In the 2019-2020 regular sessions the New York State (NYS) legislature is debating the Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA). This post addresses the claims of increasing severity and frequency of events attributed to climate change in the CCPA rationale.
The bill states:
Climate change is adversely affecting economic well-being, public health, natural resources, and the environment of New York. The adverse impacts of climate change include:
- an increase in the severity and frequency of extreme weather events, such as storms, flooding, and heat waves, which can cause direct injury or death, property damage, and ecological damage (e.g., through the release of hazardous substances into the environment);
- rising sea levels, which exacerbate damage from storm surges and flooding, contribute to coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion, and inundate low-lying areas, leading to the displacement of or damage to coastal habitat, property, and infrastructure;
- a decline in freshwater and saltwater fish populations;
- increased average temperatures, which increase the demand for air conditioning and refrigeration among residents and businesses;
- exacerbation of air pollution; and
- an increase in the incidences of infectious diseases, asthma attacks, heart attacks, and other negative health outcomes.
This rationale is similar to most calls for action. Invariably there is a listing of weather events, claims of increasing severity and frequency, notes that extreme weather causes damages and, finally, insinuations that the proposed action will reduce damage.
When I first started this blog I developed a list of pragmatic environmentalist principles that describe my beliefs. This post illustrates my first principle that there are two sides to environmental issues and my latest principle that arguments about the issue are usually based on how each side interprets conflicting data. In this case the focus on one interpretation obscures the possibility that direct action would likely be a more effective policy alternative than the indirect policy proposed to control greenhouse gas emissions in hopes that will affect one of the drivers of the rationale examples.
Extreme Weather Events
The CCPA claims that climate change is adversely affecting New York now and cites storms, flooding, heat waves and rising sea-levels. If the CCPA were correct then all the occurrence of all these events should be increasing in frequency and intensity. In fact, the data on these extreme weather events are all easily available, and clearly show that there are no increases in any category other than normal fluctuations, and certainly nothing that can be attributed to human influences. Here is a link to a definitive document prepared by Francis Menton compiling evidence in all these categories and others. Judith Curry recently prepared a Special Report on Hurricanes and Climate Change that assesses the current status of hurricanes and climate.
The NY CCPA rationale for extreme weather events echoes the constant barrage of popular media accounts that attribute any unusual weather to climate change but in every instance there are data that indicate otherwise.
Decline in freshwater and saltwater fish populations
One example of the claim that declining fish populations are due to warming seas is the recent paper Impacts of historical warming on marine fisheries production. It states that “temperature-dependent population models to measure the influence of warming on the productivity of 235 populations of 124 species in 38 ecoregions. Some populations responded significantly positively (n = 9 populations) and others responded significantly negatively (n = 19 populations) to warming, with the direction and magnitude of the response explained by ecoregion, taxonomy, life history, and exploitation history. Hindcasts indicate that the maximum sustainable yield of the evaluated populations decreased by 4.1% from 1930 to 2010, with five ecoregions experiencing losses of 15 to 35%.” This description of the study seemingly supports CCPA rationale. It states that the study “looked at the impact of rising ocean temperatures on 124 marine species representing about one-third of the global catch from 1930 to 2010. It found that the “maximum sustainable yield,” or the amount of fish that could be caught each year without jeopardizing future harvests, dropped by 4.1 percent over this period as a result of climate change.”
Actually the study did not say anything nearly as alarming. It looked at 235 populations and found that warming had a positive influence on 9 populations, no influence on 207 populations and a negative influence on 19. Reality is that the 4.1% decrease in maximum sustainable yield only could be attributed to 19 of 235 populations. There is no question that decreasing fish stocks is a serious environmental problem. However the problem is over-whelmingly due to over-fishing “Increased human demand for fish and subsidies for fishing fleets have resulted in too many boats chasing too few fish”.
The NY CCPA rationale does not address the root cause of the decline in fish populations so it is unlikely that the legislation will have any effect on fish populations.
