Science Policy & Funding News

Scientists, Legislators Take Off Their Gloves at Climate Hearing

Although scientists bickered about the science, all agreed that cutting federal funding for climate monitoring and associated research is not a good idea.

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The temperature rose at a congressional hearing about climate change on Wednesday during which witnesses and legislators argued not only about the science but also about the politicization of the issue.

The stated focus of the hearing by the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology was to look at climate science assumptions, policy implications, and the scientific method. However, the hearing, which at times devolved into accusations and name-calling, played out against a backdrop of the White House’s recent efforts to cut funding for climate-related science through a budget proposal and to roll back the Obama administration’s climate change initiatives in a sweeping executive order.

Bickering at the Hearing

Committee chair Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) opened the hearing by stating, “Before we impose costly government regulations, we should evaluate scientific uncertainties and ascertain the extent to which they make it difficult to quantify humans’ contribution to climate change.”  He added, “Much of climate science today appears to be based more on exaggerations, personal agendas, and questionable predictions than on the scientific method. Those who engage in such actions do a disservice to the American people and to their own profession.”

Democrats countered by issuing a report charging that the hearing is the latest example of efforts by the committee’s majority “to provide a forum for fringe science interests, climate change deniers, and oil and gas industry proxies to spread doubt and disinformation about climate science and the scientific process.”

Ranking member Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) said that the unwillingness of Republicans to accept the scientific consensus on climate change “has led them to harass scientists who disagree with them.”

At the outset of his testimony, Michael Mann, professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, who has been subject to lawsuits and congressional review, noted a broad agreement among scientists on the basic facts of human-caused climate change.

“There is a worthy debate to be had about the solutions to this problem. There is no longer a worthy debate to be had about whether the problem exists,” Mann said.

Criticisms of individual scientists can make them retreat from their research, he added. “The intention of these very public attacks on climate scientists,” he said, “is meant to send a chilling signal to the entire research community: ‘If you, too, publish and speak out about the threat of human-caused climate change, we’re coming after you, too.’”

Later, Mann told Eos that he believes the intent of the hearing is “to provide cover for these efforts to dismantle the funding for climate science and to justify [Rep. Smith’s] continued inquisition against climate scientists.”

He was the one witness invited by Democrats to testify at the hearing. Mann said the other three witnesses “either deny basic science or downplay its significance.”

Accusations of Stalinism and Power Politics

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), however, rebuked Mann for using in his written testimony the label of climate science denier against another witness, Judith Curry,  president and director of the Climate Forecast Applications Network, headquartered in Reno, Nev.

“For scientists on either side to try and call names and try and beat somebody into submission: that’s a Stalinistic tactic. Those using the word ‘denier’ are using a Stalinistic tactic,” he said.

Judith Curry, president of the Climate Forecast Applications Network and professor emeritus at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Judith Curry, president of the Climate Forecast Applications Network and professor emeritus at the Georgia Institute of Technology, testifies at the 29 March hearing. At right are Michael Mann, professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University, and Roger Pielke Jr., professor in the Environmental Studies Department at the University of Colorado. Credit: Randy Showstack

For her part, Curry, professor emeritus of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, said that the “war on science” that she is most concerned about is “the war from within science,” which she characterized as scientists and organizations “playing power politics with their expertise and passing off their naive notions of risk and political opinions as science.”

Curry testified that “the climate community has prematurely elevated a scientific hypothesis on human-caused climate change to a ruling theory through claims of consensus.” She said that among the greatest uncertainties are thermodynamic feedbacks related to clouds and water vapor and how the ocean transports heat and carbon.

Another witness, Roger Pielke Jr., who is a professor in the Environmental Studies Department at the University of Colorado Boulder, argued that there is “little scientific basis in support of claims that extreme weather events” such as hurricanes, floods, drought, and tornadoes and their associated economic damage have increased in recent decades because of the emission of greenhouse gases. Mann took issue with Pielke, however, saying that Pielke was using old data.

Bipartisan Truce Urged

Pielke, who has been targeted for his views on climate change and was the subject of an investigation by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), said that debates over science sometimes serve as “a proxy for debates about policy preferences or political orientation.” When members of Congress participate in those proxy debates, “it contributes to the pathological politicization of science,” he said.

The investigation of individual researchers, Pielke said, “is not an appropriate role for Congress,” and he called for an immediate “bipartisan truce” to end those types of inquiries, something that Mann also supported.

Shared Support for Observation Systems

Another point of agreement among the witnesses was their support for continued funding for climate-related observation systems.

“The most important thing to me is the observing systems that we have—ocean, atmosphere, and so on,” witness John Christy, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and Alabama state climatologist, told Eos after the hearing. “Keep those vital [and] resilient. Keep them going because it’s long time series that really gives us information about how the variations occur and gives us a hint as to why the variations occur.”

High Stakes Bring on the Heat

At the hearing, committee member Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) commented about the vitriol he had observed. “I was trying to think, why can’t we all just get along, and realized it’s because the stakes are so high” with the possibility of millions of people displaced by rising waters, for instance, “if the vast majority of scientists are correct about the human impact of global warming,” he remarked.

Christy noted to Eos that the economic stakes over climate change are also high. “When it comes down to regulating a gas that is vital and related to energy, then there’s going to be fights. I think those from states that produce the carbon and produce the electrons—Alabama is a net exporter of electrons—it touches peoples’ wallets, their livelihoods, and so on. That’s a bigger issue than the scientists can handle.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2017), Scientists, legislators take off their gloves at climate hearing, Eos, 98, https://doi.org/10.1029/2017EO070921. Published on 31 March 2017.
© 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0