Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Head Texas Oil and Gas Regulator Questions Climate Change

Barry Smitherman is the chairman of the Railroad Commission of Texas, now running for Attorney General. He is skeptical of the science behind climate change.

Photo courtesy of RRC

Barry Smitherman is the chairman of the Railroad Commission of Texas, now running for Attorney General. He is skeptical of the science behind climate change.

‘Not Everyone Believes in Global Warming,’ Smitherman Says

Over 97 percent of climate change studies agree: the climate is changing, the world is warming and humans are the cause of it. But that does leave 3 percent of climate studies that are skeptical. And that sliver of skepticism is where Barry Smitherman, the head of Texas’ oil and gas drilling regulatory agency, has decided to plant his feet.

At a conference of utility commissioners in Colorado yesterday, Smitherman, chairman of the Railroad Commission of Texas, and now a candidate for state Attorney General, took some time to trumpet his skepticism. “Don’t be fooled — not everyone believes in global warming,” Smitherman tweeted from the conference.

“Given the incredibly high percentage of fossil fuels used to make electricity in America and given electricity’s fundamental role in powering our U.S. economy, we should be 100 percent certain about CO2’s role – or lack thereof –  in ‘changing the climate’ before President Obama, by Presidential directive, dismantles our power generation fleet,” Smitherman said.

To buttress those claims, Smitherman turned to Dr. William Happer, a climate change skeptic and Chairman of the George C. Marshall Institute, a conservative think tank that has received funding from the oil and gas industry. Happer was the only scientist on a panel at the conference, moderated by Smitherman, called ‘The Myth of Carbon Pollution.’ A press release from the Railroad Commission called it a “key panel” and “well-attended.” (In an interesting bit of scheduling, a panel titled ‘Learning from the Regions: Cap and Trade, Carbon Tax, and the Way Forward‘ immediately preceded it.)

But Happer is not a climatologist, rather his specialty is physics — he’s a professor at Princeton, where he studies atoms and nuclei. He does not appear to have authored any peer-reviewed studies on climate change. And his claims have been refuted by many in the climate science community.

Professor Michael Mann is the Director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University and author of the famous "hockey stick" graph.

Photo by Mose Buchele

Professor Michael Mann is the Director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University and author of the famous "hockey stick" graph.

One of those pushing back against Happer’s claims is Michael Mann. He’s one of the most prominent climate scientists around and author of ‘The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines.’ Mann says that one of Happer’s key points — that the climate has always been changing — is “at best, a very misleading statement.”

“Yes, the climate does change naturally,” Mann tells StateImpact Texas. “But it is extremely well-established that the warming we’ve seen over the past century is not consistent with natural climate variability.” And Mann says that   there is a clear human fingerprint behind that warming.

Studies show that world is heating up at a faster rate than it has in the last 11,000 years. “We’ve known for two decades that we cannot explain the warming from natural causes,” Mann says. “So when Happer claims otherwise, he’s defying two decades of established science.”

Happer also claims that extra carbon in the atmosphere is actually a good thing. “Contrary to what some would have us believe, increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will benefit the increasing population on the planet by increasing agricultural productivity,” Happer wrote in a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, titled ‘In Defense of Carbon Dioxide.’ (His co-author? Harrison Schmitt, a former astronaut and geologist.)

Here’s how Phil Plait of Slate, a writer and astronomer, responded to that claim:

“Everything comes with a price. Droughts, flooding, fires, rising sea levels…increasing CO2 may help some plants in some places, but it will have catastrophic effects elsewhere. The authors just dismiss all this without evidence. Hence my use of the term “denial”.

Simply claiming increased CO2 will help plants grow while ignoring everything else it does is a stunningly tone-deaf argument, yet one deniers seem to use over and again. Looking at a few plants growing better due to more CO2 is like ignoring that you killed a patient while curing their hangnail.”

Texas finds itself vulnerable to climate change in many ways. Coastlines are susceptible to rising sea levels and higher storm surge; water supplies are threatened by the possibility of more frequent, severe drought; and, even though it may be hard to imagine during this current dry spell, more severe flooding.

Hurricanes also pose a threat, as MIT Professor of Atmospheric Science Dr. Kerry Emannuel explained to StateImpact Texas last fall. “From the modeling studies that we’ve done, we expect to see an increase in hurricane risk in Texas,” Emmanuel said. It may not mean more storms, but stronger ones will likely be more frequent. And higher storm surges from those hurricanes will do more damage because of rising sea levels.

Climate scientists like Mann worry that those risks, and the established science behind climate change, are being downplayed by those who don’t have the expertise to do so.

“There have been a large number of physicists and chemists who have become paid advocates for the fossil fuel industry in the climate change debate,” Mann says. “Because often they have impressive credentials and sound very credible, but what they’re talking about — in this case climate change — has no correspondence to what their scientific actual expertise is.” Mann likens this to going to a dentist to get your blood pressure checked out.

There could be a political component to Smitherman’s questioning of climate science. He’s running as a Republican for State Attorney General, the office currently held by Greg Abbott, who’s now running for Governor. Abbott is also skeptical of climate change, and boastful of his efforts to sue the federal government and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“What we’re seeing is science being abused as just another way of waging politics,” Mann says. “Unfortunately, in today’s world, there are many politicians who feel they are entitled to their own facts, whether or not their facts deny the laws of physics, as they do in this case.”


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