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A GOP war on the environment, II: Ken Cuccinelli vs. climate change

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli speaks at the annual Jewish Advocacy Day luncheon in Feburary. (Office of the Attorney General)

MECHANICSVILLE, Va. — Last year, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli made himself a hero to climate change sceptics worldwide by calling into question the science of climate change.

One of his first shots against climate change occurred in December 2009 before he took office. In his newsletter, Cuccinelli Compass, he claimed that seasonal winter weather—snowstorms—was inconvenient for those who believe in anthropogenic (man-made) global warming (AGW).

Shortly after he assumed office, he launched two high-profile legal cases. The first was launched in February 2010 when he filed two petitions: one asking asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider its endangerment finding that increasing greenhouse gas emissions  posed a threat to the health and welfare of current and future generations; another asking the federal courts to review EPA’s endangerment finding.

In April, Cuccinelli filed a joint motion (with the attorney general of Alabama) to compel the EPA to consider “evidence” that the climate data on which EPA based its finding were faulty.

His second official action was revealed in April. Cuccinelli began an investigation into what the attorney general alleges are fraudulent claims in grant applications by a former University of Virginia (UVa) professor, Michael Mann, whose research supports the theory that humans are changing Earth’s climate. Cuccinelli’s office sent a civil investigative demand (CID) to the university to compel it to hand over documents related to Mann’s research.

UVa challenged the initial CID in Albermarle Circuit Court. In August, Judge Paul Peatross Jr. ruled in favor of the university in August. Cuccinelli revised and resubmitted his CID in September. (UVa has again challenged the CID.) In December, Cuccinelli appealed the Peatross decision to the state supreme court. The state supreme court announced this month that it will hear Cuccinelli’s appeal.

Whew! It’s enough to make TCR seek the sanity and logic of a daytime soap opera.

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AUDIO: Ken Cuccinelli’s opening remarks at his Feb. 17, 2010, press conference.”

TCR first took notice of Cuccinelli’s actions in February 2010, when the attorney general held a press conference announcing his challenge to USEPA’s endangerment finding. Cuccinelli invoked a scandal called Climate-gate—in which emails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia were stolen and published on the Web—to justify his request. (TCR feels compelled to point out that two of his e-mails were among those released in Climate-gate: Look for posts by “David M. Lawrence” here and here. TCR regrets that his hacked messages were uncharacteristically temperate.)

In his Feb. 17, 2010, press conference, Cuccinelli argued the climate data had been intentionally manipulated as part of some environmental conspiracy.

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AUDIO: Ken Cuccinelli alleges that bad temperature data drive climate change policy.”

“We’re asking the EPA to re-open its public hearings about this issue so we can add to the record information that has emerged in the climate change scandal called Climate-gate from recent months,” Cuccinelli said. “The EPA’s decision to regulate carbon dioxide was based on what we now know was bad temperature data that was intentionally manipulated to sell the world on the idea that carbon dioxide emitted as a result of human activity was causing global warming.”

Cuccinelli had more heat to shed on this theme:

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AUDIO: Ken Cuccinelli alleges that climatologists admit they cannot reproduce global warming data.”

“Britain’s Daily Mail even quoted the head climatologist at the center of the Climate-gate controversy saying he couldn’t reproduce the temperature data that he and his colleagues used to convince the world, including the EPA, of impending global warming. And it’s generally admitted at this point that while the climate models used to be argued to predict constant warming here on Earth, that the Earth in fact hasn’t warmed in the last 15 years.

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AUDIO: Ken Cuccinelli alleges climatologists admit to making up climate change data.”

“As someone who has an engineering background, look, I can tell you that for scientific research to be credible, the data has [sic] to be verifiable, it has [sic] to be repeatable. And the data the EPA relied on is neither of those things, neither verifiable or [sic] repeatable. And it even looks like some climatologists have admitted that much of the data was made up, or at least the conclusions from the data were made up. And that’s what the EPA has been relying on.”

TCR agrees that data have to be verifiable, and that they have to be repeatable. TCR would like to take Cuccinelli’s argument a bit further. When invoking what he later calls “good science” to advance one or another public policy, policymakers and the scientists advising them should consider all relevant data. They should be honest about uncertainties in the data and theories underpinning a particular policy position, and that they should not misrepresent what is currently understood. (As a college instructor of subjects such as biology, geography, meteorology, and oceanography, TCR would also appreciate it if people cite proper sources—the Daily Mail article Cuccinelli cited in one of the quotes above was actually a rewrite of a story that originally appeared on the BBC’s Web site.)

Some months ago, TCR sent Cuccinelli a set of questions based upon the claims the attorney general made in his press conference. The goal was to asses the attorney general’s understanding of the science he criticizes. Below is the text of TCR’s email to Cuccinelli spokesman Charles E. James:

Dear Mr. James:

Thank you for sending me information about the challenge to the EPA finding on climate change yesterday. I am preparing a follow-up story on the announcement for publication. Below are some questions I have for the attorney general or one of your staff.

1) What will the commonwealth have to prove in order to prevail in the courts and with the EPA?

