Michigan Pays for Fudged Climate Data

Fake news, meet settled science

Editor's Note: A version of this article ran in The Detroit News on February 22, 2017.

Throughout 2015 and 2016, Michigan’s electric utility executives warned us that upcoming closures of coal-fired generation plants meant the state faced impending electricity shortfalls. This is mostly because coal plants are closing as a result of increasingly strict federal environmental regulations, like the Clean Power Plan.

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Last year, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told Americans that 2016 was “on pace to be the hottest year ever recorded. … The latest climate indicators report confirmed that the impacts of climate change are getting stronger and stronger.” In response, the EPA created the Clean Power Plan to set national standards for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from America’s coal plants.

But a just-released whistleblower report, reminiscent of the 2009 and 2011 “Climategate” scandal, has raised serious questions about the accuracy and transparency of climate change research federal agencies used to justify new greenhouse gas regulations.

Known as the “Pausebuster,” the research in question appeared to show that past measurements had overestimated land and sea temperatures, putting into doubt the two-decade long pause in global temperature increases that climate scientists thought began in 1998. This new research appeared to imply that global temperatures have increased more than previously thought, making climate change an even greater threat.

Thomas Karl, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and lead author of the Pausebuster paper, relied heavily on data described as updated and corrected temperature observations. But these observations were actually criticized by other scientists as unverified.

Even so, Karl published his paper in the journal Science before the Obama administration’s presentation of the Clean Power Plan before a United Nations-sponsored event, the 21st Conference of the Parties meeting, in Paris in December 2015.

Cited widely in the media, Karl’s work played a key role in influencing international decisions to ratify the 2015 Paris Agreement, which called for drastic reductions in worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. EPA greenhouse gas regulations were also influenced by this research, as the agency cited the unverified temperature data in its 2016 Climate Change Indicators report.

Those EPA regulations were a key factor in the decision to close Michigan’s coal plants. At the time, Skiles Boyd, vice president of environmental management and resources at DTE, stated, “there is no piece of control equipment we can put on (existing coal plants) to meet carbon rules under the Clean Power Plan.” Boyle added that by 2030, a single plant in Monroe will be the company’s only coal-fired facility remaining.

Enter Dr. John Bates, a recently retired climate scientist who for the past decade has been responsible for maintaining NOAA’s climate archive. Bates designed the formal review and archiving process used by the agency to preserve historical climate data. His work was recognized by the U.S. Department of Commerce when it gave him its Gold Medal award in 2014 for his innovative work.

In a recent article published in the U.K.-based Daily Mail, Bates described Karl’s Pausebuster research as “the most serious example of a climate scientist not archiving or documenting a critical climate dataset” he had seen. Bates noted that he had objected to Karl’s use of unverified data, but that NOAA senior officials had ignored his concerns.

Bates claimed Karl had refused to follow established data archiving protocols. Karl, he said, “constantly had his thumb on the scale —in the documentation, scientific choices, and release of datasets — in an effort to discredit the notion of a global warming hiatus and to rush to time the publication of the (Pausebuster paper) to influence national and international deliberations on climate policy.”

Nearly two years after Karl’s paper was published, the temperature data he used remains unverified and unapproved for inclusion in the vetted NOAA climate database. In fact, the raw data that Karl used for the Pausebuster paper was never properly archived, and the computer on which it was stored actually suffered a complete failure.

Serious questions have been raised about the validity of research that is foundational to expansive new federal regulations. Furthermore, utility executives stated that the plans to shut down Michigan’s coal power plants were based on those potentially flawed regulations and questionable research.

Recognizing this, Michigan should ask if it is reasonable for utilities to warn of impending energy shortfalls while they rush to replace generation plants that reliably and affordably provided over 35 percent of our electricity in 2016. Science is still showing that a pause in warming over the past two decades has occurred. Perhaps Michigan’s utilities should take this pause into account and pause their plans to close our coal plants until this issue can be fully investigated.

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