The House Science Committee’s Shameful Climate Sideshow

March 29, 2017 | 4:02 pm
Peter Frumhoff
Former Director of Science and Policy and Chief Climate Scientist

There are a lot of ways one can imagine, in principle, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology holding a constructive, timely hearing on the state of climate science and its implications for our nation’s climate and energy policies.

Such a hearing could, for example, examine the impacts of the Trump administration’s proposed deep cuts in federal climate research budgets on our nation’s ability to monitor and forecast the trajectory of our changing climate and protect public health and safety from increasing extreme weather and rising seas.

It could assess federal research priorities to inform and motivate public and private sector investments in clean energy innovation essential to support US competitiveness in the emerging global low-carbon economy.

Or perhaps the committee could provide our nation’s top scientists with a valuable platform to give the American public a clear-eyed briefing on the causes, consequences, and solutions to climate change, and the urgency of action, as informed by assessments by the US National Academy of Sciences and virtually every leading scientific society.


The science hearing equivalent of a World Wrestling Entertainment match

Under the misguided chairmanship of serial climate science denier Lamar Smith (R-TX), the House Science Committee we have is, sadly, not the House Science Committee we need.

On the heels of President Trump’s Executive Order aimed at gutting federal climate policies, the committee held a hearing today—mistitled as “Climate Science: Assumptions, Policy Implications, and the Scientific Method”—that presented a tired sideshow of familiar actors on the climate denial stage going through their well-rehearsed paces—the science hearing equivalent of a World Wrestling Entertainment match.

Invited to testify by the Republican majority were John Christy (University of Alabama, Huntsville), Judith Curry (emeritus, Georgia Institute of Technology), and Roger Pielke Jr (University of Colorado), who  played their familiar contrarian roles, predictably.

Only Michael Mann (Penn State University), invited to testify by the Democratic minority, accurately characterized the state of climate science as reflected by the true (and vast) majority of climate scientists.

If you really have nothing better to do, you can watch the hearing here.

Just another shameful production

We’ve seen many versions of this sideshow before. From hearings and subpoenas promoting false accusations of climate data tampering by NOAA scientists to aggressive campaigns to chill work that the Union of Concerned Scientists and others have done to brief state attorneys general on ExxonMobil’s extensive history of climate science disinformation, the House Science Committee under Chairman Smith’s leadership has long engaged in political theater to sow doubt about the reality and risks of climate change.

Today’s hearing was just another shameful production.

The strategy is clear. Writing in the Washington Post, climate scientist and retired rear admiral for the Navy David W. Titley notes that “these hearings have been designed not to provide new information or different perspectives to members of Congress but, rather, to perpetuate the myth that there is a substantive and serious debate within the science community regarding the fundamental causes or existence of human-caused climate change.”

Widely respected climate change experts share their views on the hearing

To provide some additional mainstream perspective, I asked several widely respected climate change experts to share their views.

Weighing in just before the hearing, prominent climate scientist and MIT professor Kerry Emanuel wrote that “the composition of this group is designed to reinforce the existing misapprehension among US citizens that climate scientists are divided on the question of climate change risk. This misapprehension is the largest obstacle to concrete actions to reduce the risk to our descendants and to ensure US economic leadership in the transformation of the $6 trillion global energy market to clean power sources. Lamar Smith and other radical Republicans evidently wish to prolong this misapprehension as long as possible, presumably to appease fossil fuel interests.”

Upon watching the hearing, environmental sociologist Robert Brulle of Drexel University, wrote:

“The House hearing on climate change today took its expected trajectory….Following the long-term strategy developed by the tobacco interests with their motto that “Doubt is our Product,” the witnesses, with the exception of Michael Mann, attempted to create the mistaken impression that climate science is uncertain. This is a well-known political strategy to attempt to defer taking action on climate change.”

Michael MacCracken, chief scientist for climate change programs at the Climate Institute, highlighted misleading testimony:

“[John] Christy complains about how atmospheric models are representing …the effects of changing atmospheric composition on climate. But the computer algorithms used to estimate tropospheric temperature from the atmospheric radiation reaching his satellite instrument are exactly the same that are used in the global climate models. The inconsistencies he has found….have been the result of his failure to properly correct for changes in the orbital height of the satellite, its time of passage, and so on.”

And as my UCS senior climate scientist colleague Juliet Christian-Smith points out, legitimate scientific uncertainty about climate risks is no excuse for inaction:

“In California, we build every building to withstand violent seismic forces despite the fact that we don’t know where or how strong the next earthquake will be. That’s because we understand the serious risks of doing nothing. Climate science is much better at modeling how the climate is changing than seismology is at predicting when and where the next earthquake will take place. And yet, climate science is under attack.”

These efforts to misconstrue science and evidence for partisan purposes must be called out and rejected

Hearings designed to promote faux climate science debate get picked up and amplified in the partisan media echo chamber. And, as recent research shows, partisan media profiling of climate doubt-mongering plays a powerful role in reinforcing and strengthening opposition to climate action among some Republicans. It’s hardly surprising, then, that a hearing designed to fire up distrust of climate science is timed to align with President Trump’s Executive Order to roll back climate regulations.

Climate science, like all science that informs policy, is inherently political. But the scientific consensus on climate change is not partisan and these egregious efforts to misconstrue science and evidence for partisan purposes must be called out and rejected by the mainstream media and by Americans across the political spectrum for the distracting and dangerous sideshow that they are.