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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Rep. Lamar Smith thinks global warming is awesome

By Phil Plait
Greenland’s Rink Glacier, one of the largest, is at risk due to global warming.

What kind of person goes to the Arctic, sees the melting glaciers, the changing weather, the unusually warm temperatures and meets with a bunch of scientists who all tell him global warming is an existential threat to us all …

… and then still denies the climate change science?

If you said, "GOP Congressman and Chairman of the House Science Committee Lamar Smith," why then, give yourself pat on the back.

In May, as reported by Buzzfeed, Smith (R-Texas) and eight congressional colleagues from both sides of the aisle (and "mostly members of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology") flew to the Arctic to tour the region, to talk with scientists studying it and to oversee their research.

They saw for themselves the effects climate change was having at high latitudes. The Arctic is particularly vulnerable to global warming; temperatures there are rising twice as fast as they do globally, for example. Insects are showing up in the region that weren't there just a few years before. There have been big heat waves as well, accelerating ice melting in an area where glaciers overwhelmingly are in retreat due to high temperatures in the first place.

After all that, any human truly interested in the reality of the situation would understand a few things: Global warming is real, it's caused by human influence and it's having terrible effect on our planet.

But, apparently, that's not at all what Smith got out of it. Instead, he thinks global warming is just great!

I know this because he wrote an editorial for a website called The Daily Signal, an outlet of the right-wing Heritage Foundation. Titled —seriously— "Don't Believe the Hysteria Over Carbon Dioxide," Smith's editorial is a forehead-smacking tour-de-force of Orwellian writing. It's loaded with falsehoods and ridiculous claims, truly divorced from reality. From the very first line you know you're about to get a brainful of irony:

The way Americans perceive climate change is too often determined by their hearing just one side of the story.

Well, when one side has the overwhelming facts, research and reality behind it, while the "other side" constantly denies all that, that's probably a good thing.

consensus project

He continues:

A higher concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere would aid photosynthesis, which in turn contributes to increased plant growth. This correlates to a greater volume of food production and better quality food. Studies indicate that crops would utilize water more efficiently, requiring less water. And colder areas along the farm belt will experience longer growing seasons.

These statements are like saying "Setting fire to your house in winter will make you warmer." In this case, more is not always better. Click that link; there's a lot of evidence there, simply explained, that shows why this "CO2 is plant food!" claim is ridiculous. For example, the idea that crops would use less water isn't really the case in general; as temperatures go up plants need more water to survive. And, of course, areas that were already warm are getting too warm, making farming there more difficult

Most of Smith's claims are on this level; superficially plausible, but clearly wrong as soon as you pierce the surface. As I read it I was shaking my head ruefully, losing count of all the misleading, untruthful and distracting statements he was making; the usual folderol from climate science deniers that can be so easily debunked.

But then he wrote something so awful, so mind-bogglingly ridiculous that I had to read it twice to make sure it wasn't a joke. Behold:

Also, as the Earth warms, we are seeing beneficial changes to the Earth's geography. For instance, Arctic sea ice is decreasing. This development will create new commercial shipping lanes that provide faster, more convenient and less costly routes between ports in Asia, Europe, and eastern North America. This will increase international trade and strengthen the world economy.

He. Seriously. Wrote. This. He thinks that melting sea ice is a good thing because it opens up shipping lanes. To continue the analogy I used before, this is like watching your house burn down and having Smith tell you this will help the construction industry.

It's hard to know where to even start with a claim as boldly absurd as that. He doesn't mention that Arctic ice melt increasing sea level will cause catastrophic coastal flooding and huge amounts of migration, creating a refugee crisis and costing trillions of dollars*. He doesn't mention that it will fundamentally change the weather patterns all over the world, causing heat waves in some places and brutal cold snaps in others. He doesn't mention that the melting of the polar ice caps will have unpredicted and almost certainly devastating consequences all over the world.

But there's something else he doesn’t mention: Melting sea ice in the arctic means more access for oil drilling. The GOP-controlled House has slipped language into the budget bill that will allow new drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Smith has in the past voted to make sure the arctic is open for drilling and has always supported fossil fuel interests over renewable or green energy. Whenever he does anything legislatively, it's always a good idea to ask, "How does this benefit fossil fuels?" In May he was pushing for fossil fuel interests to have a seat at scientific integrity meetings of the EPA.

Funny how he left that bit out.

Two image of the same glacier 60 years apart show how far it’s receded.

Note that he also says,

Studies indicate that in the U.S. alone, the natural gas industry is responsible for millions of jobs and has increased the wealth of Americans by an average of $1,337.

I have my doubts about this claim; according to a 2016 Energy Department report (page 29) only 362,000 people were employed by the natural gas industry, compared to almost 374,000 in solar power. Even if true, it's a red herring. If we ramped up the solar power production industry — and it's by far the fastest growing energy production industry already — we could not only employ that many people in it but also not produce the greenhouse gases that come from natural gas. We already pump 40 billion tons of extra CO2 into the air a year. How much more can we afford? (Hint: none)

I could go on and on; there's hardly a paragraph in his editorial that doesn't have some sort of falsehood in it. However, let me skip right to the end, where Smith wraps up with a true pants-on-fire whopper:

The use of fossil fuels and the byproducts of carbon enrichment play a large role in advancing the quality of human life by increasing food production to feed our growing population, stimulating the economy and alleviating poverty.

This is blatantly false. The impact of climate change on global poverty makes it far worse. Sea level rise, weather pattern changes (including droughts and flooding) causing famine, lack of fresh water … all these are bad now, and will be worse as the world warms. Switching to solar will have huge economic benefits and will not only advance the quality of human life but also make sure we don't heat our world past the point of no return.

It's bad enough that Smith makes all these provably false claims, but what makes this far worse is that, as Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology he's in a position to put them into action. He has been relentlessly harassing climate scientists for years, abusing his power to do so.

It's clear from this editorial he hasn't learned anything about climate science from his Arctic trip … or maybe he has. He used to flatly deny global warming existed, saying it was a deliberate conspiracy by scientists. At least now he's saying it's real.

But while he's changed his words, he hasn't changed his tune.

Short of a recall election, there's not much that can be done about this until the 2018 midterm elections, when Smith must run again. Thanks to a gerrymandered district it's not likely he'll lose his seat, but just in case, there are people running against him who seem to understand the reality and urgency of the situation we're in about global warming.

In the meantime, stay aware. Our greatest weapon against deniers of reality is knowledge, and our voices. Keep reading, keep learning and keep speaking up. You know I will; I have no plans to change my tune either.

* Update (July 31, 2017) I want to be clear here; Smith is talking specifically about sea ice melt, and sea level rise is mostly due to land ice melting (though there is a contribution to sea level rise due to sea ice melting). However, you don't get one without the other because the entire Arctic is getting warmer, and sea ice melt does change weather patters and cause lots of other large scale issues.