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Wind turbines at the Harvest Wind Farm in Oliver Township, Mich. (Associated Press) Wind turbines at the Harvest Wind Farm in Oliver Township, Mich. (Associated Press)

Wind turbines at the Harvest Wind Farm in Oliver Township, Mich. (Associated Press)

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson January 15, 2015

Widely shared meme oversimplifies Joe Barton's 2009 comment on wind energy, climate change

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, is not popular among environmentalists. A former chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, Barton is a staunch advocate for fossil fuels and expressed skepticism about the role of manmade carbon emissions in climate change.

Barton’s critics like to paint him as blindly supportive of Big Oil and as anti-science. Exhibit A is a series of social media memes that mock him for suggesting that wind power can actually intensify global warming.

The most extreme version we found said Barton had claimed that "wind power would stop the Earth from rotating." That’s clearly not true, but it’s also not clear that this claim was meant to be taken seriously. Instead, we decided to check a less outrageous -- and more common -- meme mocking Barton.

A reader recently sent us a meme featuring a picture of Barton alongside the quotation, "Wind is a finite resource and harnessing it would slow the winds down which would cause the temperature to go up." The meme’s creator went on to comment, "The only thing more stupid than this idiot heading the House-Senate energy conf(erence) is Michelle Bachmann's stint on the House 'Intelligence' Committee!" (Michele Bachmann's name is misspelled.)

Ultimately, we concluded that Barton’s words were significantly altered.

What did Barton actually say?

As it turns out, the comments from the meme we’re checking stem from a congressional hearing held almost six years ago, on Feb. 26, 2009.

As part of a lengthy question-and-answer session, Barton pressed witnesses on some of the risks of shifting the nation’s energy portfolio from fossil fuels to renewable sources. In one exchange, Barton referred to a paper by Jay Apt, director of the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center and a professor of technology at the Tepper School of Business. In turn, Apt’s paper relied on research in an earlier paper by David W. Keith, currently a professor of applied physics and public policy at Harvard University.

Barton’s off-the-cuff comments are somewhat meandering, but the general gist of what he said was to raise questions about some of the downsides of using wind to generate electricity.

"I am going to read a paragraph which is, if true, very ironic. And this is from Dr. Apt’s paper, and I quote: ‘Wind energy is a finite resource. At large scale, slowing down the wind by using its energy to turn turbines has environmental consequences. A group of researchers at Princeton University … found that wind farms may change the mixing of air near the surface, drying the soil near the site. At planetary scales, David Keith, who was then at Carnegie Mellon, and coworkers found that if wind supplied 10 percent of expected global electricity demand in 2100 … the resulting change in the earth’s atmospheric energy might cause some regions of the world to experience temperature change of approximately 1 degree Centigrade.’ …

"Now, wind is God’s way of balancing heat. Wind is the way you shift heat from areas where it is hotter to areas where it is cooler. That is what wind is. Wouldn’t it be ironic if in the interest of global warming we mandated massive switches to energy, which is a finite resource, which slows the winds down, which causes the temperature to go up? Now, I am not saying that is going to happen, Mr. Chairman, but that is definitely something on the massive scale. I mean, it does make some sense. You stop something. You can’t transfer that heat and the heat goes up. It is just something to think about."

Reading the full text shows that the meme glossed over some important nuances, perhaps by relying on a brief summation published by Time magazine in 2010.

First, even though the meme used quotation marks to frame the comment as a single, unified quote, it’s actually a stitched-together mix of several snippets from Barton’s remarks.

Second, the meme ignores that when Barton said that "wind is a finite resource," he was explicitly quoting Apt’s paper, rather than saying that was his personal belief.

Third, the meme overlooks that when Barton supposedly said that harnessing the wind "would slow the winds down, which would cause the temperature to go up," he was actually asking the witness a question rather than stating his view.

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And fourth, the meme ignores that Barton said in the same exchange, "Now, I am not saying that is going to happen, Mr. Chairman." In other words, what he was doing was posing a scenario to be discussed further.

