House Science Committee majority plays out the politics of climate science denialism


capitol_domeAt a May 29 House Science Committee hearing on the IPCC’s “process”, climate science assessment was collateral damage in the Republican war on greenhouse gas regulatory policy. The scientists on the witness panel seemed like they had been summoned mainly to serve as supporting actors in a bad piece of political theater – one clearly aimed by the majority at attacking EPA’s new proposed rule on greenhouse gas emissions, due to be announced on June 2.

House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, hearing on “Examining the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Process” -- witness testimony and archived webcast here.

The Science Committee Republicans brought in three witnesses known as climate change ‘skeptics’ or contrarians of one stripe or another, and also as critics of the IPCC: Richard Tol, economist at the University of Sussex; Daniel Botkin, ecologist at the University of California – Santa Barbara; and Roger Pielke Sr., atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado.

Representing the mainstream world of climate science expertise, with its 97% consensus on the reality of human-caused global warming, was a single witness, Michael Oppenheimer, geoscientist at Princeton University. Oppenheimer did a good job overall at clarifying issues and countering misinformation arising from committee members and their colloquies with the witnesses.

A Science Committee Republican press release (Witnesses All Agree: Climate Science “Not Settled” -- IPCC, White House Climate Reports Driven by Politics Not Science) after the hearing made one misrepresentation after another and used the self-serving framing:  “A distinguished panel of experts involved in the IPCC and National Climate Assessment process unanimously stated that the science of climate change is ‘not settled,’ as the President and others often state unequivocally.”

Michael Oppenheimer calls this “total spin.” When they asked if the science is settled, both Oppenheimer and Tol said there were some key questions which could be considered settled -- are GHGs building up, are they warming Earth, is the warming due to human activity -- because almost all scientists agreed, and others where uncertainty remains.

The press release said: “The President and others often claim that 97 percent of scientists believe that global warming is primarily driven by human activity.  However, the study they cite has been debunked.” Well, no, that’s not true either. And there are multiple studies, all pointing to the same conclusion.

The Committee minority put out a hearing summary of their own, which included this:

It is notable that the witnesses recognized that humans play a major role in the world’s changing climate.  In response to questions from Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), Dr. Richard Tol verified a statement he made in a paper he previously authored. In that paper, Tol stated, “It is well-known that most papers and most authors in the climate literature support the hypothesis of anthropogenic climate change. It does not matter whether the exact number is 90% or 99.9%.”

Ranking Member Johnson said, “I hope that today’s hearing will be followed by a hearing at which scientists from the IPCC can actually present the findings of the Fifth Assessment, because those findings are quite sobering and important for us to hear.”

In addition to a politically orchestrated effort to call into question the legitimacy and reliability of the comprehensive IPCC climate science assessment, the recently-released 2014 National Climate Assessment also came in for some critical hits at the hearing – though the Committee did not deign to call as a witness any of the NCA leadership and author team. Nor has the Committee bothered to hold a hearing to inform themselves of the principal findings of the NCA. Too much of a potential eye-opener for the members, apparently.

In the ostensible guise of learning from experts in the science community, a hearing like this can best be seen as a theater of political positioning for the members. As was apparent from some of the questioning, even though their work on the Science Committee might be seen as one of their key responsibilities as elected officials, it is apparent that few of them have bothered to learn much of even the basics of climate science. And a congressional hearing, with each member asking only a few questions, is hardly the forum for bringing members very far up a learning curve.

Really, most of them have little if any authentic interest in the science, or in the specific points about the complex scientific assessment process made by the witnesses. They won’t retain much of it. Instead, their real aim is to be able to say that they have looked into the science and found the leading climate assessments to be lacking in credibility – even though they have not made an intellectually serious inquiry into the relevant issues.

The IPCC and the National Climate Assessment are extraordinary reports, prepared over several years by large groups of leading experts, that synthesize a massive amount of research across the full range of climate change issues. They are of great importance and should be taken as a state-of-the-art basis for public discourse on connecting climate science to policymaking. For those, like essentially all members of Congress, who are not climate science experts, the appropriate thing for them to do as public servants is to pay close attention to the widely-authored and well-vetted assessments prepared for them by credible experts, summarizing he preponderance of the evidence, as these reports do.

