Tim McDonnell

Tim McDonnell

Climate Desk Associate Producer

Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.

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Scientists: Ted Cruz's Climate Theories Are a "Load of Claptrap"

| Wed Mar. 18, 2015 5:00 PM EDT

Last night, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a probable candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, shared his thoughts about climate change with late-night host Seth Meyers (video above). Here's what he said:

CRUZ: I just came back from New Hampshire where there's snow and ice everywhere. And my view actually is simple. Debates on this should follow science and should follow data. And many of the alarmists on global warming, they've got a problem because the science doesn't back them up. And in particular, satellite data demonstrate for the last 17 years there's been zero warming, none whatsoever. It's why, you remember how it used to be called global warming, and then magically the theory changed to climate change?

MEYERS: Sure.

CRUZ: The reason is it wasn't warming. But the computer models still say it is, except the satellites show it's not.

We totally agree with his point that debates about climate "should follow science and should follow data." Right on! But according to Kevin Trenberth, a leading climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, everything else in Cruz's quote is "a load of claptrap…absolute bunk."

Trenberth wasn't alone in his criticism. Several prominent climate scientists contacted by Climate Desk dismissed Cruz's analysis. "It is disturbing that some of our most prominent elected officials have decided to engage in distortions of and cynical attacks against the science," said Michael Mann of Penn State.

"Lawmakers have a responsibility to understand the science, and not to embrace ignorance with open arms, as Senator Cruz is doing here," added Ben Santer, a researcher at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

So what's wrong with what Cruz said? For starters, the satellite record does, in fact, show warming. Here's a view of temperature anomalies (that is, the deviation from the long-term average) reported by Remote Sensing Systems, a NASA-backed private satellite lab. It shows warming of about 0.2 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1980, the beginning of the satellite record:

Remote Sensing Systems

Even still, there are a couple important caveats with satellite temperature data that Cruz would do well to make note of. One, Santer said, is that it has a "huge" degree of uncertainty (compared to land-based thermometers), so it should be approached with caution. That's because satellites don't make direct measurements of temperature but instead pick up microwaves from oxygen molecules in the atmosphere that vary with temperature. Fluctuations in a satellite's orbit and altitude and calibrations to its microwave-sensing equipment can all drastically affect its temperature readings. 

More importantly, satellites measure temperatures in the atmosphere, high above the surface. The chart above shows the lower troposphere, about six miles above the surface. This data is an important piece of the climate and weather system, but it's only one piece. There are plenty of other signs that are far less equivocal, and perhaps even more relevant to those of us who live on the Earth's surface: Land and ocean surface temperatures are increasing, sea ice is declining, glaciers are shrinking, oceans are rising, the list goes on. In other words, the satellites-vs-computers dichotomy described by Cruz ignores most of the full picture.

For example, here's the most recent land and ocean-surface temperature data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, showing how temperatures this winter deviated from the long-term average (dating all the way back to 1880). Much of the globe is warmer than average, some parts are the hottest on record, and the overall global temperature was the warmest on record:

NOAA

There's also a big underlying flaw with Cruz's cherry-picked timespan of 17 years, which almost any climate scientist would agree is far too short to observe any meaningful trend. 1998, the year Cruz starts with, was itself exceptionally warm thanks to the biggest El Nino event of the 20th century. If that's your starting place, the warming trend does indeed look weak. But look over a longer time period, and it's obvious that very warm years are more common now than before.

NOAA

And in any case, even the modest "slow-down" in warming that has occurred since 2000 isn't inconsistent with what scientists have always expected man-made climate change will look like. Even the earliest climate models predicted the possibility of occasional leveling-off periods in upward-bound global temperature, like a landing on a staircase.

In fact, one reason why many scientists "magically" (as Cruz put it) have begun to prefer the term "climate change" to "global warming" is because they think the latter can misleadingly imply that every year will be incrementally warmer than the last. In reality, climate change is all about odds: Man-made greenhouse gas emissions substantially increase the chances of an exceptionally warm year, but they don't eliminate the possibility for average or even cold years to happen.

