The recent commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy by the President was remarkable for many reasons. At a time when so many difficult international challenges cause concern for our national security, why would he choose to focus on climate change?
Yes, climate changes, it always has and it always will! But the President’s speech presented deeply flawed arguments based on absurd assumptions. Does the President believe that humans can somehow control global climate or even prevent the climate from changing? Does he believe that the climate that existed at some arbitrary time in the past was superior to the climate we experience today? Does he believe that changes to the climate in the future will necessarily make circumstances worse for humans and all life? Why would he use this occasion to sound this particular alarm, and expose his profound ignorance of this matter at the same time?
Others with unassailable scientific credentials disentangled the Presidents claims and warnings in his speech. One writer identified 24 specific statements about climate in the speech that were known to be untrue or at best highly debatable. This President, like most of the other 42 men who preceded him in office, does not claim to be a scientist. It is obvious, therefore, that he’s listening to his political advisors, and he’s pandering to his base. Damn the inconvenient science anyway.
It is difficult to comprehend the complexity of the construct known as climate. The sun is a primary driver of atmospheric dynamics. Trying to describe some hypothetical average weather for a specific region or for the entire planet is a fool’s mission. Our sun is a variable star. Our distance and orientation to the sun is always changing in pseudo-cycles related to seasons, glaciations, and ice ages. The Earth itself is another important driver of changes in the atmosphere because of the heat from nuclear fission in the core, mantle, and crust that ultimately reaches the oceans, continents, and the atmosphere. And yes, it is definitely true that human activities change climate. Average weather conditions around and in modern developed areas are distinctly different than when the land was an untouched forest, desert, marsh, grassland, tidal basin, barrier island, or mountain valley. For thousands of years, we have modified local weather conditions where we live and produce the fruits of our diverse cultures. All life changes the environment and the atmosphere in profound ways, not just human life.
Trying to predict how average atmospheric conditions will change in the future is not possible because our scientific understanding is not sophisticated enough. Seemingly chaotic events unknown to us could change everything, overnight, over decades, over centuries and over the millennia. For proof of this, just take a look at climate change in the past, in the historical as well as in the geological record.
This entire debate can be elucidated by a very simple equation.
C = A + N
Climate change (C) is necessarily the sum of anthropogenic (A) and natural (N) causes. There are two unknowns on the right side of the equation. Science has not determined the extent to which our human activities cause climate change, and no scientist can say how the average weather conditions of the earth or a region might have changed, if humans were not present.
The President and his political advisors argue that (A) is greater than (N), significantly greater. They assert that using carbon based energy sources in modern societies is the cause. They also assume that limiting the use of those energy sources will reduce (A), and consequently (C), to near zero. Furthermore, they believe that (A) is bad and (N) is good. Ironically, (N) is known to have catastrophic consequences for humanity, while (A) is usually manageable. Finally, they justify the cost of reducing (A) without comparing that to the cost of adapting to (C). According to most economists who have studied these issues, the President’s plans require enormous costs with differentially negative impact on the poor and especially those that live in underdeveloped areas of the world. The benefits of the President’s plans are negligible and likely immeasurable, except perhaps to the bank accounts of the political action committees and candidates that appeal to extreme environmentalist causes and organizations.
Graduates of the Coast Guard Academy do have an important, even vital, responsibility to protect our national security. I hope they consider their future challenges in a more rational manner than was presented to them during their commencement ceremony.