House Science Committee takes a step toward protecting honest climate science communication

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At its March 28 hearing on “Shaping the Message, Distorting the Science,” the House Science Investigation & Oversight Subcommittee considered testimony based on two reports—one, released March 27, that documents in detail how administration political officials have manipulated climate science communication, and the other a recent report that documents the global warming disinformation campaign funded by ExxonMobil. The witnesses who spoke about these reports made excellent recommendations designed to ensure the protection of federal climate scientists and undercut the disinformation campaign. 

A webcast of the hearing is archived on the subcommittee’s website.  It runs a bit less than two hours in length. The subcommittee heard from a panel of four witnesses.

Prof. James McCarthy of Harvard is President-elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and co-chair of the 2001 IPCC Working Group II scientific assessment of climate change impacts.  He is also a board member of Union of Concerned Scientists, one of our best allies.  Dr. McCarthy’s focus at this hearing was on discussing the findings and recommendations of the UCS report released in January 2007, Smoke, Mirrors and Hot Air: How ExxonMobil Uses Big Tobacco’s Tactics to Manufacture Uncertainty on Climate Science.  Dr. McCarthy said in his testimony:

It is now clear that for a number of years, both Bush administration political appointees and a network of organizations funded by the world’s largest private energy company, ExxonMobil, have sought to distort, manipulate and suppress climate science, so as to confuse the American public about the reality and urgency of the global warming problem, and thus forestall a strong policy response.

Unfortunately, these efforts have misled many individuals, including elected officials, to believe that the human influences on climate change are either negligible or of little consequence.  The science, however, leaves no doubt that human induced climate change is of enormous potential consequence, and clearly one of the most urgent issues of our times.

Sheldon Rampton of SourceWatch, a project of the nonprofit Center for Media and Democracy, said in his testimony:

A few years ago, the New York Times obtained some leaked documents from the American Petroleum Institute, in which the Institute detailed its plans to spend $600,000 to develop a team of pro-industry climate scientists who would dispute the link between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. They planned to, in their words, “identify, recruit and train a team of five independent scientists to participate in media outreach.” Somehow the authors of this plan never bothered to ask themselves how a scientist who has been specifically recruited and trained by the petroleum industry could be honestly described as “independent.”

Tarek Maasarani, attorney and investigator with the Government Accountability Project, testified about GAP’s new, in-depth investigative report, which he authored.  The report, Redacting the Science of Climate Change, documents a multifaceted pattern of political interference by administration officials with climate science communication. (We will have a good deal more to say about the report in subsequent posts.)  Maassarani said:

My report demonstrates how policies and practices have increasingly restricted the flow of scientific information emerging from publicly-funded climate change research.  This has affected the media’s ability to report on the science, public officials’ capacity to respond with appropriate policies, and the public’s grasp of an environmental issue with profound consequences for our future.
The investigation found no incidents of direct interference with conducting climate change research.  Instead, unduly restrictive policies and practices were found that affected the communication of “sensitive” scientific information to the media, the public, and Congress.  In this context, the term “sensitive scientific information” is meant to signify science that is seen as leading to conclusions that call into question existing policy positions or objectives and includes, for example, some of the research dealing with the effects of climate change or greenhouse gases on hurricanes, sea levels, ice sheets, glaciers, marine life, polar bears, the water supply, and human society.

The fourth witness to testify was Jeff Kueter, President of the Marshall Institute, one of the most active and visible industry-funded global warming contrarian/denialist policy groups inside the Beltway.  Though the Marshall Institute presents itself as something of a think tank, its guest-speaker luncheons, such as one a few months ago at the Republican Capitol Hill Club featuring hurricane forecaster William Gray, are notable for their consistent one-sidedness.

It’s good to see this newly-established subcommittee getting into the action.  We are hopeful that it will begin to do some much-needed investigative and oversight work that has been badly shortchanged in recent years. Chairman Brad Miller, a third-term member from North Carolina, appears to have the potential to do some worthwhile work through the subcommittee. 

Jim McCarthy was a solid witness who outlined the research documenting the industry-funded contrarian/denialist campaign and made clear statements about the need for action to counteract and defeat (his word) it.  It’s good to see him playing a citizen-scientist role, speaking as a leading scientist but going beyond science education per se to also engage with an essential problem on the interface of science with policymaking and public discourse.  It is this very interface on which we find the greatest political impediments to the freedom and integrity of communication about climate change. You should read his testimony, and the related UCS report. Tarek Massarani of GAP did well in his first opportunity to testify before Congress.  McCarthy and Maassarani, in their written testimony and with some reasonably decent questioning from a couple of the members, were able to put some essential material in the record and pointed the way to how the Science Commitee can begin to carry out a meaningful oversight and reform agenda to deal with this problem. 

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