2) Has the attorney general evaluated the probability of achieving these objectives?

3) If so, what are the odds that the commonwealth with succeed?

4) Does the attorney general have an estimated budget for the total cost of these challenges? If so, I would like to have a copy of the estimated costs.

5) How much money has been spent so far — in terms of filing fees, research and preparation time, etc.?

6) Does the attorney general agree or disagree with this statement:

Greenhouse gases trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere.

7) What credible evidence do you have that “much” — the AG’s word — of the data used to argue that climate change is occurring is made up?

8) What specific data does the attorney general claim has been falsified?

9) How does questions about one temperature dataset (the CRU data highlighted in the Climategate controversy) undermine similar findings by at least two other temperature datasets compiled by two other independent research teams? Can the attorney general name the groups that compiled the other global datasets that show a similar trend?

10) Can the attorney general name a single climate model that predicts or predicted “constant warming” on Earth — with no seasonal or annual variation in temperature?

11) In referring to Phil Jones’s statement that there has been no statistically significant (at the 95 percent confidence level) warming since 1995, does the attorney general take issue with Jones’s explanation of the difficulty of obtaining statistically significant results in small data sets? Here is what Jones said — to the BBC, not the Daily Mail:

BBC: Do you agree that from 1995 to the present there has been no statistically-significant global warming?

PJ: Yes, but only just. I also calculated the trend for the period 1995 to 2009. This trend (0.12C per decade) is positive, but not significant at the 95% significance level. The positive trend is quite close to the significance level. Achieving statistical significance in scientific terms is much more likely for longer periods, and much less likely for shorter periods.

12) The data presented in the BBC Q&A (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/8511670.stm) show a statistically significant warming from 1975 to 2009. How, then, is that inconsistent with the EPA’s finding?

Thank you very much for your time. …

Cuccinelli’s director of communications, Brian Gottstein, did respond to some of the cost questions. Back in May, Gottstein claimed that the office had spent only $455 on the filing fee of its suit to compel EPA to hear additional evidence. As a former employee of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, TCR knows the answer was not credible—staff time and office expenditures such as paper count as costs. But Gottstein said the attorney general’s office does not keep track of staff time spent on individual cases.

David Mills, executive director of the Democratic Party of Virginia, said that in this matter, the attorney general’s office follows a longstanding pattern.

“The attorney general does not bill hours like a law firm,” Mills told TCR in a telephone interview last May. “I’ve asked Democratic attorney generals [sic], I’ve asked former Republican attorney generals [sic] and people who worked in their offices. Genuinely, they just don’t keep track of the hours they spend working on a case the way you work for a law firm because they don’t bill by the hour. They’re all salaried state employees.”

The attorney general’s office declined to address any of the scientific questions TCR raised. Let the record show, however, that the Climatic Research Unit—the group at the heart of the Climate-gate scandal—did not make anything up. The allegations that the emails prove some green conspiracy have been debunked in a series of investigations and by non-partisan groups such as FactCheck.org. The Guardian (U.K.) has had some excellent coverage of the scandal. (See its Q&A for a brief overview of the Climate-gate scandal and its aftermath.)

TCR suggests an inconvenient truth for climatological conspiracy theorists: Over the course of the more than two decades since assembling their controversial data set, CRU staff moved offices, cleaned offices, misplaced documents, lended things to students, worked on something else, grew older, etc.; then when challenged to reconstruct what they had done in the 1980s, they found it difficult to document or remember all the steps. CRU director Phil Jones has admitted to being organizationally challenged, but that is nowhere near the same as being guilty of falsifying data. (TCR, whose editor and publisher periodically receives inquiries for documents he produced on while a consultant for EPA in the 1980s—and who cannot, along with the EPA who recommends that he be contacted in such matters, produce said documents—does not find the loss of decades-old material at CRU evidence of a conspiracy.)

While the attorney general and his staff declined to answer TCR’s science-related questions, a scientist did not. Virginia- and North Carolina-based readers of this Blog may have heard of Malcolm Cleaveland, professor emeritus of geography at the University of Arkansas. Cleaveland was a member of the research team that found evidence for severe droughts that may have helped destroy the Roanoke’s Lost Colony and which nearly destroyed the Jamestown Colony. He is a dendrochronologist (tree-ring scientist) who has spent most of his career doing climate reconstruction research of the type that has helped fuel scientific concern over AGW.

Cleaveland said it is highly unlikely that evidence for climate change has been falsified is highly unlikely “because the data comes in many forms from many institutions and individual investigators.” Cleaveland also shot down Cuccinelli’s reliance upon potential problems with the CRU temperature data in an effort to refute AGW theory. He named a number of lines of evidence that support the notion that humans can and are changing climate:

  1. historical documents and records
  2. the instrumental (thermometers and such) record
  3. tree-ring reconstructions of past climate conditions (like those Cleaveland has worked on)
  4. temperature data derived from isotope ratios in things like the gas bubbles trapped in ice cores
  5. loss of alpine ice and snow
  6. loss of ice in the Antarctic and Greenland ice caps
  7. thinning of Arctic sea ice
  8. warming of ocean waters
  9. changing geographic distributions of plants and animals; and
  10. multi-proxy (combinations of things like tree-rings, isotope ratios, growth bands in shells, etc.) reconstructions of past climate conditions.
The Science of Michael Crichton

The Science of Michael Crichton

In his discussion of these lines of evidence, Cleaveland cited close to 80 peer-reviewed scientific references—in a 3-page-long discussion! (Cleaveland attached a 23-page-long bibliography on climate change as well.)

