A difference of opinion

TAMUNo one ever said Texas’ government officials and academics were all on the same page when it comes to global warming.
For example, when the world’s leading scientific body on climate change released its most recent multi-year assessment of the complex subject in late 2007, the 23 members of Texas A&M University’s atmospheric sciences faculty unanimously endorsed the reports with this statement:

We, the faculty of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences of Texas A&M, agree with the recent reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that:

1. It is virtually certain that the climate is warming, and that it has warmed by about 0.7 degrees Celsius over the last 100 years.

2. It is very likely that humans are responsible for most of the recent warming.

3. If we do nothing to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases, future warming will likely be at least two degrees Celsius over the next century.

4. Such a climate change brings with it a risk of serious adverse impacts on our environment and society.

Another prominent faculty member at Texas A&M – Bryan W. Shaw, an associate professor in the Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department, where many of his courses deal with air pollution engineering  – has strongly dissented from the views of the IPCC, however. He serves as one of the three commissioners who oversee the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the state’s environmental protection agency.

Shaw’s skepticism about the science behind the conclusions of the IPCC and the A&M atmospheric sciences faculty has been on display in a couple of key forums since last fall.

First was the November, 2008 report [pdf] of a state advisory panel that he chaired, which formed the basis for Gov. Rick Perry’s sharp criticism of potential federal regulation of greenhouse-gas emissions as a threat to the state economy. Second was the legislative tussle that culminated last week in a 22-7 vote by the state Senate to confirm Shaw’s appointment by Perry to be one of the TCEQ commissioners. Perry had appointed him in late 2007, and he has been serving on the commission pending Senate approval.

In the report by the advisory panel that Shaw headed, the “state of the science” is listed as one of the “reasons to exercise regulatory restraint” with regard to greenhouse gases. This brief text explained the conclusion:

An examination of the science behind the global warming theory is beyond the scope of this report.  However, recent climate research calls into question prevailing public perceptions of the cause and extent of global warming.  In an “Open Letter to the Secretary-General of the United Nations,” one hundred prominent scientists presented a succinct summary of their concerns about going forward with regulation before the science is better understood: “In stark contrast to the often repeated assertion that the science of climate change is ‘settled,’ significant new peer-reviewed research has cast even more doubt on the hypothesis of dangerous human-caused global warming.”  Any new regulation of CO2 emissions should be based on the best science possible.

A footnote refers to a copy of the quoted letter, dated Dec. 14, 2007, on the Web site of the Science & Public Policy Institute, a Washington-based organization that describes itself “a nonprofit institute of research and education dedicated to sound public policy based on sound science.” The Web site says the institute is headed by Robert Ferguson, whose 26 years of experience on Capitol Hill included serving as chief of staff to former U.S. Rep. Jack Fields, R-Humble, from 1981-1997.

The IPCC, whose work is criticized by the 100 signers of the quoted letter and elsewhere on the institute Web site, was founded by the United Nations Environment Programme and World Meteorological Organization in 1988. The IPCC, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, said its overview reports published that year summarizing scientific understanding about climate change were the product of work by more than 450 lead authors, more than 800 contributing authors and more than 2,500 expert reviewers. In March, an International Scientific Congress, addressing climate change and hosted by the University of Copenhagen, issued several conclusions, including this one, which starkly contrasted with the 2007 letter cited by the state advisory panel:

Recent observations confirm that, given high rates of observed emissions, the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realized. For many key parameters, the climate system is already moving beyond the patterns of natural variability within which our society and economy have developed and thrived. These parameters include global mean surface temperature, sea-level rise, ocean and ice sheet dynamics, ocean acidification, and extreme climatic events. There is a significant risk that many of the trends will accelerate, leading to an increasing risk of abrupt or irreversible climatic shifts.

Scientists’ conclusions such as those were evidently on the mind of state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, when he questioned Shaw about his views on climate change during a confirmation hearing on his TCEQ appointment by the Senate Nominations Committee last month. Watson – a former mayor of Austin and former chair of the defunct Texas Air Control Board, whose one-time operations are now part of the TCEQ – is the sponsor of bills to cut greenhouse emissions and boost cleaner energy sources.

The Texas Observer’s Forrest Wilder related this hearing exchange between Shaw and Watson on the liberal biweekly’s legislative blog:

Watson: “Just so that we can get it on the record: You don’t believe that greenhouse gas emissions from human activity has contributed to climate change, do you?”

Shaw: “I don’t believe the science is fully settled. I know that humans are emitting greenhouse gases.”

Then, Wilder reported, Watson asked what the legislator was paraphrased as calling the “virtual consensus among scientists that climate change is primarily driven by human activity.” Shaw’s quoted reply:

“I don’t believe it’s fully vetted. Fortunately or unfortunately having a consensus of a group of scientists doesn’t make that fully settled. There are still certainly those renowned scientists that still express skepticism and moreover I think that it warrants a critical process of looking forward because the implications of moving forward based on the assumption that man-made contribution is the primary driver of climate change may close windows of opportunity for us with regard to the environmental good that we’re trying to achieve.”

Wilder noted that Watson also made a point of contrasting Shaw’s views on the issue with those of the A&M atmospheric sciences faculty:

In a final flourish, Watson suggested that Shaw check with his colleagues in the department of atmospheric science at Texas A&M—where Shaw teaches agricultural air quality—who have signed on to the IPCC findings. “All you have to do is go to the A&M Web site,” Watson said. “It’s pretty easy to find that they’re part of that consensus.”

Disagreement among state government leaders on the climate issue doesn’t just pit Democratic lawmakers against appointees of Texas’ Republican governor. It exists among the three TCEQ commissioners themselves. As reported by the Austin American-Statesman’s Asher Price, another Perry appointee to the commission, Larry Soward, delivered this admonition last year to a conference considering impacts of climate change on the state:

“As the nation’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases, and with an extremely vulnerable coastline,” Soward said, “it only seems reasonable and logical to me for us here in Texas to step up, take a leadership role and begin to seriously and meaningfully address our greenhouse gas emissions.”

– Bill Dawson