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What Charles Koch really thinks about climate change

Charles Koch stands for a portrait at the Freedom Partners Summit on  Aug. 3, 2015, in Dana Point, Calif. (Patrick T. Fallon for The Washington Post)

Charles Koch had been talking for more than an hour — about markets, philosophy and why he is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to fund university research, particularly in economics — when the subject turned to climate change. The question, from The Washington Post’s Jim Tankersley (who wrote about the main thrust of the interview here), was whether any evidence could persuade the libertarian billionaire that regulation of carbon emissions is necessary to head off disastrous global warming.

Koch’s answer went on for several minutes. He did not deny global warming, but he did downplay the risks of climate change, based on his read of the scientific evidence. The full exchange sheds new light on Koch’s beliefs about climate and carbon regulation.

Inside Charles Koch’s $200 million quest for a ‘Republic of Science’

Here, then, we provide an annotated transcript of those comments, highlighting areas where Koch does — and, where he doesn’t — align with what scientists have to say about the subject, and more generally exploring his remarks. The questions are Tankersley’s, the answers are Koch’s and the notes are from energy and environment writer Chris Mooney.

Jim Tankersley: Do you still have the potential to be surprised or have your mind changed on big things, and the specific example I was thinking of is, could someone produce a piece of research that could convince you that carbon regulation is necessary to head off disastrous global warming?
Charles Koch: Yeah. If we apply the republic of science here and use the scientific method rather than of trying to shut down and shout down and punish anybody who wants to enter into debate about it. And not do it through corporate welfare. Look at what’s happened. What’s being done is symbolic, even under their own thing. It’s not reducing CO2. Not approving the Keystone pipeline – so the oil is produced, now it’s shipped by rail and shipped to China, rather than by pipeline. So that’s symbolic. And making wood pellets, subsidizing making wood pellets, I mean, we’re back in medieval times, we’re going to burn wood. And shipping them to Europe. How is that reducing CO2? And we’re going to put a tax on natural gas, on BTUs, here, so we’ll be making less chemicals and fertilizers here, and we’ll be doing it in China, where they make it out of coal gas, and per unit the production has five times the CO2 emissions. So these things don’t make sense.

Koch’s point about wood pellets suggests a surprising alignment with many environmentalists and scientists, who have raised concerns about the potential carbon consequences of burning wood for electricity. The argument that failing to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline was at least partly “symbolic” in a national and global context, meanwhile, also has its strength — as the State Department itself explained in rejecting TransCanada’s permit application, “granting a Presidential Permit for this proposed Project would undermine U.S. climate leadership and thereby have an adverse impact on encouraging other States to combat climate change and work to achieve and implement a meaningful global climate agreement.”

However, the idea that mainstream scientists are trying to “shut down” debate on climate change is another matter. These researchers would probably counter that any debate, such as it is, should occur in the peer-reviewed scientific literature and in official scientific processes like that conducted by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They would further state that in that literature and in those documents, the consensus that humans are causing global warming is crystal clear.

CK: And then these agreements on limiting CO2 — well I liken it to, if you’re at a poker game, and you don’t know who the pigeon is, you’re it. And we’re it. So we’re going to regulate the hell, make our — particularly the poor — worse, stifle the economy by having less reliable, cheap, abundant energy, and make it more expensive.

If we’re talking about cost, then what about also considering the cost of doing nothing on climate change?

The International Monetary Fund, for instance, recently noted that “Climate change is expected to significantly impact the global economy in the coming decades.” A global average temperature rise of 3 degrees Celsius, which the world has now pledged to avoid, could cost 2 percent of global GDP, notes a recent IMF research note. Granted, cost estimates range widely, and impacts would be varied and highly uneven around the world.

Nor is this necessarily the worst case, the group notes: “Essentially nothing is known about potential damages from extreme (and unprecedented) warming scenarios.”

The IMF also generally favors setting a price on carbon in order to counter climate change and carry out the objectives of the Paris climate accord. And while the aforementioned research note remarks that carbon pricing will surely lead to economic costs, it adds that these can be offset by wise policy design. Or as the report notes: “Revenues could be used for lowering taxes on labor and capital that distort economic incentives, producing a counteracting economic benefit to the costs of higher energy prices. The economic costs of carbon tax shifts (ignoring environmental benefits) might even be negative for modest emissions reductions if revenues cut an especially distorting tax. Revenues could be used for new spending or reducing debt, though the social benefits should be comparable to those from cutting harmful taxes.”