Increased average temperatures
I agree that average temperatures are increasing but I do want to point out that even this relatively uncontroversial statement is complicated. For example, consider the points made about the United States average temperature trend in this video. It shows that if you calculate the trend using the raw data the trend is cooling but recent adjustments have shifted it to warming.
The primary concern for increased temperature is heat waves and the National Weather Service NYC office determined the trend of decadal heat waves that clearly showed an increase in the length of heat waves since 1880. However, I believe that it can be argued that the urban heat island mentioned in the report is a primary driver of the Central Park trend. Trying to determine how much of the temperature and heat wave trend is caused by the greenhouse gas effect (the target of CCPA) compared to land use change and natural variation is a non-trivial task completely ignored by simply claiming that average temperatures are increasing.
Exacerbation of air pollution
The only air pollutant regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency that can possibly be exacerbated by warmer temperatures is ozone. Ozone is a secondary air pollutant created by a complex photo-chemical reaction from nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds and that reaction is temperature dependent. However regarding ozone levels, the relative effect of temperature compared to emission rates is small as shown by the fact that New York State ozone concentrations have been decreasing even though temperatures are increasing.
Increased incidences of diseases
The CCPA rationale claims climate change can increase the incidences of infectious diseases, asthma attacks, heart attacks, and other negative health outcomes. According to the World Health Organization report on climate change and infectious diseases it is well known that climatic conditions affect epidemic diseases. That report goes on to state that “Malaria is of great public health concern, and seems likely to be the vector-borne disease most sensitive to long-term climate change”. However, it also is well known that during the construction of the Erie Canal canal fever was a concern, particularly during construction across the Montezuma Marsh. In fact there were malaria problems even further north in Ontario when the Rideau Canal was built. This article explains that malaria can be controlled by “reducing the numbers of malaria parasites to a point low enough to break the infection cycle.”
The argument for asthma attacks and climate change is that it increases water and air pollution. One study claims that there is an increase in heat-induced heart attack risk in recent years. But they go on to note that “Individuals with diabetes or hyperlipidaemia were particularly at risk over the latter period. The researchers suspect that this is partly a result of global warming, but that it is also a consequence of an increase in risk factors such as diabetes and hyperlipidaemia, which have made the population more susceptible to heat.”
All these examples are similar and the rationale that reducing greenhouse gases will have an effect is flawed. For malaria the effect of long-term climate change can be mitigated much better by directly breaking the infection cycle than indirectly reduce mosquitos by trying to control temperatures. Directly mitigating air and water pollution is more effective than trying to reduce it by controlling temperature. Finally, directly reducing other heart attack risk factors is likely more effective than indirectly reducing temperature.
Advocates for this legislation and other similar programs in New York State claim that they are all for the science. So am I. There is no question that global temperatures have been warming since the end of the Little Ice Age in the early 1800’s. There also is no question that increased levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases reduce out-going long-wave radiation and that warming results. Because human activities have added to those gases there is no question in my mind that at least some of the observed warming is very likely due to mankind. The question is how much of the observed warming is due to greenhouse gases relative to other human factors and the natural causes that have driven all previous climatic change. That makes all the difference.
Despite the constant barrage of popular media accounts that simply state that climate change is real and caused by mankind, reality is much more complex and it is not clear that mitigating greenhouse gases will necessarily affect climate change. We do not understand the natural causes of climate variation responsible for historic climate change. If we did understand them then we would be able to predict the weather for the next season, for example how much snow and how much cold. Clearly we don’t.
More importantly, for societal policy there is a trade-off. I tried to show that if we are concerned about the issues in the CCPA rationale that are ascribed to climate change that directly addressing them will likely be more effective than trying to control the climate. Moreover, the Ridley’s Paradox should also be considered: Economic damage from man-made ‘climate change’ is illusory whereas damage from man-made ‘policies’ to fight the said change is real.