At House hearing, prominent scientists reaffirm climate science’s broad knowledge, urgency to act


We attended a May 6 hearing at which the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming heard from a panel of scientists and one policy adviser on the scientific foundations of climate change, in light of continued attacks on the integrity of climate science and scientists. The witnesses were IPCC authors James McCarthy, Chris Field, and James Hurrell, ‘Oxburgh inquiry’ panel member Lisa Graumlich, and ‘Lord’ Christopher Monckton, 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley.

Post by Alexa Jay

Links to written testimony and an archived webcast video of the hearing are posted on the Committee’s website here.

Chairman Edward Markey (D-Mass.) explained the impetus for the hearing, saying that instead of trying to understand the scientific evidence, those who deny the existence of human-caused global warming have misused stolen e-mails and have cherry-picked data to manufacture a cooling trend, seeking to create the appearance of a ongoing fundamental scientific debate.  The scientist witnesses were called to address the claims of the denialists, including one witness who was a member of the “Oxburgh Inquiry” panel convened by the University of East Anglia to examine the scientific integrity of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) work in question in the ‘climategate’ controversy.

Chairman Markey has continued to show leadership in standing up for the integrity of climate science and demanding accountability from those who deny it (see here).
The following scientists testified:   

Dr. Lisa Graumlich, Director, School of Natural Resources and the Environment, University of Arizona, and member of the “Oxburgh Inquiry” panel

Dr. Chris Field, Director, Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution of Washington, and co-chair of the “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” volume of the new IPCC assessment report due in 2014

Dr. James McCarthy, Professor of Biological Oceanography, Harvard University, past President and Chair of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and co-chair of the “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” volume of the IPCC assessment report published in 2001

Dr. James Hurrell, Senior Scientist, National Center for Atmospheric Research and contributor to IPCC reports

The Republican witness was Lord Christopher Walter Monckton, Chief Policy Adviser at the Science and Public Policy Institute and a regular on the global warming denialist circuit. He does not have any scientific background.  Pete Altman at the Natural Resources Defense Council has put together a collection of Monckton’s claims to fame, such as they are (see here):

Also, see a previous Climate Science Watch post on Monckton (here).

With reliable hypocrisy, ranking member Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) accused the majority of politicizing the science of climate change, declaring that “debate on the accuracy of climate science is good for science; proclamations that the science is settled is just politics.”  Rather, it is the assertion that the scientific consensus has been called into question by the ‘climategate’ e-mails and IPCC report errors that represents pure political posturing.  This is nothing new for Rep. Sensenbrenner, who at an earlier hearing of this committee accused climate scientists of “fascism” and “fraud” (see here).

Dr. James Hurrell, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said that advances in science have made it clear that the observed changes in the climate are beyond the range of natural variation.  He said that uncertainties do remain, especially regarding how climate will change at regional and local scales.  “Regional differences arise from natural variability, and these can be significant from year to year or decade to decade,” Dr. Hurrell said.  However, he said that the use of local, short-term data points to show a cooling trend while ignoring the long-term warming trend is misleading.  This technique has been used repeatedly to claim falsely that the globe has actually cooled over the past decade. 

Dr. James McCarthy, a professor of biological oceanography at Harvard University, addressed the impact of the changing climate on the world’s oceans.  We now know that more than 90% of the heat trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gases is being stored in the ocean, he said, which contributes to sea level rise as warmer water expands.  “In 2001, the IPCC report estimated that sea level rise over the coming century would be relatively modest at 12-24 inches, but it was also not known how fast the ice would melt.  IPCC substantially underestimated the rising sea level.  We now know how rapidly Greenland and Antarctica are changing, and the best estimates are between 2.5-3 feet by the end of the century,” Dr. McCarthy said.

Dr. McCarthy recently co-authored an editorial with Tim Wirth urging President Obama to speak directly to the American public about climate change and the urgency to act.

Monckton clarified that he was testifying as a policymaker and not a scientist, and that his role as such is “to know what questions to ask of scientists.”  Changing his tune from earlier presentations where he has argued that global warming ceased in 2001, Monckton asserted that there have in fact been three periods of rapid warming in the last 150 years, and the most recent period (1970-2010) can be explained by the phenomenon of global brightening.  He cited a single paper by Dr. Claire Pinker as proof that recent warming should not be attributed to anthropogenic emissions. 

“One should be very careful before spending money on cap and trade; the correct policy is to have the courage to do nothing.  You have many other problems to address, I would suggest you address those,” Monckton concluded.

Dr. Chris Field, an ecologist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington and co-chair of the “Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability” chapter of the forthcoming IPCC report, discussed physical and biological indicators that allow scientists to infer that climate change is happening.  Out of 29,436 independent temperature indicators extending back at least 20 years examined, 94% of trends in physical systems (e.g. glaciers) and 90% of trends in biological systems (i.e. budburst) were consistent with a rapidly warming climate, Dr. Field said. 

He identified three changes in biological systems that have profound impacts on human systems: snowpack in the American West has been affected by both decreased snowfall and increased melting; wildfire in mountain states has increased in response to higher temperatures; and the 67% increase in heavy precipitation events in the Northeast over the last 5 years.

Dr. Field said that the overall changes in the system are increasing the likelihood of damaging weather events like extreme precipitation.  “We don’t know precisely what the future will look like,” he said.  “But we have a very clear picture of the risk elements that are being influenced by changes people are causing in the system…You could get into a car with a bald tire and not say with certainty that you will have an accident, but you could say that there is an unacceptable level of risk.  We have now pushed the system to a point where it has four bald tires and a flashing check engine light.” 

Dr. Lisa Graumlich, Director of the School of Natural Resources and the Environment, University of Arizona, and a member of the Oxburgh Inquiry panel, reaffirmed that the panel found no evidence of deliberate scientific malpractice in any of the CRU research.

Rep. Sensenbrenner pressed Dr. Graumlich on her professional relationship with the scientists criticized based on the “climategate” emails, on whether her work relied on information or data from the CRU, and what he characterized as Lord Oxburgh’s financial interest in anti-global warming policy, pronouncing that “this could not be an objective review.” 

Reps. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) and Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) both took committee Republicans to task for their choice of a witness.  “I find it a little embarrassing and sad that the minority’s witness is a journalist with no scientific training who has not presented evidence about the essence of what [the scientists present] are talking about,” Rep. Blumenauer said.  Inslee cited a NOAA review of Lord Monckton’s testimony that found his claims to be a “gross mischaracterization of a larger trend.”  (Lord Monckton objected that he was not provided with a copy of the review prior to the hearing.)

Inslee also had Monckton clarify for the record that despite his introduction as a “Lord,” he is, in fact, not a member of the House of Lords and has never taken a seat in the British Parliament.  Inslee might also have noted that, despite Monckton’s assertion that he has the “status of a Nobel Prize laureate,” this claim has no basis in reality. 

Monckton defended the minority’s choice of him as a witness, saying that his “thick skin” and “political experience” made him more suited than a scientist to be subjected to such a hearing, and that he was happy to do so to allow the “thousands” of skeptical scientists to continue with their work. 

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