Yes, EVs are green and global warming is raising sea levels

Last week, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee held yet another climate science hearing similar to those from April 2017February 2017January 2016May 2015June 2014December 2013, and so on. It seems as though disputing established climate science is House Republicans’ favorite hobby. This time, it was Philip Duffy’s turn to spend two hours playing whack-a-mole with the committee Republicans’ endless supply of long-debunked climate myths.

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) claimed that sea level rise is due to the White Cliffs of Dover tumbling into the ocean (yes, really), and his colleagues argued that scientists in the 1970s were predicting global cooling, that Earth is just returning to its “normal temperature,” that Antarctic ice is growing, and sea levels are hardly rising.

Self-contradictory sea level rise denial

Those last two claims originated from a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) editorialentered into the Congressional record by Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), written by Fred Singer. As the group Ozone Action documented, Singer has been a lifetime contrarian on virtually every scientific subject imaginable – acid rain, nuclear winter, nuclear waste, nuclear war, ozone depletion, secondhand smoke, amphibian population loss, and even minimum wage benefits. In recent decades he’s worked for a plethora of fossil fuel-funded think tanks, denying established climate science.

Singer’s WSJ editorial is difficult to follow, largely because it contradicts itself several times, saying:

there is also good data showing sea levels are in fact rising at an accelerating rate … to keep the rate of rise constant, as observed…

Obviously if sea level rise is accelerating, it’s not increasing at a constant rate. The WSJ later “corrected” that first sentence, thus removing one of the few accurate statements in the editorial – sea level rise is indeed accelerating.

Singer’s explanation for why the accelerating sea level rise isn’t accelerating likewise contradicts itself:

the temperature of sea water has no direct effect on sea-level rise … accumulation of ice on the Antarctic continent has been offsetting the steric effect [sea level rise due to warming temperatures] for at least several centuries.

Here, Singer first claims that the basic physics of thermal expansion is wrong, or at least somehow doesn’t apply to ocean water, but then argues it is real and is merely being offset by ice growth on Antarctica. The latter claim is of course also wrong – Antarctica has been losing land ice and a recent study found that it’s responsible for 8% of sea level rise since 1993 (thermal expansion is the biggest contributor, at 42%). 

As one sea level researcher at Climate Feedback described Singer’s editorial, “If this were an essay in one of my undergraduate classes, he would fail.” The whole thing is complete nonsense, denying basic physics, and yet was published in the WSJ and entered into the congressional record. This is the material that House Republicans and their conservative media allies who reject climate science and oppose all climate policies find most compelling. That says a lot about the state of climate denial on the American right today.

Clean Electric Vehicles Denial

Around the same time, Politico ran a story written by Jonathan Lesser, who’s an energy industry consultant with the Koch-, Mercer-, tobacco industry-, and Exxon-funded Manhattan Institute (which Politico failed to mention). It claims, based on a Manhattan Institute report written by Lesser, that “more electric cars and trucks will mean more pollution.”

This conclusion rests upon a number of shaky assumptions. First, it considers not today’s power grid mix, but rather the US Energy Information Administration (EIA)’s projections out to the year 2050. The EIA is notorious for underestimating the growth of clean energy, and projects that coal will continue to supply 22% of US electricity 32 years hence. To put this in perspective, the share of US electricity supplied by coal fell from 51% in 2008 to 31% in 2016. According to an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists, nearly half of the remaining coal plants will likely retire or convert to natural gas in the near future. In short, the EIA is unrealistically bullish on fossil fuels.

Electricity generated by burning coal produces significant air pollution, and so using these assumptions, Lesser concludes that American electric cars will generate more air pollutants that are harmful to human health than gasoline-powered cars. But if the electricity generated to charge electric vehicles is cleaner than in his assumptions – a near-certainty – the conclusions won’t hold.

Lesser also admits that even with these conservative assumptions, carbon pollution emissions from electric cars would be at least 70% lower in 2050 than those from gasoline-powered cars. He dismisses this result by claiming “the [carbon pollution] reductions will have no impact on climate” (because it’s a small change relative to the carbon pollution from all American power generation), but this argument could apply to any individual effort to cut carbon pollution (it’s called a ‘Tragedy of the Commons’). In fact, transportation currently accounts for close to 30% of US carbon pollution, so switching to electric cars is a critically important step to tackle America’s large contribution to climate change.

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