Unpacking Charles Koch’s Misinformation on Climate Change

August 4, 2015 | 4:35 pm
Aaron Huertas
Former Contributor

The Washington Post recently interviewed billionaire political activist and fossil fuel titan Charles Koch. He and his brother David have been doing a public relations tour in response to repeated criticisms of their political activities, including funding groups that reject climate science and oppose climate policy.

Below is a brief examination of Charles Koch’s answers to two questions on climate policy and climate science. The interviewer’s questions and Koch’s answer are indented and in italics and my commentary is in normal type. It’s clear to me that he would benefit immensely from a meeting with climate researchers. It would also be good for him to sit down with former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) and other conservative leaders who are interested in developing climate policy alternatives to EPA regulations.


Koch on climate policy

Koch runs through a litany of debunked and suspect claims about the economic effects of the Clean Power Plan, which was just finalized yesterday.

Q: How concerned are you about the administration’s new emissions policy?

A: I’m very concerned because the poorest Americans use three time[s] the energy as the percentage of their income as the average American does. This is going to disproportionately hurt the poor.

While the costs will depend on what paths states use to meet the Clean Power Plan, the numbers for residential energy consumers are likely to look good. According to the EPA, the final plan would reduce electric bills by about $7 per month by 2030.

Further, environmental justice groups like WE ACT have done a lot to ensure that the EPA listens to concerns from low-income and minority communities. As Van Jones and others have noted, low-income communities deserve more access to solar and other renewable sources of energy, in particular, and that is indeed reflected in the Clean Power Plan.

It may make the whole electric grid unstable, depending on how it is enforced.

Note the words “may” and “depending on how it is enforced.” The good news is that grid experts at utilities and federal agencies have been working for years on these very issues, as my colleague Mike Jacobs has chronicled. I’m betting they won’t let the grid destabilize and that they will choose to enforce the law in ways that are not stupid.

And it does nothing for the climate.

All you have to do to believe this canard is 1) ignore how single policies like this fit into the bigger picture and 2) pretend that American leadership doesn’t matter.

In July, more than 300 businesses including giants such as Staples and General Mills, voiced their support for the Clean Power Plan.

In July, more than 300 businesses including giants such as Staples and General Mills, voiced their support for the Clean Power Plan. Source: CERES

The Clean Power Plan is one of many polices, including increased fuel efficiency, that have informed the United States’ goal of cutting climate emissions 26 to 28 percent by 2025 (from 2005 levels). Thanks to these policies and ongoing macro-economic developments, the United States was able to bilaterally negotiate emissions reductions with China, one of the most positive, stunning developments in international climate policy in decades. Clearly, this is helping other countries hop on board with emissions reductions, too.

But more broadly, what sort of emissions reduction policy would Charles Koch support? Criticizing what our country is already doing without proposing alternatives is not a good-faith way to debate energy policy. It’s just complaining.

At this point, you may be wondering if Charles Koch even thinks climate science is valid. It turns out he’s embraced several key pieces of misinformation about that, too.

Climate science will never be good enough for Charles Koch

Q: Are you worried about climate change?

A: Well, I mean I believe it’s been warming some.

Yeah, it’s pretty hard to claim that it isn’t. That’s because the planet has warmed more than a degree Fahrenheit since the late 1800s. But hey, who’s counting? (NASA, actually.)

There’s a big debate on that, because it depends on whether you use satellite measurements, balloon, or you use ground ones that have been adjusted.

Nope. Satellites, balloons, ocean buoys, and weather stations are all tools scientists use to measure our planet. Scientists don’t rely on just one of those tools to measure global temperature.

But there has been warming. The CO2 goes up, the CO2 has probably contributed to that.

The CO2 from industrial activities is, in fact, the primary cause of recent global warming. Every major scientific society, climate assessment and peer-reviewed meta-analysis agrees on this point. Charles Koch’s own foundation even funded a re-analysis of global temperature data and the lead author concluded, “Humans are almost entirely the cause.”

But they say it’s going to be catastrophic. There is no evidence to that.

There is no scientific definition of “catastrophic.” This is a rhetorical trick climate contrarians use to move the goal posts for justifying climate policy.

Scientists aren’t in the business of inventing arbitrary thresholds for “catastrophe,” which is why they often talk about varying levels of specific kinds of risks society will face from a changing climate. Is a foot of sea-level enough for Mr. Koch? What about 3 feet or 6 feet? Is that “catastrophic” enough for Tuvalu? Or Miami?

There are many real, specific questions local governments and countries are asking themselves about rising seas, just to cite one effect of climate change. Charles Koch’s “catastrophic” threshold is just an excuse to let his company off the hook for the carbon emissions it creates.

They have these models that show it, but the models don’t work…

As Zoolander taught us, this kind of modeling is hard. Climate modeling is hard too (and it's testable).

As Zoolander taught us, this kind of modeling is hard. Climate modeling is hard too (and it’s testable). Image: Wikimedia

I don’t know what standard Charles Koch judges models by, but scientists find climate models to be reliable. As Michael Lewis documented in Moneyball, baseball teams routinely use computer models to estimate player performance. Those models aren’t perfect, but they’re good and they beat the heck out of guessing. We should view climate models the same way; they are incredibly useful tools, not magic crystal balls.

To be scientific, it has to be testable and refutable. And so I mean, it has elements of science in it, and then of conjecture, ideology and politics.

Climate change is very testable. Let’s just keep pumping CO2 into the atmosphere to see what happens. Indeed, we’ve been running that experiment for more than a hundred years now. The results so far are conclusive: it rapidly warms the planet. It’s also refutable. We just need an alternative explanation for why the Earth has been warming so much in the past 50 years. Does Charles Koch have one? If he does he should let us know.

I also have to say that a billionaire political activist lecturing scientists about keeping science free from politics is pretty ironic. In any case, atmospheric scientists aren’t in the business of telling him how to refine fuel or sell Brawny paper towels.

So do we want to create a catastrophe today in the economy because of some speculation based on models that don’t work? Those are my questions.

So scientists don’t know enough to anticipate a climate “catastrophe,” whatever may constitute one, but Charles Koch can accurately predict the economic effects of climate policies. Duly noted.

California has grown its economy while reducing emissions. Checkmate, economic alarmists.

The ‘economic catastrophe’ argument has also lost a lot of cachet in the past decade or so. Mr. Koch should probably avoid making it in California, for instance. Or in Northeast states that have implemented a cap-and-trade system. And he certainly shouldn’t tell Iowans and Texans who work in the wind industry that clean energy policies are a “catastrophe.”

But believe me, I spent my whole life studying science and the philosophy of science, and our whole company is committed to science. We have all sorts of scientific developments.

Again, his eponymous foundation funded a scientific investigation of climate science that contradicted his political beliefs about climate change. I guess he’s just going to ignore them. That said, the fossil fuel industry employs many talented scientists. I bet there are some at Koch Industries who might respectfully disagree with Mr. Koch, too.

But I want it to be real science, not politicized science.

You and me both, Mr. Koch. You and me both.

Climate science is real science. The problem isn’t with science. It’s with politics.We need to hear more from conservatives who want to debate climate solutions. Charles Koch doesn’t want to debate solutions; he wants to ignore the problem. I hope that changes.

The good news is that there are many conservative groups like Clear Path, RepublicEn and the R Street Institute that are engaging in a robust, intellectually honest debate about climate policy.

I hope Charles Koch and his brother are listening to them.