CHARLOTTE – It was pretty obvious to me what Mitt Romney was doing last week in Tampa when he said, with a smile, “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. MY promise…is to help you and your family.”
He was mocking what my colleague David Freddoso called “Obamessiah” — Obama’s posture that he had divine powers. After the final Democratic primary in June 2008, Obama said that future generations would look back on his primary victory as “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”
But many on the environmental Left were pretty upset at Romney’s comment, seeing it as a mockery of climate change, or even of rising sea levels. Alex Pareene of Slate wrote, sarcastically, “Isn’t climate change hilarious?” and called Mitt’s joke “disgusting.” At the Huffington Post, Matt Peterson wrote, “rising seas due to global warming is real, and no damn joke.” There were plenty of others.
But the joke wasn’t rising sea levels. The joke was that Obama could control the sea levels. He can’t. Under no circumstance could public policy slow sea-level rise in the next 35 years. More on that below.
Obama also didn’t get that the joke was on him:
My plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet, because climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. (Cheers, applause.) They are a threat to our children’s future.
What’s most interesting about that line is what Obama’s not willing to say. He no longer says he’ll do anything about it. Since his climate-change bill died in the summer of 2009, Obama has not pushed any legislation to restrict greenhouse-gas emissions. He’s decided it’s a loser, apparently, and for good reason. Polls show that people are willing to fight global warming, but not really if it means paying more.
So instead of calling for sacrifice to save the planet, Obama in Charlotte decided to hit the sweet spot between ignoring climate change and calling for action: he acknowledged climate change, and suggested his opponents didn’t.
This is Jon Hunstman-type identity-politics signaling. Huntsman famously tweeted, “To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.” I wrote:
“trust[ing] scientists on global warming,” taken literally isn’t actually agreement with Al Gore’s fevered warnings of 20-foot sea-level rises or endorsement of Democrats’ big-government energy proposals.
Science involves detail, nuance, and acknowledgment of uncertainty. Bluster about “believing in science” is just a self-congratulatory liberal trope meant to denigrate conservative rubes from the red states clinging bitterly to their guns and religion.
Obama’s professed faith in the existence of climate change, paired with no promise of action, pleased the liberal base by hammering home the conceit that the Left is somehow pro-science.
The irony is that Romney was mocking Obama exactly for the unscientific fantasy he had promised in 2008.
Check out this treatment by climate scientist Tom Wigley. Wigley, for the sake of argument, lays out an absurd scenario: what if manmade greenhouse gas emissions were slashed severely, immediately, and then brought down to zero by 2050. Keep in mind, nobody — certainly not Barack Obama — is seriously proposing this. This would require our eliminating all use of natural gas, oil, and coal.
Even under this impossibly severe regime, which would probably require totalitarian enforcement of global poverty, CO2 concentrations would continue to increase until 2040. As long as CO2 concentrations are growing, the rise of the ocean isn’t going to be slowing.
Look at Wigley’s chart below. Sea level rise doesn’t start to slow until 2040.Image from Tom Wigley at Brave New Climate
But of course, Obama was never seriously proposing the sort of immediate, draconian cuts in CO2 emissions that would even allow GHG concentrations to fall before 2050. Obama half-heartedly pushed a pretty drastic plan to cut GHG emissions by 80% by 2050. That would provide GHG-concentration stability in 2050 according to the literature.
So, under Obama’s most ambitious plan, and granting the scientific assumptions he uses, the rise of the oceans would only begin to slow — not even stop, but simply decelerate — about 35 years after he left office. But why let science get in the way of some soaring rhetoric.