So, while Barton’s comments clearly show an openness to the ideas he addressed, the meme is off-base in suggesting that Barton was stating his own opinion.

For the record, Barton’s spokesman, Sean Brown, told PolitiFact that the congressman "believes in an all-of-the-above energy plan that includes wind and solar power but also doesn’t ignore traditional sources of energy like coal or natural gas."

Is there any credibility to the idea that wind energy might contribute to global warming?

So Barton didn’t say what the meme said he did. But what about the substance of the claim -- that wind turbines can exacerbate global warming?

The idea isn’t entirely out of left field, but it’s a lot more complicated than it seems on the surface.

Let’s start with what was known at the time Barton made his comment six years ago. The paper ultimately referenced by Barton -- the one that Keith coauthored -- found some intriguing interactions between wind turbines and climate, namely that "very large amounts of wind power" can produce changes to climate "at continental scales."

However, the authors leavened this assessment with a more optimistic note -- that such changes in climate disappear at the global level, and that, on balance, using wind power rather than fossil fuels reduces climate change, rather than exacerbating it.

Keith, who didn’t respond to an inquiry from PolitiFact, and his coauthors also emphasized that what negative impacts emerged from wind-turbine use could be eased, fairly economically, by better turbine design and placement.

Subsequent research has bolstered this conclusion.

A 2012 study that used satellite data for west-central Texas, published in Nature Climate Change and co-authored by Liming Zhou of the State University of New York at Albany, found a "significant warming trend" of up to 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit per decade over wind farms, compared to nearby regions that didn’t have wind farms. However, Zhou told the Daily Telegraph that the climatic changes from wind farms paled when compared to the impact of manmade global warming.

And Mark Z. Jacobson, a Stanford University professor of civil and environmental engineering, told PolitiFact that a 2012 paper he coauthored found that the impact of large arrays of wind turbines would be to cool climate -- not warm it. "That paper is the most detailed to date," Jacobson said.

Jacobson agreed that even installing enough wind-power capacity to power "half the world" would have "small" global impacts on climate, even though the impacts locally could be more significant. If you weigh the negatives of wind power against the negatives of fossil-fuel use, he added, "there is only a net benefit of switching to wind."

Our ruling

A social media meme says Barton once said, "Wind is a finite resource and harnessing it would slow the winds down which would cause the temperature to go up."

Barton raised that possibility while questioning a witness during a 2009 congressional hearing, but contrary to the meme’s implication, he did not say that it was his personal belief. Rather, the meme makes fun of Barton by stitching together parts of his comments in a way that is misleading.

The statement contains some element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression, so we rate it Mostly False.

Our Sources

Social media meme about Joe Barton, received by PolitiFact January 2015

Mark Z. Jacobson and Cristina L. Archer, "Saturation wind power potential and its implications for wind energy" (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), Sept. 25, 2012

Liming Zhou, et al., "Impacts of wind farms on land surface temperature" (Nature Climate Change), March 28, 2012

David W. Keith et al., "The influence of large-scale wind power on global climate" (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), Sept. 19, 2004

Jay Apt, Lester B. Lave, Sompop Pattanariyankool, "A National Renewable Portfolio Standard? Not Practical" (Issues in Science and Technology), Nov. 27, 2013

House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, "Renewable Energy: Complementary Policies for Climate Legislation" (transcript), Feb. 26, 2009

Time magazine, "Eight More Deep Thoughts from Rep. Joe Barton," June 18, 2010

The Telegraph (U.K.), "Wind farms can cause climate change, finds new study," April 29, 2012, message board comments, October 2013

Email interview with Mark Z. Jacobson, Stanford University professor of civil and environmental engineering, Jan. 13, 2015

Email interview with Sean Brown, spokesman for Joe Barton, Jan. 13, 2015

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Widely shared meme oversimplifies Joe Barton's 2009 comment on wind energy, climate change

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