At a conference dominated by the challenge that state public utility commissioners will face implementing U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan, several electricity regulators had a much more basic question: whether the climate change that the federal rule will tackle is even taking place.
During a National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners Energy Committee panel titled "You’re Still Not Sure Global Warming Is Real?" a handful of commissioners made it clear they fell into the "not sure" category.
Alabama Public Service Commissioner Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh derided man-made global warming as "junk science" and raised worries about the uncertainties in climate models that EPA’s rule is based on. Worried that reduced coal-fired power plant usage would lead to higher energy bills, Cavanaugh warned the EPA rule would lead to "a situation of mommas and daddies deciding, do they heat their house? Do they cook their food? Do they wash their clothes?"
Cavanaugh and her fellow Alabama commissioners have raised similar concerns throughout the conference. At a Sunday morning session on coal, she told fellow commissioners there is "a very big disagreement, especially in our state, as we can be so pompous to believe we are the reason the climate is changing."
Montana Commissioner Roger Koopman also questioned the basic premise of climate change during the panel. He said he worried about the long-term impact of limiting energy production and carbon dioxide emissions. "It’s an unbelievable drain on the economic vitality of the world, the more we institute these policies, particularly in the U.S.," he said.
While few commissioners were willing to publicly criticize their colleagues, some privately expressed frustration, even embarrassment, that the panel was on the agenda.
Md. regulator ‘surprised’ by ‘naysayers’
"I’m surprised," said Maryland Public Service Commissioner Kelly Speakes-Backman. "I’m surprised the climate change is still a discussion.
"It is way too often that you have the loudest naysayers saying, ‘I’m not a climate scientist, but … .’ And then they go on. I’m not a climate scientist, either, so I rely on the 97 percent of scientists who say climate change is real and that it’s caused by humans. And so now, let’s get on from there, and let’s figure out what to do," Speakes-Backman said.
Energy Committee Chairwoman Susan Ackerman, a member of the Oregon Public Utility Commission, said the panel was worthwhile. "It’s my personal view that the science is certain enough that we can act, but I know that there are people that disagree," she said. "This panel was really only intended to try and expose the issues."
During the session, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions staff scientist Joe Casola offered a series of metaphors to explain the role human activity, specifically fossil fuel consumption, plays in the warming climate.
"Yes, we have strong evidence that a big chunk of what we’ve seen lately is due to us, but there are some uncertainties still to resolve, and on the shorter time frame in particular," he said. "It’s kind of like, how many cigarettes do you need to smoke to get lung cancer? How many cheeseburgers do you need to have a heart attack?"
Scientist questions what is understood
When asked about year-to-year fluctuations within models, he urged skeptical commissioners to look at the bigger picture. "It’s like predicting, for a baseball analogy, what do you think a .300 hitter will hit next year, versus what do you think they’ll hit tomorrow?"
Georgia Institute of Technology professor Judith Curry presented a more cautious view. Curry, a scientist who is often skeptical of mainstream climate research, said there was more uncertainty about climate science than the media let on.
Climate science is complicated, she said. She pointed to a period of cooling between 1940 and 1975 that was preceded and followed by periods of gradual warming. Such periods have not been well-explained, she maintained.
Other scientists disagreed with her. The period between 1940 and 1975 cooled due to increasing aerosol pollution (aerosols are a cooling agent) in the atmosphere. And since 1975, greenhouse gas emissions have led to warming, Seth Darling, a scientist at the Argonne National Laboratory and author of the book "How to Change Minds About Our Changing Climate," said in an email to ClimateWire last year.
"This period is understood rather well," Darling said.
Reporters Emily Holden, Brittany Patterson, Gayathri Vaidyanathan and Manon Verchot contributed to this story.