EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s Idiotic Comments of this Past Tuesday: A Scientific Rebuttal

Scott Pruitt is the current administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a federal agency that was proposed by Republican President Nixon and established in 1970. Its mission then was the same as its stated mission now. That mission is written succinctly on its website: “Our mission is to protect human health and the environment.” So far, so good.

The EPA website further elaborates on various elements of accomplishing that mission, second among them being to ensure that, “National efforts to reduce environmental risks are based on the best available scientific information.” It’s here I think we have a problem with Scott.

Prior to his appointment to the office on Feb 17, 2017, Scott Pruitt had sued the EPA 14 times as Attorney General of Oklahoma, and declared himself a “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.” Based on my own experience interviewing prospective new hires, a professed and demonstrated opposition to the mission of the job in question would be a practically disqualifying consideration. But I just work for a technology company that routinely develops and commercializes new and useful products based on science, not a government that successfully declines to take much substantive action despite decades of accumulating scientific knowledge. So what would I know about hiring in government?

The problem is, despite almost exactly a year in his position, at the head of an organization replete with expert climate scientists and with complete access to any manner of scientific evidence, Scott’s actions and statements have demonstrated a remarkable immunity to even the most basic scientific knowledge.

The latest case in point — his remarks this past Tuesday, explaining how, in direct contradiction of all scientific evidence, climate change (which Scott conceded humans have caused “to a certain degree”) might just be good for us!

“Is it an existential threat? Is it something that is unsustainable, or what kind of effect or harm is this going to have? I mean, we know that humans have most flourished during times of what? Warming trends . . . I think there’s assumptions made that because the climate is warming, that that necessarily is a bad thing. Do we really know what the ideal surface temperature should be in the year 2100? In the year 2018? I mean it’s fairly arrogant for us to think that we know exactly what it should be in 2100.”
-Scott Pruitt in an interview with KSNV TV in Las Vegas, Feb 6, 2018

This is a type of climate denial argument that seems to be growing in popularity recently, as increasing scientific evidence, a virtually unanimous and well-publicized scientific consensus, and easily observable natural events force even staunch deniers to admit the Earth appears to be warming. It just shifts the willful ignorance one logical step further: “OK, maybe the Earth is warming a bit, and maybe humans are responsible at least a little bit, but how do we know that’s bad? Maybe it’s good!”

Scott said it Tuesday, but other deniers are also employing this argument:

It’s an argument that thrives when the public is not well educated about the climate. It’s also a seductive argument, particularly in winter. You’re thinking, “Yeah, all this snow is a pain in the butt; maybe we could do with a little less of it!”

Let’s be super clear. Based on the evidence, there is absolutely no reason to expect that global climate change is likely to be a good thing for humanity. To fight this argument, we need to be armed with some basic scientific evidence. Fortunately, the evidence is publicly available and pretty simple to understand.

First, yes, we know the Earth has been warming since the Industrial Revolutions in the middle of the 1800’s, and this has been the result primarily of rising atmospheric CO2, which also started at that time. 2015, 2016, and 2017 were the three hottest years in recorded human history.

Temp Anom 2017
Graph of global average temperature as measured by 4 independent groups of scientists (orange, pink, red, and purple lines) on top of atmospheric CO2 concentration (circles). For more information, see my article here.

The effect of rising CO2 on global temperature was predicted by scientists as far back as the year 1824, based on an understanding of the absorption of infrared radiation by CO2 that was perfected with the advent of the first high-speed computers in the middle of the 1950’s.

Second, let’s clarify exactly to what “certain degree” humans have contributed to the observed increase in CO2, which drives the warming. Here is the consensus scientific opinion on that as stated in the 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Synthesis Report:

“Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have increased since the pre-industrial era, driven largely by economic and population growth, and are now higher than ever. This has led to atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide that are unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. Their effects, together with those of other anthropogenic drivers, have been detected throughout the climate system and are extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

Translation: Practically speaking, you can bet essentially all of the warming has occurred because we’ve been burning fossil fuels.

This consensus is derived from a detailed accounting of the amount of CO2 that has been produced from fossil fuels and where it has gone. Based on this accounting, we now know that about exactly 57% of the CO2 we release stays in the atmosphere, the remaining 43% being absorbed by the oceans (which are acidified as a result) and soil.

Keeling with Fossil Fuels
Image credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Black line: Atmospheric CO2 concentration as measured at Mauna Loa, Hawaii (for details, see my article here). Red line: Expected concentration if 57% of CO2 from fossil fuel combustion and the cement industries stay airborne.

