Climate scientists tell House committee: We know the risk, now it’s up to policymakers to act


The House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming held a hearing on May 20 to examine the intersection between climate science and the political process.  Ralph Cicerone, Mario Molina, Stephen Schneider, Ben Santer, and William Happer testified.  The committee also heard testimony about the recent rise in vitriolic attacks on climate science and scientists.  The Republican members made opening statements that attacked some more, then walked out on the hearing without even listening to the testimony, or asking a single question.  See Details for our report from the hearing.

Post by Alexa Jay and Rick Piltz

The following witnesses testified:

Dr. Ralph Cicerone, President of the National Academy of Sciences and Chair of the National Research Council
Dr. Mario Molina, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry and Professor, University of California at San Diego
Dr. Stephen Schneider, Professor, Stanford University
Dr. Ben Santer, Research Scientist, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Dr. William Happer, Professor, Princeton University

Written testimony from the witnesses and Chairman Markey’s opening statement available here.

Chairman Edward Markey (D-MA) set the tone by again reinforcing the conclusion, further supported by the release of three National Academy of Sciences reports on Wednesday, that the foundation of climate science remains unshaken despite the manufactured scandal over stolen e-mails.  He challenged the validity of Virginia Attorney General Cuccinelli’s demand for materials relating to possible fraud charges against climate scientist Michael Mann, saying that Cuccinelli had not even asked for information on all of the collaborators in Mann’s grants, as he would have done if this were a true fraud investigation conducted in good faith.  Instead, Markey characterized the demand as a “fishing expedition,” part of a larger political attempt to discredit climate science and climate scientists using trumped up allegations. (See earlier CSW posts here and here.)

On the minority side, Ranking Member James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) complained about the critical treatment of Viscount Christopher Monckton at a recent hearing held by the committee, and resurrected the “climategate” controversy by reading selected excerpts from some of the stolen e-mails.

Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) broadly accused climate scientists of doctoring their research to obtain results that would guarantee further funding and to “manipulate lawmakers.”  She did not offer any evidence to back up these statements, and left shortly afterward. 

Dr. Cicerone reviewed significant components of the observational climate record, including several recent developments in the advance of scientific understanding. He said the most striking feature of the data is the rising temperature all over the world since the 1970’s.  “It’s a global warming,” he said.  Scientists are now better able to measure the thickness of Arctic sea ice, which is more difficult to obtain than the horizontal extent, Cicerone said.  Using recently declassified US Navy satellite data, we have determined that the thickness of Arctic sea ice has decreased by more than 50% in the last 50 years, he said.  We can also explain the rate of sea level rise (3.2 mm/year) much better than we could ten years ago, Cicerone said, attributing the rise to the warming of seawater and the loss of ice from Greenland, Antarctica, the Arctic, and continental glaciers. Despite all efforts over the past 30 years, there is no alternative explanation for these observations than greenhouse gases.

Dr. Molina noted that, in spite of attacks based on e-mails and IPCC errors, several groups of scientists have stated that the fundamental climate science findings are sound.  He cited in particular the recent statement by 255 members of the National Academy of Sciences.  (See earlier CSW post here.)

Dr. Molina addressed what he characterized as a “gross misunderstanding” by climate change denialists: the belief that the scientific evidence on human-caused climate change behaves like a house of cards, and can be toppled on the basis of a single study.  This is not how the science of complex systems works, Molina said; it is more like a jigsaw puzzle in that, even if a piece or two is missing or in the wrong place, the overall picture remains clear.

This is a key point that gets to the heart of denialist claims of “debunking” climate science on the basis of the stolen East Anglia CRU e-mails or minor errors in the IPCC report.  As Molina said, these claims represent a fundamental distortion of the nature of scientific research.  They attempt to dismiss the scientific foundations of climate change out of hand and avoid engagement with implications that they find politically unpalatable.  (As if on cue, Ranking Member Sensenbrenner exited the hearing room during Molina’s testimony; no other Republican committee member remained.  In all fairness, Representatives Blackburn and Sensenbrenner may well have had other commitments.  But neither of their opening statements indicated any desire to engage the expert witnesses in a substantive discussion of the science and perhaps ask for answers on their doubts about the evidence for anthropogenic climate change.  Instead, each came to the microphone to make their statements smearing climate scientists, and exited stage left.)

Engaging the committee members as a citizen-scientist, Dr. Molina said:  “Speaking as an individual, not as a scientist, if there is even a 50% chance that the changes observed in the past 50 years are due to human activity, we should take the necessary steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” He estimated the likelihood of reaching a disastrous climatic “tipping point” at perhaps 20%, and said: “We have only one planet and shouldn’t be playing Russian roulette with it.”

Dr. Santer discussed his work in climate fingerprinting and the attribution of climate change to human forcing.  The underlying assumption in climate fingerprinting, he said, is that each different influence on climate, whether natural or related to greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activities, has a unique, distinct “fingerprint” in climate records.  Observed patterns of climate change are compared with simulations that model the effects of these influences on the climate.  Santer was the lead author of the “Detection of Climate Change, and Attribution of Causes” chapter of the 1995 IPCC Second Assessment Report (SAR), which detailed evidence from fingerprinting studies supporting the IPCC’s then landmark conclusion that “the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.”

Since the SAR was conducted, Santer said that fingerprint studies have been performed with many different components of the climate system, and it is evident that the observational record cannot be explained without human forcing.

After the release of the SAR, Santer was publicly accused of “scientific cleansing” and political tampering with data.  Specifically, he was accused of tampering with the conclusions in the detection and attribution chapter to “reflect the wording of the political summary.”  These allegations were proven to be baseless; for more detail see Santer’s post on RealClimate, “Close encounters of the absurd kind.” 

