Fact check: Capito, climate change and the carbon cycle

April 17, 2009 by Ken Ward Jr.

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Rep. Shelley Moore Capito believes in global warming. Really she does. At least that’s what her spokesman, Jonathan Coffin, assured me just minutes after Capito  gave me every indication otherwise in a telephone interview yesterday morning.

You can read my news story on this interview on the Gazette’s Web site, but here’s the bottom line:

Despite a widespread scientific consensus, the West Virginia Republican said she’s “not convinced” that human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide are leading to global warming that will alter the planet’s climate in ways that could be dangerous.

“I’m looking at the studies, and trying to understand it,” Capito said in a phone interview. “But I’m not convinced that the urgencies or the doomsday predictions are factual.”

Coal Tattoo readers recall that I posed the question earlier this week: What’s Capito’s view on global warming?

I was curious, given Capito’s involvement in the GOP’s campaign to mislead the American public about the latest carbon dioxide cap-and-trade bill proposed in Congress. Does Capito think human industrial emissions are causing global warming? Does she think this is a problem worth swift and sure action (the kind we certainly didn’t have over the previous eight years)?

After I talked to Capito, I half-jokingly e-mailed Coffin and said my lead was going to be “Capito doesn’t believe in global warming.” He responded:

I would, however, strongly take issue with the your premise she doesn’t believe in global warming.  I think that misconstrues and oversimplifies her position.  She forthrightly said that pollution, population growth and reliance on fossil fuels are a challenge for the environment.  She may oppose drastic action that doesn’t take into account economic concerns, but it is not accurate to say that she simply does not believe that global warming can pose a challenge. 

OK. But I have to wonder. Because Capito is talking much more like a climate change denier than someone who believes it’s a big problem, but is just worried about how dealing with it will affect the economy of her state.

She really telegraphed where she’s coming from with her answer to my first question. I asked: Do you believe that human-induced carbon dioxide emissions are warming the planet, and that this warming is a danger to human beings and our society?

Capito responded:

My understanding is that only three percent of carbon dioxide emissions are human-induced. That’s my understanding of the science of it.  That puts it in the larger context of what we’re looking at.

This is standard denier talk … and in fact, Coffin told me Capito (or someone on her staff) got this figure from this “Global Warming Primer” published by the National Center for Policy Analysis, one of the Exxon-funded organizations that has tried for years to muddy the public discussion of these issues.

First of all, while this little “primer” does say that “humans contribute approximately 3.4 percent of annual CO2 emissions,” it also cautions that, “small increases in annual CO2 emissions, whether from humans or  any other source, can lead to a large CO2 accumulation over time because CO2 molecules can remain in the atmosphere for more than a century.”

But more than that, the fact that Capito threw out this figure — a move that can be aimed at nothing except trying to downplay the size of the problem — shows a lack of understanding of this issue. Why? Well, while the figure is accurate, it’s irrelevant. Capito may have her facts right, but she doesn’t have all the right facts.

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Graphic from http://www.kidsgeo.com/images/carbon-cycle.gif

Our planet’s carbon cycle is a big thing. Most carbon dioxide in the atmosphere does come from natural sources. But for centuries, the system has been mostly stable, with carbon dioxide emitted and absorbed roughly equaling out.

Compared with the huge amounts of carbon the atmosphere exchanges with the ocean and land ecosystems, the amount that humans add directly might seem small and inconsequential. But as scientists have found, carbon dioxide from burning coal and oil does matter — because the natural  parts of the carbon cycle have long been in balance. Human activities — mostly burning fossil fuels, but also land-use changes — have significantly tipped the balance of this natural cycle.

As I pointed out in today’s news story, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in its most recent assessment, published in 2007 that, “warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising global average sea level.”

The IPCC added that the increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century “is very likely” — meaning scientists agreed they were more than 90 percent certain of it — to have been caused by increases in human-caused greenhouse emissions. These emissions increases, the IPCC said, “are due primarily” to fossil fuels, with land-use change “providing another significant but smaller contribution.”

