that the Court is going to have with the Amici weighing in on the side of the Attorneys General. Somehow they’re going to have to add up all of the effects of carbon dioxide and conclude that they induce a net negative impact on society. Otherwise, carbon dioxide isn’t a pollutant at all, and it would be less than moral to regulate it.


Davis, R.E., Knappenberger, P.C., Michaels, P.J., and W.M. Novicoff, 2003. Changing heat-related mortality in the United States. Environmental Health Perspectives, 111, 1712-1718.

Hay, Simon I., et al., 2002. Climate change and the resurgence of malaria in the East African highlands. Nature, 415, 905–909.

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