Is this the worst argument for climate inaction in political history?

One of the worst arguments against addressing climate change in world history was offered on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 2015.

Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) appeared in the chamber holding a snowball.

“It’s very, very cold out,” Inhofe argued, tossing the snowball to the sitting Senate president. This despite all of the discussion about how 2014 had been the warmest year on record.

Of course, it was February at the time, a month when it is often very, very cold. 2015 would go on to be one of the warmest years on record — as would each of the following seven years. Last winter, you’d have been hard-pressed to conjure up a snowball in D.C.

It was a bad argument that somehow has gotten worse over time. But there is some good news for Inhofe’s legacy: An argument made by another senator this week probably surpasses the Senate snowball for sheer rhetorical cringeworthiness.

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Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) was interrogating Michael Greenstone, an economics professor from the University of Chicago at a Senate Budget Committee hearing centered on “Diagnosing the Health Costs of Climate Change.” (Democrats have a majority in the Senate, you’ll remember; a hearing on the subject in the Republican-controlled House would focus on how climate change isn’t caused by humans, but if it were, the human responsible would be Hunter Biden.)

Greenstone was one of a group of more than a dozen researchers who contributed to a 2019 paper titled “Valuing the Global Mortality Consequences of Climate Change Accounting for Adaptation Costs and Benefits.” In essence, the paper attempted to calculate just how deadly increased global warming would prove to be. In prepared testimony, Greenstone explained one “especially striking finding”: that “the damages from climate-induced temperature changes … will be unevenly distributed both globally and within the United States.” Poorer and hotter places would see more climate-related deaths.

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It seems that Johnson didn’t get that far in the testimony. Instead, he seized upon a map included in both the report (as below) and what Greenstone provided to the committee. On these maps, blue areas are expected to see a net decrease in mortality due to climate change. You’ll notice they’re mostly in more-northern areas, which is to say colder areas — and that’s why. A 2015 Lancet study found that cold weather is deadlier than warm weather, so cold areas getting a bit warmer helps decrease cold-related deaths in those places.

At the bottom we’ve drawn a circle around Johnson’s home state of Wisconsin. Wisconsin is cold in the winter; a bit more warmth means a small decrease in deaths in a warmer climate. And that was enough for Johnson.

“I actually found that chart of yours somewhat comforting for at least America,” he said. He disparaged the data as projections that he “didn’t put any stock in” but noted that, according to those projections, “a warming globe is actually beneficial in my own state.”

“Your study shows that we have a reduction in mortality of between 54 and 56 people per, I guess, 100,000,” he added. “Why wouldn’t we take comfort in that?”

Greenstone was gentle in rebutting the argument.

“What the work shows and the chart is that the effects of climate change are going to be very unequal,” he clarified. Sure, Wisconsin and his hometown of Chicago would benefit, “but if you look more carefully at that, there’s large [swaths] of the country where the damages will be much larger.”

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In fact, the data provided by Greenstone shows that mortality is projected to increase in 32 of 50 states and D.C. under a high-emissions scenario. (Most of them are states that backed Donald Trump in 2020.) In other words, Wisconsin is unusually lucky.

In 14 states plus D.C., though, the number of deaths would increase by at least 30 additional deaths per 100,000 residents. Overall, the country would see a slight uptick in mortality of 10 deaths per 100,000.

That modest effect is just America, of course. And global warming is, well, global.

Johnson had an argument ready on that one, too. He pointed to the Lancet study.

“In terms of global health, in terms of excess death,” he argued, “we’re actually in a better position to prevent death by having the climate increase in temperature a little bit.”

Greenstone said he was unfamiliar with the Lancet study. But he could certainly have pointed out that climate change isn’t just about increased temperatures. His own research, in fact, incorporates changes in precipitation, one of the other obvious factors in global warming. (Warmer temperatures increase evaporation and warmer air holds more water, so rain- and snowstorms will produce more precipitation.) There are other effects, too, such as increased ocean levels (which will increase flooding), changes in ocean acidity (due to carbon dioxide saturation), and shifts in agricultural and migration patterns (putting food at risk). But, you know: It’s warmer in Wisconsin in January, so how bad could it be?

This was basically Johnson’s concluding argument,

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“Your study is very favorable to my state,” Johnson insisted.

“There are 49 other states in the United States,” Greenstone replied. “Many of them will suffer. Many of them will suffer more than Wisconsin will gain.”

“According to your study, you’re concerned if you’re in the really hot region of Africa,” he said. “But in terms of the United States and most of Europe? We’re in pretty good shape.”

This is just the Western-world version of Johnson’s “Wisconsin will be fine” argument. If the effects of climate change won’t harm the United States that much, what’s the problem?

The problem, of course, manifests in a few ways.

Most obviously, there’s a moral problem. A large percentage of the carbon dioxide emissions that are spurring warming are a function of American fossil-fuel consumption, meaning that we bear responsibility for warming’s effects. That nations in “the really hot region of Africa” will suffer as a result is not inherently a good reason for indifference.

It’s also the case that climate-change-linked disasters often have ripple effects that impact the United States. One driver of migration from Central America, for example, is climate-linked drought that’s hampered agriculture, pushing migrants north.

But, look. Johnson’s not particularly persuaded by that. He’s barely persuaded by the idea that climate change will cause an increase in deaths in neighboring Iowa, much less Africa. He, like Inhofe, is working with what he’s got, even if the result is an argument that is at best weak and at worst awful.


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