Santer commented on the ongoing harassment he has experienced since the publication of the SAR.  “I firmly believe that I would now be leading a different life if my research suggested that there was no human effect on climate.  I would not be the subject of Congressional inquiries, Freedom of Information Act requests or e-mail threats.  I would not need to be concerned about the safety of my family.”

He said climate change decision-making should be based on the compelling findings of climate science, “not on wishful thinking and a well-funded disinformation campaign….We can no longer pretend we don’t know what’s happening.”

Dr. Schneider commented most directly on the relationship between climate science and the risk management aspects of policymaking.  He said that for a long time, it was well established that it was the job of scientists to characterize risk, and that of policymakers to determine what to do about it.

“And this water gets muddied…and then what happens is it becomes a political story, and the risk part and the risk management part get lost in the middle and the public is confused.  Unfortunately, that’s the state we’re in now,” Schneider said. 

Faced with a preponderance of evidence and lacking an alternative explanation for the observed changes in the climate, the fiercest opponents of emissions mitigation have turned to impugning the integrity of those conducting the research.  It is far easier to hide behind an accusation that climate scientists are deliberately distorting their data for political reasons than to engage with characterizations of risk that have politically unpalatable implications. 

Dr. Happer, the Republicans’ choice as witness, said it is his “educated guess” that a doubling of CO2 from pre-industrial levels will produce less than 1 degree Celsius of warming.  He attributed this conclusion to his belief that water vapor may actually diminish the warming impact of CO2, rather than amplify it as is commonly accepted.  Happer also said that “more CO2 would be good for the Earth,” and that life had flourished on Earth in past geologic ages when CO2 levels were much higher. 

Asked to respond, Santer expressed disagreement with Happer’s testimony that “the effect of water vapor and clouds is close to zero.  There is clear evidence of increased water vapor since 1988.  It is a greenhouse gas, we expect it to amplify warming, and that is what we are seeing…The observational evidence for Happer’s statement is just not there,” Santer said.

Molina disagreed very strongly with Happer’s comments. He said the planet has survived radical climatic variation over millions of years – even a period when there was no oxygen in the atmosphere – but that we don’t want to subject human civilization to the extremes of past geologic ages. Cicerone also disagreed with Happer, and noted that changes that happened in the past on very long timescales are happening much more rapidly now.

Cicerone said:  “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.  The burden of proof is on those who disagree with the very strong theory and observations” of climate science.

Happer agreed that his views are distinctly in the minority, but said that sometimes the minority is correct.  Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) asked: “But as policymakers, shouldn’t we be taking our advice from the preponderance of the leading scientists, who are pointing to something with potentially cataclysmic consequences?” 

Happer said the climate science community should be seen as analogous to the US temperance movement (i.e., the alcohol Prohibition movement that succeeded for a time early in the 20th century) – “well-meaning but wrong.” 

Representative Inslee (D-WA) asked the scientists to respond to the statement: “This is the largest experiment in the history of planet Earth, and we are the guinea pigs.”

Santer emphasized the rapidity with which changes are happening now.  “We don’t know how this will turn out,” he said

Human civilization as we know it has evolved over the past ten thousand years in a stable climate conducive to agriculture.  (For more on climate and the development of civilization, see here.)  The witnesses did not directly discuss the effects of abrupt climatic changes on human systems, but the unprecedented speed of the changes taking place and the potential impacts on societal infrastructure and well-being pose a major concern for policymakers.  One major uncertainty with implications for risk management decisions is if and how well human systems can adapt to such rapid climatic changes.  What is clear is that climate scientists understand the elements of risk humans have introduced into the climate system. Policymakers have tools needed to address the risks. It remains to be seen whether they can overcome the political obstacles that thus far have prevented effective climate change policymaking.

Near the end of the hearing, Chairman Markey asked Santer and Schneider to discuss how they have been harassed and how it has affected them and their work.

Santer gave a few examples. He talked about anonymous hate mail and other threats. He noted one incident in which, answering a knock on the door of his home late one night, he found a dead rat on his doorstep and saw a yellow Hummer speeding off with the driver yelling curses. Without going into certain specifics, he said he has come to feel that loved ones are in harm’s way.

“I think there are powerful forces of unreason out there,” Santer said. They are trying to create “scientific ‘no go’ zones.  They are saying, in effect, if you do research in that area and we don’t like your conclusions, we’ll come down on you like a ton of bricks.”

Schneider also talked about hate mail. He gets messages that say things like “you communist … you traitor, you should be hung.”  He said there has been a real loss of civil dialogue, with global warming deniers (which he defined as people who do not admit the preponderance of evidence, i.e., the evidence in reports such as those by the National Academy of Sciences and the IPCC) coming to meetings just to yell and shout. By and large, this has not happened before, he said. It has now gotten to the point that things have become accusatory and highly ideological.

Cicerone said he worries about the current atmosphere of intimidation in terms of its effect on young scientists, i.e., their concerns about what they might be subjected to.

Chairman Markey concluded the hearing by noting that a resolution by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) “to overturn the EPA endangerment finding” may soon be debated on the Senate floor.  “We’re witnessing the same kind of denial that we saw during the Scopes trial [in the 1920’s] on the teaching of evolution, when religion was given too much influence.  Now it’s the religion of fossil fuels,” he said.

“We’re about to have that same debate again in the US Congress, unbelievable as it may seem.”

See earlier CSW posts:

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

Markey presses coal CEOs on climate change denialism, future of the industry in a low carbon economy

Stephen Schneider: Climate Denier Gate a case of Science as a Contact Sport

Ben Santer: Open letter to the climate science community

Rep. Sensenbrenner projects “fascism” and “fraud” onto scientists, is rebutted at hearing

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