Schmitt and Happer’s WSJ Climate Faceplant

Former astronaut Harrison Schmitt and longtime climate skeptic William Happer have penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal challenging the scientific consensus on climate change, and making the argument that higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide would actually be a benefit, because it would increase plant growth. To their credit, Schmitt and Happer make one claim that is true: while the levels of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere (currently approaching 400 parts per million) are the highest in recent history, they are not the highest levels the earth has ever seen.

But even that one is distorted. It’s true, CO2 levels were higher than this once. This was probably at least 10-15 million years ago, when humans were barely a glimmer in evolution’s eye, and sea levels were 100 feet higher than they are today. The question isn’t whether the earth itself can handle rapidly rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but whether humans and the rest of life on earth can.

And that’s just for starters. They point to a “cessation of observed global warming for the past decade or so” as evidence that NASA and other scientists exaggerated the correlation between climate change and CO2. This is flatly wrong. It’s true that observed atmospheric warming has slowed somewhat, but when one takes oceanic warming into account (where most of the heat is going), the standard climate models are vindicated. Even on their own terms Schmitt and Happer are completely wrong; even atmospheric warming has continued, and 2010 was tied with 2005 for the the hottest year ever recorded. More broadly, 12 of the hottest years on record have come in the last 15 years, as the president has pointed out.

Schmitt and Happer also state that, “There isn’t the slightest evidence that more carbon dioxide has caused more extreme weather.” But this claim goes against most scientists on record, including reports from the National Climate Assessment Development Advisory Committee, NASA scientists and the IPCC. But Schmitt and Happer don’t offer new evidence to refute any of this. Instead, they dismiss it out of hand, so they can move on to list the ways greater levels of carbon dioxide can facilitate more efficient photosynthesis, thus helping to solve the world’s food shortages.

This is like saying Florida being swamped by a rising ocean will help with A/C bills by keeping the populace immersed in cooling fluid. Sure, it works in theory, but there are rather larger factors to consider.

When it comes to climate science, there are many things we don’t know with 100% certainty. But when papers like the Journal allow well-credentialed academics to ignore the facts we do know, it makes an informed discussion that much more difficult.

Devin Castles

Devin Castles is an intern at the Washington Monthly.