But opponents of U.S. action have no meaningful policy responses to the threat posed by climate change.  They therefore resort to the fallback position: attack the science and deny there is a problem. House Republicans have a political need to give themselves permission to reject and disregard the scientific assessments rather than to learn from them. And since the EPA draws on the body of evidence reviewed and synthesized in these assessments as a scientific basis for the need for rulemaking on limiting emissions of greenhouse gases – yes, here’s where the rubber meets the road – they give themselves permission to attack the EPA power plant rules on the basis that their scientific basis is of questionable legitimacy.

Maybe they should re-name it the Anti-Science Committee, given the way the Republican majority is using it to promote global warming denialism. But it’s not really about the science, one way or the other. It’s about the money. Members may attack the IPCC and the NCA, but they are just fronting for corporate and ideological interests that are opposed to regulation. They will claim that regulating greenhouse gases will wreck the economy, but that’s been the standard practice of the right-wing and corporate interests over the decades with every step forward in environmental protection. It’s always wrong, but it remains a necessary claim, because their position is intellectually bankrupt as far as having positive solutions to offer.

It looks like maybe Science Committee Republicans and their denialist chairman, Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, are falling behind the curve on how their partisan team plans to argue their case against regulation. Politico reported on May 29 (“Republicans on climate science: Don't ask us”):

Some leading conservatives have a new talking point on climate science: They’re not qualified to talk about it.

House Speaker John Boehner became the latest top Republican to try that tack Thursday, seeking to deflect an issue that has given Democrats an opening to brand the GOP as “anti-science.”

“Listen, I’m not qualified to debate the science over climate change,” Boehner told reporters when asked about the science behind climate change. “But I am astute to understand that every proposal that has come out of this administration to deal with climate change involves hurting our economy and killing American jobs.” …

But House Science Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) also dove into the issue at a hearing Thursday, arguing that the debate on climate science is “not settled.”

“The president says there is no debate,” Smith said. “Actually, the debate has just begun.” …

Attacking the research “looks less and less politically successful because you look like some kind of throwback,” said David Goldston, a former Republican chief of staff on the House Science Committee who is now director of government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “So that’s fallen off the charts.”

Goldston said skeptics are on the defensive.

“They’re going to try all sorts of economic arguments, where we think it’s easier and easier to prove that those arguments don’t hold any weight,” he said.

On this new tack, Emily Atkin at Climate Progress had this:

The tactic is an interesting (and seemingly effective) way for politicians to avoid acknowledging or denying the reality of climate change while still getting to fight against any regulation to stop it. But actual climate scientists say the tactic is irresponsible, dangerous, and ignores the fact that credible scientific information is readily available. …

“Personally, I don’t think it proper for any American to use that argument,” said Donald. J Wuebbles, a distinguished professor of atmospheric sciences and coordinating lead author for the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2013 assessment report.

Wuebbles, who was also a lead author on the recently released National Climate Assessment, said that report was written by scientists and other experts specifically so that members of Congress could understand climate change and how it affects the country. With that report available, he said, climate change should be “readily understood by any policymaker.”

“The assessment represents the latest understanding of the science and is the most comprehensive report ever prepared for the American people on climate change,” Wuebbles said. “The report itself was done for Congress under a law passed by Congress.”

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Earlier posts:

Shoot and a miss: Wall Street Journal op-ed attacks 97% climate consensus

2014 National Climate Assessment key findings, Part 1: Overview and Our Changing Climate

IPCC climate change Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability assessment poses urgent challenge for risk management

Outlier scientist seeks spotlight as new IPCC report outlines climate risks

IPCC Summary for Policymakers and some good commentary

The science behind EPA standards is clear

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One Response to House Science Committee majority plays out the politics of climate science denialism

  1. alchemist from bristol says:

    I wonder who is more credible? Members of the US House or members of the IPCC? ... The answer is: the IPCC! =) "What do the IPCC, 97 percent of the world’s top climate scientists, and every major National Academy of Science in the world have in common? They all agree the climate is changing because of human activities."

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