Tag Archives: Climate change

The Exxon Climate “Victory”

Ten days ago, the President of the United States decided to withdraw from the international Paris Accords. And in typical Trumpian fashion, the news overshadowed all other climate change news that occurred during that time.

But just one day before the President’s announcement, ExxonMobil held its Annual Meeting of Shareholders in Dallas, Texas. Of the thirteen shareholder proposals that were submitted for consideration, the twelfth was a proposition that the firm publish an annual assessment of its ability to meet the Paris Accord’s climate change targets. Exxon management formally recommended that its shareholders vote down the proposal.

But guess what? The shareholders voted to approve it! New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who played a key role in the battle, proclaimed that “this is an unprecedented victory for investors in the fight to ensure a smooth transition to a low carbon economy.”

Is it actually a victory, though? Feel free to skim the original proposal on pages 62 and 63 of the Meeting Materials. Then skim Exxon’s formal recommendation on pages 63 and 64. Is it clear to you what DiNapoli and his supporters actually gained from the vote?

In essence, their proposal asked the firm to publicly disclose the impact of the Paris Accords on Exxon’s portfolio of energy assets. It then provided a fair amount of descriptive detail about what they have in mind.

Then Exxon responded that it already publishes equivalent information for public use. In turn, it also provided a fair amount of descriptive detail about the content of its publications, even though it didn’t address the proposal on a point-by-point basis.

So what was the outcome of this legal process? On the one hand, the shareholders of Exxon have approved a proposal to require the firm to disclose meaningful climate change information to the public. But on the other hand, Exxon has asserted that it already does so.

Given the President’s announcement about Paris, it is certainly understandable if environmentalists believe that any victory warrants a celebration. Nevertheless, if this truly represents “an unprecedented victory … in the fight (for) a low carbon economy,” they’re in for a very long fight.

Delete The Environment

Is it possible that we’re still debating the existence of climate change? Two months ago, President Trump’s Secretary of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared that:

“… measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact, so no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.”

Secretary Scott Pruitt continued:

“We need to continue the debate and continue the review and the analysis.”

But review and analysis require data. And last week, the EPA removed significant amounts of public data and scientific information from its own web site.

Why would Secretary Pruitt remove data from public view if he believes that we need to “continue the review and the analysis” of the information? According to an EPA spokesperson, the removal was needed to “eliminate confusion by removing outdated language.” And yet the spokesperson didn’t explain why the language of the data was “outdated.”

So why should we feel concern? Given that climate changes over time, scientists must analyze data that has been collected over many years in order to evaluate the effects of various environmental factors. Thus, it is difficult to understand how a set of data can itself become “outdated.”

To be sure, this is not to say that Secretary Pruitt is wrong. In fact, it is never wrong to question established scientific findings, or to call for more review and analysis.

But such activities are simply impossible to perform when information that resides in the public realm is removed from public access. So when our government “of the people, by the people, for the people” compiles data and publishes it on a public web site, perhaps we’d be better served if it simply leaves it there.

Science: Fact vs. Inference

A set of scientific facts rockets across the internet. One highly respected news organization appears to cite it as a warning about global warming. But another appears to cite it to raise doubts about such warnings.

How can that be possible? It’s tempting to assume that one of these organizations must be engaged in the practice of “fake news.” A single set of facts cannot simultaneously support a pair of perfectly contradictory inferences, can it?

In reality, it can. And given that the phenomenon of global warming impacts the future of our planet, it might be helpful to take a moment to understand the difference between scientific fact and scientific inference.

The facts in question involve a gigantic crack in a region of the Antarctic ice shelf known as Larsen C. Environmental scientists have long warned that global warming would cause the collapse and melting of the shelf, generating massive increases in sea levels. Just yesterday, the New York Times reported that:

A rapidly advancing crack in Antarctica’s fourth-largest ice shelf has scientists concerned that it is getting close to a full break. The rift has accelerated this year in an area already vulnerable to warming temperatures. Since December, the crack has grown by the length of about five football fields each day.

But three weeks ago, National Public Radio reported that:

“A lot of things are going on deep inside the ice,” says Adrian Luckman, a glaciologist (who is) leading a project to track changes in the ice shelf. “This is probably not directly attributable to any warming in the region, although of course the warming won’t have helped … it’s probably just simply a natural event that’s just been waiting around to happen.”

Let’s think about the discrepancy in these news reports. At first glance, the Times appears to attribute the crack to global warming, and NPR appears to disagree with that attribution. But are the two organizations fully at odds with each other?

Not really. In reality, the authors are largely in agreement on the facts. Neither one concludes that the crack was directly caused by global warming. And neither one asserts that global warming had no impact whatsoever on the crack.

Furthermore, both authors concur that the region is warming. The Times reporter states that the area is “already vulnerable to warming temperatures.” And the NPR reporter quotes a glaciologist who agrees that “of course the warming won’t have helped.”

In other words, according to both authors, the Antarctic region is heating up and the Larsen C region is cracking. Neither concludes that the heat directly caused the cracking. They agree that other factors likely contributed to the situation. And yet they also believe that warming temperatures can’t possibly be beneficial for the stability of this gigantic chunk of ice.

Are the authors inclined to draw different inferences from the twin facts of warming temperatures and cracking ice? Sure. The Times author appears to be much more inclined to interpret the set of facts as supportive of concerns about global warming.

And yet, do they disagree on the underlying set of facts itself? Not at all.

It’s certainly reasonable to feel a bit distressed when reporters at two highly respected news organizations draw radically different inferences from a common set of facts. It’s only natural to hope that a pair of rational individuals could follow a common trail and arrive at the same destination.

But at least it’s comforting that these two reporters only differ on their inferences while agreeing on their facts. As long as we keep this scientific distinction in mind, we’ll be able to maintain our faith in science itself.