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“My judgment is based on numbers, on data, and not on consensus”

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Watch Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz – part scientist, part politician – as he deftly answers a question about mankind’s role in climate change without stepping on political landmines. The question came from Rep. David McKinley (R-WV) in a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee meeting about the Energy Department’s budget.

I find his answer more educational than confrontational (although others on the Internet had a different reaction). I think Congress and the public would benefit by taking Secretary Moniz up on his offer for a longer, detailed discussion of climate change.

Here’s the transcript:

MONIZ: I believe, in my view, there is no question that a major component is anthropogenic. And that comes from–

MCKINLEY: Interesting. Is that from a consensus?

MONIZ: It is practically, I would say 98 percent of scientists involved in this area–

MCKINLEY: But you’re well aware the petition project has 32,000 scientists and physicists who’ve disagreed!

MONIZ: But sir–

MCKINLEY: They say it’s contributing, I think it would be irresponsible to say we don’t contribute, but is it primarily…?

MONIZ: If I may say — and I’d be happy to have a longer discussion — but a few facts: first of all the rise in CO2 emissions in the last half century is clearly tracked to our global increased energy use. Secondly, I know how to count. I can count how many CO2 molecules have gone out from fossil fuel combustion and I know how many additional CO2 molecules are in the atmosphere–

MCKINLEY: Let me just close with saying, in terms of consensus, I think consensus has a place in politics, but consensus doesn’t have a place in science.

MONIZ: …Again, sir, I just want to clarify: my judgment is based on numbers, on data, and not on the consensus, and I would be really delighted if we could have a discussion.

MCKINLEY: We could have that, I liked that.

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Chris G 2:22 am 06/18/2013

    Does anyone else get the impression that Mr. McKinley shut down the conversation when he realized he was going to lose the debate?

    I doubt that Mr. McKinley will give Dr Moniz any more opportunities to trounce him.

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  2. 2. erbarker 9:53 am 06/18/2013

    All this is just so much hyperbole and bloviation on both sides. Around 110,000 years ago the earth entered a glacial period and the CO2 levels started going down. The earth started coming out of the glacial period around 10,000 years ago, and the CO2 levels started going up. The earth is now transitioning to a inter-glacial period. Guess what happens when the earth transitions from a glacial period to a inter-glacial period. You guess it. It gets hotter, a lot hotter and the CO2 in the atmosphere goes up. This is happening and will continue to happen with or without man. Nature just don’t give a damn about legislation or consensus. CO2 levels in the atmosphere seem to follow one another. If you consider a frozen compost pile, it does not emit any CO2. Apply a some heat and the compost pile begins emitting CO2. The more CO2 the compost pile emits the warmer the compost pile becomes. So, is the CO2 tracking the temperature or is the temperature tracking the CO2, what does consensus have to with it? Where did the CO2 come from that started the transition out out of the last glacial period? My personal opinion is that none of this is settled science, we just don’t know. Winning an argument does not prove the point.

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  3. 3. sault 5:22 pm 06/19/2013


    You are mistaken. If you look at any serious temperature reconstruction, you will see that, before the 20th Century, global temperatures generally peaked around 6,000 years ago and were on a slowly-declining plateau ever since. The Maunder Minimum and associated “Little Ice Age” marked the lowest these temperatures reached until human CO2 emissions started making it warmer again.

    Really, what don’t you understand, that CO2 traps heat or that human activity has increased CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere by 40%? And do you not understand the feedback mechanisms that are the only way to produce the large temperature swings between glacial and interglacial periods? Do you know that the oceans absorb CO2 more slowly as they get warmer and that your “frozen compost pile” example illustrates how dangerous the gigatons of trapped carbon in Earth’s permafrost areas is should they melt? The Earth’s climate system responds to heating regardless of the source, and right now, human greenhouse gas emissions are the ONLY game in town that adequately explains the extent and patterns of warming we have seen over the past few decades.

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