In a meeting that left everyone a bit confused, the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District (APCD) Board of Directors heard a 20-minute speech Thursday from Bob Hinnrichs, a Santa Ynez Valley resident whose résumé impressed the board but made some members question the credibility — and purpose — of his presentation topic: climate change.
Hinnrichs, an engineer who helped design rocket engines for NASA and said he began studying climate change data in 2000 after he retired, was asked to give his presentation by the board’s outgoing chair, Solvang Mayor Jim Richardson. Ahead of the meeting, environmental groups, including the Community Environmental Council, expressed concern both with Hinnrichs’s speech — which cast aspersions on the scientific community’s consensus that climate change is not only happening but happening because of humans — and that a climate scientist was not also asked to speak.
It further worried environmental groups that the APCD board — a group composed of the five county supervisors plus elected representatives from each of the county’s eight incorporated cities and is in charge of looking out for the county’s air quality — was hearing from a climate change denier in the first place.
“I think it is outrageous and embarrassing that the chair of the organization tasked with regulating emissions in the county would invite a denier to come present demonstrably wrong and deliberately misleading information about climate change to the board,” Katie Davis, a representative of 350sb.org who worked for Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, wrote in an email. “He did this despite warnings that the information was incorrect, objections from many board members, the fact that climate change poses a direct and urgent threat, and the fact that we have many actual scientists and experts in the field living and working in Santa Barbara.”
Prior to the hearing, Richardson, who served his last meeting as chair on Thursday but will remain a member of the board, defended his decision to have Hinnrichs (whom he knows through a men’s group they’re both in) speak. “I thought it would be interesting, since the APCD is concerned about greenhouse gases — it would give them a different viewpoint,” Richardson said. “I hope to achieve a little bit more recognition of the data that’s available that contradicts the common thought and let the public see that there are different viewpoints.”
According to a report released this year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” and “it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”
Hinnrichs, who said before his presentation that he is “not a crusader,” focused most of his discussion on humans’ impact on climate change. “Obviously, man influences climate, but so do other forces,” he said. “The real issue is how much is one and how much is the other.”
Hinnrichs, who said he retrieved a lot of his data from the U.S. Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, railed against the models used by climate scientists, arguing that they didn’t account for enough variables by likening them to all of the factors that could determine how long it takes to mow a lawn: the number of mowers, the machine’s condition, and the time of day. Among other points, including an acknowledgement that the planet has warmed by one degree Fahrenheit, he compared the freak-out over global warming — which he said is misleading, and that the Earth has actually been cooling — to the panic in the 1970s over the projected Ice Age. He also pointed to a document signed by more than 31,000 scientists — a document Davis called “politically motivated” and not university-sourced — that denounces humans’ responsibility in causing climate change.
Hinnrichs argued that there is not “yet” enough evidence to suggest a link between carbon dioxide levels and climate change, noting that human-caused carbon dioxide only accounts for slightly more than 3 percent of CO2 in the atmosphere. Davis said that 3 percent figure was misleading and that the carbon dioxide measurement people should pay attention to is parts per million (ppm). There is supposed to be only about 250 ppm, she said, but that the figure now has reached 400 ppm and is continuing to rise.
Michael Chiacos, who works at the Community Environmental Council as its energy and transportation manager, came to the meeting to address his concerns with Hinnrichs’s speech. When he was called to talk, Richardson immediately moved to shut him down, saying that the board didn’t have to hear from the public on the matter, a move quickly nixed by other members, including Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider and 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal. (After the meeting, Richardson said he tried to stop Chiacos from speaking because “not all meetings require input from the public, because it’s a meeting of the board,” especially when there is no action to be taken.)
“The science is settled. Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that humans are causing climate change,” Chiacos said, calling it “unfortunate” that the subject has become a political one.
Several sources speculated that Richardson asked Hinnrichs to speak in the wake of the supervisors’ November vote on Santa Maria Energy’s oil-well project. The supervisors approved the project, but at a stricter standard than originally required, a decision that did not sit well with many North County politicians.
Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino didn’t support the tougher standards for Santa Maria Energy in November, but didn’t support Richardson’s decision to have Hinnrichs speak on Thursday, either. He said Friday that he asked Richardson not to go forward with the presentation, likening people’s stances on climate change to that of religious beliefs, and that the presentation was “not going to convert somebody.”
Carbajal, one of the supes to vote for the tougher standards and who is also a member of a White House-appointed task force on climate change, called Hinnrichs and Richardson out. “Has anybody peer-reviewed your presentation?” he asked Hinnrichs. (Hinnrichs said the data he used was.) Carbajal also questioned Richardson’s motives for the presentation and requested that a climate scientist speak at the next APCD board meeting in January. According to Chiacos, UCSB geography professor Dr. Catherine Gautier — whose course list includes a class devoted to global warming — has offered to present at the next meeting.