“I mean, we know that humans have most flourished during times of what? Warming trends . . .”
-Scott Pruitt, speaking like an ignoramus

I don’t know what he means by that last part about “warming trends.” In terms of the global average temperature, the last 3 years have been the warmest years since measurements began in 1850-1880, so that “warming trend” would be now. Are we “flourishing?” Personally, I’m doing fine, though I’m not sure I would chalk it up to global warming. It’s hard to argue that folks currently on the front lines of global climate change effects — in Shishmaref, Kiribati, or Fiji, for example — are “flourishing.” And things aren’t exactly looking up for coastal real estate owners in Miami, either.

But we can, with scientific certainty, say something about under what conditions humans have historically flourished. Specifically, humans since Biblical times have been flourishing (until very recently) with a CO2 concentration between the black lines:

2000y CO2 2017 with limits update
Atmospheric CO2 concentration since the year 0 A.D. Pre-industrial maximum, minimum, and average concentrations are indicated by the solid and dashed black lines, respectively. For more details, see my article here.

The species Homo sapiens has been flourishing, since around 200,000 years ago, with an atmospheric CO2 concentration ranging from 184 to 287 ppm.

800kY plot 2 update 2017
Atmospheric CO2 concentration since 800,000 years ago. The first anatomically modern humans appeared about 200,000 years ago. Until very recently in our history, our species never experienced a CO2 level above 287 ppm. For more details, see my article here.

The 2017 average CO2 level was 406.6 ppm, and we’re in uncharted territory as a species. The Earth as it has been, with an atmospheric CO2 concentration not exceeding around 280 ppm, has defined everything we know about living on this planet. The shape of our coastlines (where we’ve built our most valuable real estate). The location of our farmland, and the entirety of our associated food distribution system. The predictability of our water supply.

Ultimately, how we regulate our body temperature. The 2012 Global Energy Assessment estimated that there remain 15,000 gigatons of fossil carbon in the Earth’s crust. According to a 2011 peer reviewed analysis by four current and former scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the burning of 10,000 gigatons of carbon on a “business as usual” trajectory would result in a global average temperature increase of 29 degrees Fahrenheit. This would result in an estimated most common wet bulb temperature over the Earth’s surface of 109 degrees Fahrenheit. Above a sustained wet bulb temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit, the human body cannot maintain its body temperature of 98.6 degrees.

Partaking in Scott Pruitt’s blissful ignorance could, literally, cook us.

“Do we really know what the ideal surface temperature should be in the year 2100? In the year 2018? I mean it’s fairly arrogant for us to think that we know exactly what it should be in 2100.”
-Scott Pruitt, worrying aloud over the arrogant hubris of human observation and reason

Is it “arrogant” to employ systematic observation and reason to plan for the future? Perhaps, but I’d say we’re guilty as charged! Observation, reason, and planning are humans’ differentiating features. 200,000 years ago, they enabled us to survive in a world populated by natural hazards and fearsome predators. Later, they empowered us to practice agriculture, develop technologies, and build civilizations. We’ve accomplished everything, as a species, in the comfortable and stable environment created by a rather narrow range of atmospheric CO2 levels. Where the CO2 level is currently headed, all bets are off. Why would we abandon observation, reason, and planning now, especially when those strengths have also enabled us to develop sustainable energy solutions to the problem?

Because Scott Pruitt has a hunch that climate change, just maybe, could be good for us?

I’ll tell you what I think is “arrogant.” Here’s a guy, enriched by years of generous compensation by our taxes, wearing a beautiful suit and occupying a competitive seat at the top of a major federal agency, willfully ignoring the readily accessible scientific findings of an army of career professionals in that very agency. And people in Kiribati are building desperate sandbag seawalls around the towns they’ve occupied for thousands of years. And Americans in Shishmaref have voted to move their disintegrating town. And this guy’s telling those people, and our children, hey, let’s roll the dice. Because climate change just might be fun, and the financial support of the fossil fuel industry sure has helped me in my job. And not only saying this ridiculous stuff, but forming policies based on it that affect us all. Like taking down federal informational websites about climate change. Like firing professional climate scientists from EPA advisory boards and replacing them with fossil fuel industry hacks. Like supporting the president in declaring our intent to be the only nation on Earth not in the Paris climate agreement. (Even North Korea is in it!)

That’s pretty arrogant.


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