The Chickahominy Report

News about Earth, Atmosphere, Water, and Life

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.

[audio:|titles=Sue the EPA]

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.

[audio:|titles=Cuccinelli: Bad Tem­per­a­ture Data]

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:

[audio:|titles=Cuccinelli: Cli­ma­tol­o­gists can­not repro­duce the data]

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.

[audio:|titles=Cuccinelli: Data were made up]

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 ( 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 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:

[audio:|titles=Cuccinelli: Force the coal indus­try out of busi­ness]

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.

[audio:|titles=Cuccinelli: Coal pro­vides cheap elec­tric­i­ty]

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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