Earlier this year, Capito’s office touted her appointment to a special House committee that is examining climate change issues. So it seems reasonable for her constituents to expect her to understand the science of this issue. And members of Congress don’t have to go read some thick complicated IPCC reports to do that.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office, an arm of Congress, summarized some of the science in recent reports available here, here,  and here.

The National Academy of Sciences has published a far better primer than that one Capito and her staff were relying on. It’s available here.

And, the Congressional Research Service has written numerous reports on the issue for lawmakers, including this one and this one. Rep. Capito might be most interested in this one, which explains:

If humans add only a small amount of CO2 to the atmosphere each year, why is that contribution important to global climate change? The answer is that the oceans, vegetation, and soils do not take up carbon released from human activities quickly enough to prevent CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere from increasing. Humans tap the huge pool of fossil carbon for energy, and affect the global carbon cycle by transferring fossil carbon — which took millions of years to accumulate underground — into the atmosphere over a relatively short time span. As a result, the atmosphere contains approximately 35% more CO2 today than prior to the beginning of the industrial revolution (380 ppm vs 280 ppm). As the CO2 concentration grows it increases the degree to which the atmosphere traps incoming radiation from the sun (radiative forcing), warming the planet.

5 Responses to “Fact check: Capito, climate change and the carbon cycle”

  1. Jen says:

    It is so ridiculous that some republicans don’t believe in global warming. She says she will have to study the science. That is like saying I am not sure smoking causes cancer, let me reveiw the medical texts. Hello, you are not qualified to make this judgement. the science isn’t there for you to debate! You are not a scientist!

  2. Art and Livestock says:

    Bobi scold is right about the money. As soon as Congress starts handing out funds to states to mitigate the damage, Capito will change the way she talks about global warming faster than you can say, “Ted Stevens has gone back to Alaska.”

  3. rose macaskie says:

    I suppose global warming is not only about whether we created it but if we can halt it.
    I live in Spain and the village i have a ocuntry cottage in, got its first tractor about ten years ago, a small one, this year i have seen a big one in the village, the potential for ploughing land and leaving it without carbon absorbing plants is increasing mutliply that by all the villages in the world that are begining to adquire tractores.
    the same goes for everythig else most things that increase global warming are increasing as the world warms it is an acelerating process.
    a pig farmer who keept his pigs in winter on deep straw a scandinavian trick had the levels of gas produce d by his manutre measured and they where suprisingly low, is more methane produced when manure is kept liquid?
    If you plough more land each year don’t we not only reduce the vegetacion that could be sinking carbon, think of the land left fallow in the world but also leave the earth without an insulating cover of plants alive or dry as they are in this country, Spain in summe don’t plants insulate the earth stopping it accumlating heatt in the sun, earth is an accumulator of heat, turning the world into day storage heater. MY parents had night storage heaters they are full of bricks which heat up warmed by cheap time electicity,the bricks store the heat get hot an drelease ttheir heat all day.
    The hotter the world gets when there are green house gases that stop the heat escaping into space the worse for us .

  4. Dr. Leslie D. Ulm says:

    This debate over climate change is not an “either/or” proposition. As this interview notes, Congresswoman Capito says she believes there is climate change and global warming, but she questions talk about catastrophe and the need for urgent action. But that is shortsighted; the old slogan of Native Americans is “take extra care of our current actions by considering the effect they will have on the 7th generation” (not just the next one or two generations). I lived and worked in West Virginia (my wife’s home state) for twenty years and understand the difficult issues around coal and economic impact of some approaches. The Congresswoman should look into the Clean Coal Campaign of the Sierra Club. Go to sierraclub.org

  5. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Dr. Ulm,

    I believe the Sierra Club campaign is called “Beyond Coal” http://content.sierraclub.org/coal/ … Ken.

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