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Federalist Society hosts climate change debate

By Zac Odermatt     10/31/16 7:48pm

The Rice University Federalist Society hosted a debate between Ronald Sass, professor and chair of ecology and evolutionary biology, and Willie Soon, an astrophysicist and geoscientist, on the scientific evidence for human caused climate change Oct. 18.

Sass, a fellow in global climate change at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice, has studied emissions for over 20 years, consulting for the United Nations and conducting research with NASA regarding methane emissions.

Soon works at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and argues climate change is not significantly affected by human activity.

According to the New York Times, Soon’s research has been largely funded by fossil fuel interests such as the Koch Foundation and the Southern Company, but he stressed that this external funding does not affect his research.

“I’m often accused of being a spokesperson for the oil industry,” Soon said. “I will restrict myself to a few social comments but I am here as a private citizen so I don’t represent my institution at all. This is my own view.”

Both speakers said they wished to keep the debate strongly grounded in facts.

“As a scientist, of course, I’m going to talk about science,” Soon said. “Despite all the political fights we are going to try to find out what the actual key factors are that drive climate change, based on all this observational data.”

Sass echoed the statement, assuring attendees the content of the debate would be data driven.

“I’m probably going to present more scientific data than my wife should probably allow me to,” Sass said.

Soon said since carbon dioxide is such a minor greenhouse gas, it cannot be the driver of drastic climate change.

“To suggest that adding this atmospheric carbon dioxide, which is a minor greenhouse gas, that you are going to be able to control the whole climate system,” Soon said. “This is a question we need to think twice about.”

Sass disagreed on this point, attempting to show through comparison with carbon dioxide’s impact on Mars’ climate that carbon dioxide has an important effect.

“The carbon dioxide concentration on the Earth is about that same as that of Mars, but Mars only has a carbon dioxide atmosphere, essentially,” Sass said. “[On Mars] the effect was about five degrees. Would it be appropriate to say then that the carbon dioxide concentration on the atmosphere of Earth is responsible for about five degrees?”

Both speakers also discussed the reliability of climate models, with Soon arguing that poorly gathered and interpreted data combined with an ambiguous definition of climate made them entirely unreliable.

“This is the problem with models — every one of them is skewed,” Soon said. “You have so many parameters you can show anything that you want. So, it’s really a crazy proposition to say you know so much about climate.”

Sass agreed, citing similar concerns with the models.

“We do not have enough data really to answer all the questions [ models aim to answer],” Sass said. “But, neither do we have a lot of time. If the temperature is changing as I think it is, in another 30 or 50 years we are going to have an Earth that is very difficult to live in.”

Soon said the paramount concern was the economic impact of restructuring the energy industry.

“It’s really all about money in some sense,” Soon said. “Really, how much money do you think is involved in trying to change our whole energy infrastructure? You’ve probably heard that all the advanced nations are going to be giving something like $100 billion a year … It turns out the number is far higher.”

Sass said the economic impact was unfortunate, but needed to be overlooked due to the possible ramifications of inaction.

“We can take significant action now, or do nothing at all,” Sass said. “The climate change is either false or true. If it’s false and we take significant action, that may be a trillion dollars we’re talking about. If it’s true and we take significant action, we will have economic costs, but it will be worth it because the alternative is not a good one.”

Jed Greenberg, a Jones College sophomore, said that the debate brought a valuable dissenting opinion to what is commonly considered settled science.

"Both Dr. Soon and Dr.Sass made persuasive arguments,” Greenberg said. “It was nice to have Dr. Soon because he represented a viewpoint not often seen on campus.”

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