Sen. Whitehouse Knows Nothing About Elementary Climate Science

Sheldon WhitehouseJust a quick take on this morning’s U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, ‘Examining the Role of Environmental Policies on Access to Energy and Economic Opportunity.’  During the hearing, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) demonstrated why the global warming debate so often gets sidetracked by nonsensical and incorrect assertions.

The senator made two statements that were both factually incorrect, demonstrating his obvious lack of understanding of even the most basic climate science.

[1]  The senator said that “we are in unprecedented territory” when it comes to carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere.  Sen. Whitehouse noted that atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels have ranged from 170 parts per million (ppm) to 300 ppm over the past 800,000 years, and the current level of 400 ppm is thus dangerous and exceptional.  In fact, atmospheric CO2 concentrations have ranged widely throughout the earth’s geologic history, and have typically existed at levels far higher than today. 

CO2 levels currently register at 0.04% of the atmosphere, an almost non-existent concentration that means near-starvation for plant life.  In fact, the past 800,000 years have seen the earth struggling to survive the repeated glacial periods of an ice age, with atmospheric CO2 gradually dropping to some of the lowest levels in the planet’s history.

[2]  The senator stated that carbon dioxide and temperature have moved in parallel for much of geologic history, and thus rising CO2 will mean higher temperatures.  This is one of the most mischaracterized and misunderstood mechanisms of climate science.  Carbon dioxide’s solubility in water is governed by temperature.  When the climate cools, the oceans draw in more CO2, thus lowering atmospheric CO2 content.  When the climate warms, as seen at the start of the most recent interglacial period (roughly 18,000 years ago) for example, the oceans gradually expel CO2.  (This is the reason why a bottle of soda kept in hot sunlight will leak or burst— because the warmer soda is no longer able to hold all of the dissolved CO2.)  Thus, it is changes in temperature that govern subsequent changes in atmospheric CO2 concentration, not the other way around (as the senator simply assumes.)

These two assertions by Sen. Whitehouse misrepresent the most basic facts of paleoclimate science.  And yet, blithely unaware of this, the senator chooses to make pronouncements, and to advocate policies, that could mean great pain for millions of Americans.

What’s needed is for America’s elected officials to educate themselves on some of the basic facts regarding climate before making sweeping, errant pronouncements.