What It's Like to Defend Science Before the House Science Committee

Tuesday's hearing was a show-trial against the Paris Agreement. Andrew Steer appeared for the defense.
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Tuesday's hearing was a show-trial against the Paris Agreement. Andrew Steer appeared for the defense.
(Illustration: David Vogin)

(Illustration: David Vogin)

It's a surreal transition to enter the halls of Congress so soon after the Paris climate talks, where the question was not over the reality of climate change, but rather how to stop it. As Dr. Andrew Steer, president and CEO of the World Resources Institute, says: "It's like being on a different..." he pauses before continuing. "I was going to say planet."

Steer, who adds he "doesn't mean to be disparaging," was speaking to me Tuesday on the heels of a hearing dedicated to the Paris climate talks, where he was the lone witness summoned to make the case that the United States will indeed benefit from the historic Paris Agreement forged in December—to say nothing of our fellow humans elsewhere on the planet, now and in the future.

Welcome to the House Science Committee's hearings on global climate talks, where the entire world gets one guy—albeit a very articulate, informed, polite guy—to testify on its behalf.

You'd be right to wonder why the committee even gets to hold a hearing on Paris climate talks, since international negotiation does not fall under its purview, and the hearing can have no practical effect whatsoever. Nonetheless, the committee, under its chairman, Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, has tried to frame the Paris Agreement as a document of dubious science: They managed to locate, and invite, a representative from the tiny cadre of scientists who insist that climate change is a myth. That representative was Dr. John Christy, a professor at the University of Alabama–Huntsville. The hearing was called: "Paris Climate Promise: A Bad Deal for America." Political theater has rarely been this pure.

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There's talk that Republicans might be evolving on climate change—that they might move past being the anti-science party and toward being the party that simply can't be bothered to do anything about it. But such evolutions weren't discernible on Tuesday. Indeed, Steer confided to me afterward that he was disappointed to see climate science repeatedly questioned, saying it actually marked a setback from the last time he'd been invited to testify, in December. "Interestingly, in the one in December there was very little questioning of climate science," he says.

"In fact, the tone [at the previous hearing] was very much, 'look if climate change is a problem why is President Obama going to Paris and delivering such a weak deal, shouldn't we have a stronger deal?'" he continues. "I actually found the one in December quite encouraging." Now that the deal is signed, though, the narrative has changed again. "I was quite surprised that we had a climate change scientist here," he says, "who is I'm sure also an honorable man, but clearly he's in a tiny minority of scientists."

Dr. Andrew Steer. (Photo: World Resources Institute)

Dr. Andrew Steer. (Photo: World Resources Institute)

But the committee's critique of the Paris Agreement didn't depend on Christy alone. We also heard testimony from a legal expert (on loan from the Heritage Foundation) who disputed the constitutionality of the agreement, and also a representative from the Chamber of Commerce to attack the deal's purported threat to business. Chairman Smith did his part too, offering some deeply misleading commentary about the deal.

And then, as a gesture to even-handedness, there was Steer, whose unspoken job it was to fend off the disinformation coming in from every direction: that the deal will "adversely affect our economy"; that it "lacks constitutional legitimacy"; that it will have "no significant impact on global temperatures"; that, "rightfully, Americans should be suspicious" because the deal is founded on "not good science and intentionally misleads the American people."

These were precisely the attacks put forward by Smith in his opening statement. And when the assembled witnesses finally were allowed to speak their minds Smith seemed particularly impatient for Steer to finish his bit, backhandedly complimenting Steer for his "perfectly timed" five-minute opening remarks (the subtext: Smith had been watching the clock). Smith would go on to ask zero questions of Steer the entire hearing, though he had plenty of questions for the ideological bedfellows he'd so conveniently assembled; they stood ready to tell anyone who would listen what a bad deal it would be for America to cooperate with the rest of the world in fighting climate change, and anyway climate change isn't even a problem.

"These guys have an incredible responsibility, and we as citizens need to remind them of that responsibility."

At one point, Smith asked his hand-picked scientist whether it was even true that 2015 was the hottest year on record, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has reported. The scientist's response was, predictably, no. (Last year, 2015, was either the second hottest or the fourth hottest year on record, depending how he counts, he says.)

Steer tried to correct the record on what precisely was meant by "legally binding" in the Paris deal and what wasn't, but mostly he made economic arguments meant to appeal to conservatives. He was careful to stress the widespread corporate commitments made by major companies in Paris. "The great thing about United States leadership," a typical talking point for Steer went, "is it's not just government. It's Apple, it's Walmart, Amazon, Kohls, Verizon. They've all made huge commitments. These are powerful institutions that are part of the partnership of change."

A typical rebuttal came from Representative Bill Posey, who suggested that we might as well pollute at home, and that the climate deal is just a ploy to crush the U.S. economy: "Unless you believe in the notion of a no-peeing section of a swimming pool, we still get the pollution," he said, adding: "Most of the world is in favor of us being less productive if it makes it more productive for them."

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After the hearing, when I asked Steer if he felt he was making a difference, he remained optimistic, insisting for the record that his hosts on the committee were just trying to do what they thought best for the country. "I think the congressmen here are doing what they believe is right," he says. "And I think they treated me with great respect today. I didn't feel like anyone was ganging up on me."

Unlike the Obama administration, which stopped trying to reason with Republicans on climate years ago, Steer seems to genuinely believe his arguments can move them, that if he can only summon the right words he might convince members even in the midst of such pageantry to awaken to realities of the lived world. And so, he's set about making himself the best possible messenger. "I try not to bring my opinion. I try to bring facts," he says, "which is not always easy quite frankly because there's so much opinion in the room that if one nuances things at all people will sort of pounce on it. I think I just told facts today, the truth."

But every so often, he'll try to inject a little emotion into his testimony as well. To explain why, he gestures over our heads at a Bible verse displayed on the brightly lit back wall of the committee's room in the Rayburn House Office Building. I've never noticed it before but it's clearly something he's studied: Where there is no vision, the people perish. "These guys believe that," he says. "These guys have an incredible responsibility, and we as citizens need to remind them of that responsibility."

Now if he could only get them to see what he sees.

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"Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change" is Pacific Standard’s aggressive, year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.

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