Friday, June 28, 2013

President Obama's Flimsy Case for Climate Change

    Shortly after President Obama gave his climate change speech at Georgetown University, the White House posted Fact Sheets to highlight the ostensible effects of climate change/extreme weather in all 50 states and Washington DC.  If the "facts" presented in Maryland's Fact Sheet are representative of the other fifty, the White House's case is embarrassingly flimsy.
    Each Fact Sheet begins with the same paragraph entitled "The Threat of Carbon Pollution" with broad generalizations about pollution, climate change, extreme weather, and the president's plan to reverse course.  Next comes a section entitled "The Impact of Pollution and Extreme Weather."  After a statistic about how many metric tons of carbon pollution each state produces per year comes this introduction/disclaimer:
Recent  incidents provide a reminder of the impacts to our public health and costs due to extreme weather in Maryland.  Although we cannot say that climate change is responsible for any individual event, climate change is already increasing our risks from these events. 
    The document then goes on to list five bullet points to bolster the case that "climate change is already increasing our risks from these events."  However, a closer look shows that the points are non sequiturs at best, and actually counter-arguments at worst:
 Hurricane Sandy effects in Maryland impacted 477 residences and required over $34 million in federal assistance in 23 counties and the City of Baltimore.  
 The cumulative cost of severe weather events in 2011 and 2012 was over $70 million. 
    Although viewed in isolation these figures might seem high, in 2003, Maryland's costs from Hurricane Isabel alone reached $100 million with 8,691 individual applications for aid approved by FEMA.  And in 1996, there were three weather-related disasters declared in Maryland in one year, though costs figures were not provided on the FEMA website.  2011 and 2012 were not exceptionally costly, let alone indicative of a trend.
 In Maryland, there were over 9,100 hospital admissions for asthma in 2011, with an average charge of close to $8,000 for each stay.
    This chart from a Centers for Disease Control report on asthma, however, shows that hospitalizations in the U.S. for  asthma have been trending down for 30 years:

 Changing temperature and precipitation patterns can affect the life cycle and distribution of insects, many of which transmit  disease that already pose problems to public health in Maryland.  In 2010, there were 1163 cases of Lyme disease in the state. 
    However, just like the asthma statistics, the data on Lyme disease do not back up the White House assertions. Confirmed cases of Lyme disease have been flat for 10 years:

 In 2009, there were 407 emergency room visits in Maryland due to heat stress. 
    The population of Maryland is nearly 6 million.  407 emergency room visits means that just over one of those six million residents per day was in the emergency room for heat stress.  Hardly a crisis, and no attempt is even made to link the statistic to extreme weather.
    The president's call for action on climate change seems to rely largely on anecdotes, statistics without context, and sheer volume of information.  If the situation is as dire as the president suggests, the White House should be able to come up with more convincing arguments than the easily debunked "facts" above.

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