Even accounting for the apparent stability of the last few years, Santer said, "everything tells us that what's going on isn't natural."

As for Cruz's reference to snowy weather in New Hampshire...give us a break.

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Wind Energy Will Be Cheaper Than Fossil Fuels Within a Decade

| Tue Mar. 17, 2015 1:56 PM EDT

Wind energy is growing fast. While it still accounts for less than 5 percent of the United States' total electricity mix, wind is by far the biggest source of renewable energy other than hydroelectric dams, and it accounted for 23 percent of new power production capacity built last year. Some experts think wind could provide a fifth of the world's energy by 2030. But wind in the US is always in a perilous position, thanks to its heavy reliance on a federal tax credit that is routinely attacked in Congress; the subsidy was allowed to expire at the end of last year, and its ultimate fate remains unclear.

Fortunately, wind won't be subject to the whims of legislators for much longer, according to a new analysis from the Energy Department. The new report found that within a decade, wind will be cost-competitive with fossil fuels like natural gas, even without a federal tax incentive.

From Bloomberg Business:

Cost reductions and technology improvements will reduce the price of wind power to below that of fossil-fuel generation, even after a $23-per-megawatt-hour subsidy provided now to wind farm owners ends, according to a report released Thursday.

"Wind offers a power resource that's already the most competitive option in many parts of the nation," Lynn Orr, under secretary for science and energy at the Energy Department, said on a conference call with reporters. "With continued commitment, wind can be the cheapest, cleanest power option in all 50 states by 2050."

That would be a huge win for slowing climate change. The report finds that it could also lead to billions of dollars of benefits to the American public, from lower monthly electric bills to fewer air-pollution-related deaths.

2014 Was the Biggest Year For Solar Power Ever

| Tue Mar. 10, 2015 12:32 PM EDT

We've noted here before the many ways in which solar power is blowing up in the United States: Adding tons of jobs, driving progressive policies, and attracting millions of dollars in investment from major corporations. It's not slowing down anytime soon: New data from market analysis firm GTM Research finds that 2014 was solar's biggest year ever, with 30 percent more photovoltaic installations installed than in 2013. Check it out:

GTM

Those numbers are even more impressive when you compare them to other types of energy sources. Even though solar still accounts for a small share of US electricity generation (less than 1 percent), last year it added nearly as many new megawatts to the grid as natural gas, which is quickly catching up on coal as the country's primary energy source. (Coal, you can see, added almost nothing new in 2014.)

GTM

The report points to three chief reasons for the boom. First, costs are falling, not just for the panels themselves but for ancillary expenses like installation and financing, such that overall prices fell by 10 percent compared to 2013. Second, falling costs have allowed both large utility companies and small third-party solar installers to pursue new ways to bring solar to customers, including leasing panels and improved on-site energy storage. Third, federal incentives and regulations have been relatively stable in the last few years, while state incentives are generally improving, particularly in states like California and Nevada that have been leading the charge.

One more chart worth pointing out: Rooftop solar tends to get the most press because that's where homeowners and solar companies get into tussles with big incumbent power companies and the state regulators that often side with them. And it's true that a new home gets solar more often than a giant solar farm gets constructed. But on a sheer megawatt basis, utility-scale solar is still far and away the leading source, with a few notable projects coming online in 2014, like the Topaz Solar project in the California desert, the largest solar installation in the world.

GTM
Tue Mar. 10, 2015 12:32 PM EDT
Fri Mar. 6, 2015 1:47 PM EST
Mon Feb. 9, 2015 3:36 PM EST
Thu Jan. 29, 2015 5:10 PM EST
Tue Jan. 27, 2015 5:44 PM EST
Wed Dec. 17, 2014 2:01 PM EST
Thu Nov. 20, 2014 1:29 PM EST
Wed Nov. 19, 2014 1:59 PM EST
Wed Nov. 5, 2014 3:43 PM EST
Thu Oct. 30, 2014 2:11 PM EDT