Cuccinelli, in his joint motion to compel EPA to consider new evidence, cited news reports from the Guardian (four articles), USA Today (one article) , the Daily Mail (one article), International Business Times (one article), RIA Novosti (one article), the Telegraph (one article), The New Zealand Herald (one article), the National Post (one article), the Times (U.K.; two articles), NRC Handelsblad (one article). He cites the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) twice—the Fourth Assessment Report is cited once a supplemental report on Indian glaciers is cited once. Almost all of the references Cuccinelli cites refer to Climate-gate or a handful of errors in the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report. TCR wonders whether someone who truly believes in “good science”—as Cuccinelli claims—could honestly call such a one-sided (and scientifically sparse) literature review sufficient.

TCR submits that the theory behind AGW is not new, is not based on “falsified” data, and does not originate in faulty computer models. TCR reviewed the state of climate science in an essay on Michael Crichton’s turgid anti-global warming tirade, State of Fear, in 2008. The fact is that the theory of greenhouse warming is nearly 200 years old, dating back to the work of the French mathematician, Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier, who first described the so-called greenhouse effect in the 1824. (TCR admits to missing the 1824 paper—he cited an 1827 paper in the State of Fear essay.)

Fourier’s early insights were tested by scholars such as John Tyndall, who in 1861 demonstrated that trace gases in the atmosphere—such as carbon dioxide—can absorb heat in the atmosphere and, as a result, affect the global climate. Svante August Arrhenius began to model how Earth surface temperatures would be affected by changes in the concentration of carbon dioxide (which he called carbonic acid) in the atmosphere. The first of several papers he wrote on the topic was published in 1896. (Those interested in the historical development of climate change theory should check out James Fleming’s online collection, “Climate Change and Anthropogenic Greenhouse Warming: A Selection of Key Articles, 1824-1995, with Interpretive Essays.”)

Given the length of Cleaveland’s bibliography, it is clear that quite a bit more research into climate change has been published since 1896, so Cuccinelli’s focus on the questions about alleged flaws in one data set seems rather myopic.

TCR has one final scientific point to address: Cuccinelli’s assertion that climate models predict a “constant warming” from AGW. TCR suggests a one-word reply: bunk. No one who has read Edward Lorenz’s 1963 paper, “Deterministic nonperiodic flow,” would expect such a simple response. In that paper Lorenz described the “butterfly effect” — in which tiny changes in initial conditions could produce drastic changes in outcomes — and helped found chaos theory.

Many factors affect Earth surface temperatures: intensity of incoming solar radiation, albedo (reflectance) of the atmosphere and surface, elevation of the surface, time of year and day (which affect solar angle), shading effects, particulates (such as volcanic dust), absorption and emission of heat by the ground surface, and much, much more. Changes in any one of these can affect the long-term trend in Earth surface temperatures. (For those of you who wish to experiment with some of those factors and see how they affect temperature, check out the solar radiation model TCR has been tinkering with for nearly 20 years now. It predicts average daily temperature for a site based on latitude, elevation, time of year, slope configuration, and cooling effects from evapotranspiration. TCR admits the model could use better documentation.)

Given the dearth of scientific basis for Cuccinelli’s claims, TCR wonders what has motivated him to fight the EPA’s greenhouse gas regulations and to investigate Michael Mann. Significant clues are given in the audio from his Feb. 17, 2010, press conference:

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AUDIO: Ken Cuccinelli claims that President Obama wants to force the coal industry out of business.”

“The decision by the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide as a dangerous pollutant is going to have a severe impact on the people of Virginia and on Virginia’s economy. This is a very serious concern to me. The president has already indicated that he wants to force the coal industry out of business because of the carbon dioxide emitted when coal is burned to create electricity. Coal, as you know, is the economic engine of the southwestern part of Virginia and is one of the main job providers down there. Not to mention over half of America’s electricity comes from coal.

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AUDIO: Ken Cuccinelli talks about the low cost of coal-fired electricity.”

“Additionally, coal provides one of the cheapest sources of electricity for every Virginian and for most Americans. Getting rid of coal as a primary source for American electricity means that energy prices are going to skyrocket, essentially gutting Americans’ wallets at a time when we can least afford it. This becomes a back-door tax for every American, every Virginian at a time when our economy is already reeling.”

TCR believes that Cuccinelli revealed his true motive in these last two statements. The attorney general is not concerned with sound science, he ignores too much of it to be taken seriously on that point. His prime motive is to protect the profitability of the coal industry despite the well documented environmental damage it causes.

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