Facts should matter more in climate change debate

By MIKE NICHOLS | March 24, 2022

Climate change alarmism has become a science of its own.

Exhibit one: When Gov. Tony Evers created something called the Office of Sustainability and Clean Energy in August of 2019, one of the primary reasons, according to his executive order, was that “by the middle of the century, statewide average annual temperatures are likely to warm by 6 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Exhibit two: According to the same executive order, “Air emissions released as a result of fossil fuel combustion cause a wide variety of adverse health impacts including asthma attacks, pneumonia, cardiovascular disease, chronic and acute bronchitis, lower respiratory ailments, upper respiratory ailment, heart attacks, neurological deficits, immune deficits, and cancer.”

I’d throw delirium in as well – although that might apply only to whomever drafted the executive order.

The order attributed the claim that temperatures are likely to warm by 6 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit in the next 28 or so years to “past research” conducted by the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI), basically a partnership between UW-Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

I don’t know which past research in particular, but there’s no recent research I could find that paints such a breathlessly dire scenario.

The WICCI’s 2021 Assessment Report states that “by mid-century, under a mid-range scenario for greenhouse gas emissions, statewide average temperatures in Wisconsin are projected to warm by 2-8 degrees Fahrenheit above the late 20th century average. To put this in perspective, the warmest years in Wisconsin history were 1998 and 2012. By the middle of the 21st century, Wisconsin’s average temperature should be similar to those years.”

In other words, the WICCI is saying that “under a mid-range scenario” there could be an 8-degree temperature increase in the 50 or so years from the 1990s to 2050. Or there could be a 2-degree increase within the same period, which would be sort of like it’s been in some years already.

That’s quite a different claim than that made in the governor’s executive order.

Some other important facts, in the meantime, should be given a little more light.

Gross greenhouse gas emissions in Wisconsin decreased 6.1% from 2005 to 2018. Net greenhouse gas emissions – which factor in how trees and plants and soil store carbon – were down 9.1% over the same time period, according to the DNR’s latest Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory Report released just three months ago.

That’s a ton. Well, actually almost 13 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and other gases emitted during that time, if you want to be specific.

We’re really not unusual here in the Badger State in comparison to the rest of America. Our downward trend is similar to the country as a whole since 2005 – good news that is too often buried or ignored.

Unfortunately, that’s just the story in the United States.

“Keep in mind that the DNR’s and EPA’s inventory reports only speak to conditions within the U.S., but it’s global emissions that matter for climate change. Global emissions continue to increase and rose by nearly a quarter between 2005 and 2018,” wrote Steve Vavrus, a senior scientist at the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research, in an email to me this week.

Duly noted. Greenhouse emissions are driven largely by energy creation decisions and the United States is much more responsible than most of the rest of the world. I wish that had been in the executive order.

The DNR report is a good starting point for anyone seriously interested in emissions and trends in Wisconsin. Among many interesting facts:

· Carbon dioxide makes up the vast majority (over 80%) of total greenhouse gas emissions in the state, followed by methane and nitrous oxide.

· Approximately 60% of greenhouse gas emissions are the result of electricity creation (mostly from in-state generation) or transportation (mostly cars and trucks on the highway).

· Approximately 14% comes from the agriculture sector.

The gradual transition from coal-generated electricity to generation using natural gas or renewable sources is responsible for most of the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions here. Natural gas burns a lot cleaner than coal. Meanwhile, greenhouse gas emissions from cars were down 21%.

It’s not all good news, of course, not even close. Climate change is obviously real and greenhouse gases are obviously a cause. While greenhouse gas emissions are down overall, emissions in the agriculture sector were up 21% from 2005 to 2018 – in no small part because of methane produced by cows belching and pooping. No kidding.

Greenhouse gas emissions are a complex problem to say the least. It would take me a month to understand the paper entitled “RCP4.5: a pathway for stabilization of radiative forcing by 2100” that Vavrus sent me when I asked him to explain assumptions for a “mid-range” scenario used in the WICCI paper.

For now, all I know is that we can’t eliminate greenhouse gas emissions unless we stop using electric lights, driving cars, making stuff in factories and basically giving up on living modern life. And even then, there will be cows burping somewhere.

What we can do is be honest about both the problems and potential solutions (my colleague, Pat McIlheran, wrote an excellent piece on nuclear energy last week), and acknowledge all of the progress that is being made. At least here in Wisconsin.

Mike Nichols is the president of the Badger Institute. Permission to reprint is granted as long as the author and Badger Institute are properly cited.