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The House Science Committee Once Again Flouts Science

At a surreal committee meeting on Wednesday, members advanced conspiracy theories, and Michael Mann was the lone voice on behalf of actual science.
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February of 2017 was the second-warmest February on record for Earth. (Image: NASA)

February of 2017 was the second-warmest February on record for Earth. (Image: NASA)

During a hearing on Wednesday at the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Republicans sought to challenge the most basic facts that have been driving global climate policy for the past 20 years. Among other things, one GOP member of the committee actually suggested that global warming might make sea levels drop. In response, Representative Paul Tonko, a Democrat from New York, said, “Climate denial stands as a main pillar in the pantheon of political manipulation.”

The comment came Wednesday as the committee held a hearing on “assumptions, policy implications, and the scientific method,” stacked with three witnesses well outside the scientific mainstream, versus Michael Mann, a prominent climate scientist and public advocate for climate action. Under the leadership of Texas Republican Lamar Smith, the committee has become known for harassing climate scientists and challenging government science agencies under the guise of oversight. In some ways, the hearing was simply the continuation of a long-running bit of political theater that might be funny if it weren’t a matter of life and death for millions of people around the world who are already feeling the effects of climate change.

But there’s a lot more at stake, now that President Donald Trump is seeking to roll back the previous administration’s modest goals for limiting greenhouse emissions. Wednesday’s questioning by the Republican majority members — and the answers from hand-picked witnesses — was clear scientific malpractice, meant to prevent any new additional meaningful climate policy action. Their statements will provide plenty of soundbites for climate-science denying media outlets like Breitbart that will pick up on the talking points, including:

  • The “strawberry fields” approach, where nothing is real, according to John Christy of the University of Alabama–Huntsville, who told the committee: “There is no clear certainty as to what the climate might do in the future…. Good old Mother Nature can cause such temperature trends on their own without greenhouse gases.” Christy’s statement, of course, flies in the face of thousands of studies showing that greenhouse gas emissions are the single main force that have warmed the Earth by about 1.5 degrees Celsius since 1900.
  • The “now you see it, now you don’t” tactic favored by climate researcher Judith Curry, who tried to convince the panel that the international scientific consensus on climate change is really an exercise in group-think. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change positions, she claimed, were achieved by political “bullying,” adding that we don’t know enough about long-term natural climate and ocean cycles to be able to say that global warming is going to melt most of the world’s ice, or that ocean acidification is harming corals and shellfish. As is traditional in GOP arguments against climate action, Curry also tried to reinforce a false message of uncertainty. “However, we do not know how much humans have contributed to this warming and there is disagreement among scientists as to whether human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases is the dominant cause of recent warming, relative to natural causes.”
  • The “I’m a poor victim of bullying” card was played by Roger Pielke Jr., who is actually not a climate scientist. Pielke claims, based on financial statistics, that there’s no proof that extreme weather is causing more damage. That argument isn’t only refuted by real climate scientists who study such things, but by insurance actuaries who have to pay out when floods destroy hundreds of homes, or when crops wither during ever-intensifying droughts. This is a curious position for Pielke to advocate before Congress, especially in an age when hundreds of millions of lives could be affected by American policy decisions. (To his credit, Pielke does acknowledge that the climate is changing and that humanity probably shouldn’t wait for a final scientific verdict before taking action.)
  • Since it was a three-on-one situation, Mann had to play defense, pointing out that nearly every credible climate scientist in the world, along with all major scientific organizations, are in “broad agreement on the basic facts that climate change is real, caused by humans and having impacts on the planet.” Mann also warned against privileging ideology over science: At the hearing, he invoked the story of Russian pseudo-scientist Trofim Lysenko, who, during the Stalin era, developed outlandish theories of genetics and agriculture based on ideology to advance Soviet social and political aims. The result set Russian agriculture back by decades and contributed to widespread starvation in the Soviet Union. If the United States adopts ideologically based policies instead of relying on sound science there could be similar consequences on a global scale, Mann suggested.