CK: China and India are going to do what they’re going to do anyway. So we just hurt ourselves, even under their theory. And their theories aren’t working very well, because they keep predicting all these theories that aren’t happening. And if they start happening, or they get evidence, and they’ll enter into a debate rather than shut down anybody who has questions about it or wants to challenge any aspect of it, then I get a lot more sympathetic, yeah. If we’re all trying to find the truth of the matter, then I’m all for that. I’m all for applying the Republic of Science on climate, as I am on anything.

Both India and China are making major steps towards installing more renewable energy. (That’s what they’re “going to do anyway.”)

China led the world in investment in renewable energy last year — as it has for some time. India has set forward a plan to install 175 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity by 2022.

JT: Do you think it’s a problem the market can solve, without governments?
CK: I think it will, just like we’re doing all these things (at Koch Industries). We’re investing heavily in biofuels, in biotechnology, in information technology, to do this. Why do we do it? Because we think through innovation we can make it competitive, better than competitive. And that’s the way to go. And like, Bill Gates is raising billions to go find it — that’s the way to do it, is innovation. So it’s win-win, rather than more cronyism, which so far, all it does is enrich a few people and hurt the average and particularly the poor.

While we’re at it, we should note that the Koch Nitrogen Co. plant near Enid, Okla., has also been highlighted as a leader in carbon capture and sequestration. Carbon dioxide from the process of making nitrogen fertilizer is piped to oilfields nearby, where it is used in enhanced oil recovery and then left buried beneath the ground, according to the Global CCS Institute.

“Exceptionally, the Enid Fertilizer plant in Oklahoma, United States, operated by the Koch Nitrogen Company, has captured over 600000 tCO2 a year since 2003 for use in [enhanced oil recovery],” notes the United Nations Industrial Development Organization.

KOCH AIDE: There’s a lot of varying reports on what Charles’s position on climate change actually is. So I think it would be a good idea if —
CK: Yeah, I say that a lot of what is done by the climate lobby is anti-science. But there is some science behind it. Like, there are greenhouse gases, and they do contribute to warming. But if you look at the last, say, 160 years, the first 80 of that period, they went up four-tenths of a degree. And now, the second 80 that CO2 has gone up, what, 30 percent or something, it’s gone up five-tenths of a degree. And there’s been in the last 30 or 40 years, there’s been no real increase in storms or bad weather. So, let’s use the part that’s real science and then apply the Republic of Science to the rest of it.

First of all, based on this statement, Koch does not deny human-caused climate change. However, he does seem to minimize its potential gravity. So let’s look at this more closely.

It is unclear why Koch goes back 160 years when NASA starts in 1880 with reliable temperature measurements. Here is their temperature record:

If you take the whole record, it presents a rise of about 1 degree from 1880 to the present — and that’s Celsius, not Fahrenheit (it would be 1.8 degrees F).

Given that this is the temperature of the entire planet as an average — the Arctic warming is considerably greater, for instance — it is hard to see why this trend would be something to minimize. It is also clear that the 1980s is when the truly relentless upward temperature march began.

The “no real increase in storms or bad weather” statement appears misleading, although it depends on precisely what is meant by “storms or bad weather.” Scientists have documented increasing weather and temperature extremes of many (although not all) kinds. “Some extreme weather and climate events have increased in recent decades, and new and stronger evidence confirms that some of these increases are related to human activities,” notes the U.S. National Climate Assessment. For instance, that report notes that in the United States, heavy downpours are increasing and notes that “the mechanism driving these changes is well understood. Warmer air can contain more water vapor than cooler air.”

CK: And then I’m on board. If there’s some risk here that this could be bad, I don’t want that.
Every policy — and by the way, what you read about us, if you assume the opposite is true, you will bat a higher average. But every position we take is, by trying to answer the question, will it make people’s lives better or worse? And are we applying the scientific method?

Read more at Energy & Environment:

The world is about to install 700 million air conditioners. Here’s what that means for the climate.

Alaska’s huge climate mystery — and its global consequences

Scientists say that ‘nature,’ untouched by humans, is now almost entirely gone

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Regardless of which party you support, there's almost no question that the Koch brothers have made money off of you. (Video: Jeff Simon, Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)