We’ll never achieve any consensus on climate change if the debate is framed in the parlance of a third-grader.
In late February, the Environmental Protection Agency held a “listening session” at the U.S. Department of Agriculture complex in Kansas City. The subject? Repealing President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Alas, for all the common sense heard that day, the EPA might as well have held the session at the Little Sprouts Montessori School in KCK.
As the media on hand duly noted—and applauded—those who showed up at the hearing were local residents and activists who were almost uniformly “appalled” that President Trump would dare repeal Obama’s “signature” legislation.
The Brothers Grimm could have written their scripts. Bless their child-like hearts, the attendees managed to say the most outlandish and scariest things they could possibly think of—without evidence or apparent fear of embarrassment.
The story-telling started at the top. Speaking to a camera in the kind of hushed tones normally reserved for one’s grandchildren at bedtime, Mayor Sly James assured the little ones that “Kansas City ranks high on the list of cities that will be negatively impacted by climate change.”
A generation or so back, mayors of mid-sized cities boasted that for whatever reason—near to an Air Force base, close to Niagara Falls, rail center of the nation—their city ranked high on the list of cities targeted by the Soviet Union. Oh, yeah—their city had the second-biggest (or third, but never the biggest) shopping center in the country. This is the way mayors of mid-sized cities thrust themselves into the conversation.
In that no city in America is less threatened by rising sea levels, Mayor James had to get creative to make the case that Kansas City deserves to rank high among the “negatively impacted.”
He ventured two unconnected arguments.
One was that the city would experience “more frequent and heavier rains that cause flash flooding.” The mayor’s listeners might be thinking that, yes, Kansas City did have a couple of flash floods last summer. They were nowhere near as serious as the lethal Plaza-area flooding of Brush Creek in 1977 and 1998, or the catastrophic Missouri River floods of 1903 and 1951, but surely they were a harbinger of things to come—or so the mayor implied.
The mayor also promised that the repeal of the Clean Power Plan would produce “20 more days of 90-plus degree weather.” Now, skeptical listeners had to be thinking, “Are we talking ‘climate change’ here or are we back to ‘global warming?’”
If last summer’s flash floods were an omen, what are we to make of the fact that on only one day this past August did the temperature reach 90 degrees, a cool weather feat exceeded only once in Kansas City history?
During the Dust Bowl year of 1936—a phenomenon no one blamed on greenhouse gases—the temperature in Kansas City reached 113 degrees, a record that still stands. That year, Kansas City experienced a scorching, un-air-conditioned 53 days with temperatures above 100 degrees. In the summer of 2017, only one day reached 100 degrees. None went above.
A skeptic who cites these numbers is accused of confusing weather with climate. Only believers get to use flukes in the weather as predictors of the Mad Max mayhem that awaits us if Trump repeals the Clean Power Plan.
On a local level, perhaps, acceptance of warming theory may be held back by stubborn facts regarding how hot it’s been recently, compared with the historical record.
The mayor was in good company. The media cited other attendees with whose opinions they would seem to agree. “Are we really going to leave our grandchildren a planet with dying oceans and coastal cities sinking below the waves?” a retired Army officer asked.
Dying oceans? By his lights, they would seem to be growing. And if coastal cities are sinking below the waves, why did Al Gore recently buy a $9 million beach house in California?
A man drawing oxygen from a tank told the panel, “Cheap but dirty energy is no bargain.” He was followed by a doctor who talked about a “spike in deaths from respiratory ailments” as if the spike had already happened and as if CO2 were actually “dirty.”
Reportedly, “dozens of speakers” told their tales of respiratory woes. But these stories have very close to nothing to do with the future of energy in Missouri. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses have no direct connection to asthma, and the indirect connection is so tenuous even advocates blush to explain it.
These witnesses, from the mayor on down, seemingly failed to understand one paradoxical truth: the more apocalyptic were the tales they told, the more skeptical they made the skeptics.
That said, these stories, told and retold, have cast their spell. Aware of their power on the voting public, energy companies have accommodated themselves as best they can to an eerie and unsteady political environment.
One journalist covering the event, a master of snark but a novice at the art of satire, described the energy company reps and other sane voices at the session as “the few who came to thank the agency for looking out for the industry.” (Or as they put it, for businesses and consumers.)
Among the sane was Paul Ling, director of compliance for KCP&L. By diversifying its energy mix, said Ling, KCP&L managed to reduce its CO2 emissions by 39 percent from 2010 to 2017. Given this reduction, it is hard to understand why there would be a “spike” in respiratory diseases, but why quibble about details?
Still, Ling urged EPA to repeal the Clean Power Plan and replace it with a less Procrustean version (My word, not his—look it up.)
Bolder still, Carol Comer, director of the state’s Department of Natural Resources, declared that the EPA should repeal the Clean Power Plan and “scrap plans for a replacement.” Brava, Ms. Comer!
In an interview after the event, Comer was asked whether humans were the primary cause of climate change. No fool, she declined to answer.
She might have responded, define “climate change.” That would have killed the conversation as quickly and coldly as an air turbine kills a passing condor.