When I read through Mitt Romney’s responses to ScienceDebate.org’s top 14 science and technology questions last week, I really wanted to see Mitt Romney make some sense on climate change. I mean, I really wanted to. And for a few seconds, I was nodding my head along as I read. Then politics and reality set in.
Here is the climate change question asked to both President Obama and Mitt Romney:
The Earth’s climate is changing and there is concern about the potentially adverse effects of these changes on life on the planet. What is your position on cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, and other policies proposed to address global climate change—and what steps can we take to improve our ability to tackle challenges like climate change that cross national boundaries?
Mitt Romney responds with:
I am not a scientist myself, but my best assessment of the data is that the world is getting warmer, that human activity contributes to that warming, and that policymakers should therefore consider the risk of negative consequences.
So far, so good! He’s relating to the majority of Americans who aren’t scientists, but more importantly, Romney apparently accepts that the atmosphere is warming (as it is has done over the history of the planet) and that we, humans, have contributed to that warming (as we’ll see, he isn’t convinced of the extent of our influence). And he acknowledges that human activity contributes to global warming. Not so bad. But then we’re off into familiar territory with:
However, there remains a lack of scientific consensus on the issue — on the extent of the warming, the extent of the human contribution, and the severity of the risk — and I believe we must support continued debate and investigation within the scientific community.
Huge sigh. Here comes the hedging and the seat shifting and car salesman maneuver to weasel out of a huge global issue. First, let’s not mistake consensus with risk or certainty. There is consensus, and there has been for years (see IPCC). We have a pretty good idea about what contributes to a warming climate (GHGs!), and can attribute the rise in GHGs to the industrialization and mechanization of our society that bucks the historical warming and cooling patterns. I respect Romney’s call for further investigation. Further research is good. Sitting on our hands and delaying our responsibilities for a few more years? That’s a false choice.
Don’t worry, it gets better:
The reality is that the problem is called Global Warming, not America Warming. China long ago passed America as the leading emitter of greenhouse gases. Developed world emissions have leveled off while developing world emissions continue to grow rapidly, and developing nations have no interest in accepting economic constraints to change that dynamic. In this context, the primary effect of unilateral action by the U.S. to impose costs on its own emissions will be to shift industrial activity overseas to nations whose industrial processes are more emissions-intensive and less environmentally friendly.
I'm disappointed because parts of his response makes sense. It's the other half that gives me a headache. First, global warming or climate change is indeed a global problem, hence the name. It’s also a tough problem to address. There are multiple factors that contribute to an overall warming of the Earth’s atmosphere, anthropogenic GHG emissions being a primary factor, in addition to water vapor, volcanoes, etc. It is also a tough problem because of the inequalities of who primarily contributes to the problem, and who suffers the consequences. Unfortunately, developing nations that have contributed less to increasing GHG emissions over the past couple hundred years, one could intelligently argue, will be impacted more by a changing climate (whether that’s rainfall patterns changing, sea level rise, associate health outbreaks, etc). Sorry, guys.
As for China, it is true that China passed the United States in overall CO2 emissions around 2006, but the United States is by far the leading per capita emitter of carbon emissions, emitting roughly four times as much CO2 per capita compared to the Chinese. World Resource Institute summarizes this in a nice chart:
In other words, the average Chinese citizen would have to increase his/her carbon dioxide output by four times to equal an American. The United States doesn’t have the highest carbon dioxide emissions per capita. That honor goes to the United Arab Emirates, which is like saying you’re just ahead of Mississippi in public education performance (sorry).
It appears Mitt Romney’s prefers to provide mere lip service to science (yes the atmosphere is warming, but let’s not get up in arms about what to do about it), while instituting a “better wait and see” policy model and proceeding full speed ahead on a carbon-based energy infrastructure. On Romney’s website, he touts an increase in carbon-based energy production as one of his major energy platform planks, while hedging on alternative energy. If there's anything we should be doing, surely it's increasing carbon dioxide emissions! And on climate change policy specifically, he favors amending the Clean Air Act to remove carbon dioxide as a pollutant.