My Education in Climate-Denial Jujitsu

Maryam Zaringhalam, , UCS | August 15, 2016, 9:25 am EST
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“If we aren’t going to listen to the experts when we craft our bills, I’m really not sure what we’re doing here,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) as I took my seat in the chambers of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology on Thursday, July 7th. I wasn’t surprised to hear her say it. The Republican-dominated Committee has long been hostile to expert opinion—particularly on mainstream climate science—to the frustration of the minority Democrats.

But in this case the Committee was discussing bills that would actually support research into solar energy and electricity storage—research that runs counter to the big oil interests that support many Congressional seats. Curiously, both bills were sponsored by Committee Chairman, Chief Climate Denier, and Big Oil beneficiary Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). And even more curiously, the Committee’s Democrats were mad about it.

What was going on? Climate change is a notoriously partisan issue. But here Republicans were supporting clean energy research, while Democrats were countering with allusions to expert opinions. The exact opposite picture from what I’d expected.

Now, I’ll admit I walked into the meeting late with only ten minutes left to go. But Johnson’s biting words resounded in my mind. So when I got home after a long drive back from D.C. to New York, I watched the video from the session.

Representative Lamar Smith, Chair of the House Science Committee, has issued subpoenas to several state attorneys general and nonprofits, including the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Representative Lamar Smith, Chair of the House Science Committee, has issued subpoenas to several state attorneys general and nonprofits, including the Union of Concerned Scientists.

As it turned out, Smith and company were deploying a textbook example of doublespeak. As written, the bill would specifically benefit basic research—that exploratory, curiosity-driven branch of research conducted without any concrete application in mind. On first blush, this sounds great. Scientists have long advocated for more governmental support for this branch of research, which is often deemed a frivolous waste of taxpayer dollars.

But research aimed at clean energy innovations lies in limbo between basic and applied research. To restrict support to basic research muddies the seemingly pure intentions of the bills and needlessly complicates their enactment. A distinction between the two does not exist. This is precisely what Johnson’s experts were arguing.

One month earlier, expert witnesses had testified that there is in fact no definitive line between basic and applied research. Chemical engineer Dr. Daniel Hallinan claimed, “The questions that we need to answer are well-defined by the applied side, and then we can approach them from a fundamental perspective.” They further asserted that to draw an artificial boundary between the two when drafting policy is counterproductive. Echoing the experts, Johnson and colleagues advocated for discarding “basic” from the bills to ensure ease of enforcement for innovative research.

I have long bought into a narrative that dismisses the intellect of those who dismiss science, favoring a caricatured view of the science illiterate politician. But here, Smith had deftly employed a superficial support of basic research to undermine scientific progress. And in the process, I, a scientist, had been bamboozled.

The good news is that there are science advocates like Johnson who are fighting against the systematic and sneaky denial of certain scientific realities. The bad news is that they are the minority party within the House, and that the pernicious corruption of jargon-ish terms like “basic” and “applied” science flies under the public radar.

Five days after my House Science Committee visit, Rep. Smith sent out significantly less subtle congressional subpoenas to a number of nonprofit advocacy groups and attorneys general to suppress their investigations of ExxonMobil. In one letter to 17 attorneys general, Smith and 16 Republicans on the House Science Committee state:

“The Committee intends to continue its vigorous oversight of the coordinated attempt to deprive companies, nonprofit organizations, and scientists of their First Amendment rights and ability to fund and conduct scientific research free from intimidation and threats of persecution.”

…which would sound great by any other author in any other context.

The subpoenaed parties, which include the Union of Concerned Scientists and, have uncovered documents indicating that ExxonMobil knew about the climate threat as early as 1968. They are continuing investigations into whether ExxonMobil has systematically committed fraud in favor of their own interests.

Instead of holding ExxonMobil accountable, Smith conjured up a witch-hunt invoking science-positive rhetoric in an overt overreach of power. In so doing, he and his like-minded colleagues have intimidated and persecuted the very nonprofit organizations and scientists whose First Amendment rights he purports to protect.

Those ten minutes in the Science Committee chambers primed me to understand that underestimating the anti-science elite is a rookie mistake. Big money factors calculating minds into the calculus of whom to support.

So don’t think for a minute they aren’t listening to the experts. They are listening so they can retool our words and wield them against us.

Originally appeared on ScientificAmerican.Com at 

Maryam Zaringhalam is a molecular biologist and doctoral fellow at The Rockefeller University. She is also the founder of ArtLab, a series that pairs scientists with artists, and co-produces Science Soapbox, a podcast at the intersection of science, society, and policy. You can follow her on Twitter @webmz_

Posted in: Global Warming, Science and Democracy Tags: , , , , ,

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  • Thanks for catching them greedy sobs in the act of twisting scientific truths!
    However, we do need to do a lot more than just solar, and It’s 20% capacity factor (which would require 80% NG backup). We need to keep our nuclear going strong (for water desalination needs, if nothing else). And most importantly, we need a war effort towards the Discovery and mass automation of a dirt cheap long lasting heavy weight stationary utility scale battery (that homeowners can afford, too).
    Tesla’s doing great but we need much cheaper if all the world’s business are to ditch FFs.

  • T lars

    We are in “Climate Denial Part Two– We Can Fix It” – with sunbeams and a cool breeze! Not even close. Alt energy will never ever work.

    We can save the world in three easy steps 1) a plant based diet, which we cannot have without fertilizer and clean water provided by 2) clean, abundant and safe nuclear power, and some way to reject heat (crops won’t grow in this heat — so 3) stratospheric aerosol injection.

    If we could reduce emissions to ZERO, WORLDWIDE, TODAY, the Earth would continue warm– at this rate– for 300 years. And it will warm to an already determined lowest possible temperature– which is much more than 2ºC. Already been decided.

    Wanna discuss this?

    • I counter for the following reasons. Use all existing nuclear for electricity for desalination. Since “everybody” is afraid of nuclear, make sure we can at least keep these going until their planned decommission (fierce opposition to their closing early).

      Granted, existing nuclear isn’t much compared to full on global warming, however plan for dirt cheap solar and batteries, because that’s what it will be in about 20 years. By the time we could ever get nuclear past the reg hurdle, and built up to truly transition from FF, solar will have already covered close to 1% of the land. This is why we must do a full on war effort towards a cheap storage battery, now. So that we’re not burning even more NG than we do now, to back solar.
      The reason i am so adimate about nuclear powered desalination and water treatment is because that’s needed 24/7, just like the nuclear base load. More than anything else. And because there’s going to be “green water laws” any day now.
      I agree, the batteries just aren’t here yet and we don’t have time to waste shutting down what little nuclear we do have!

      • T lars

        Thanks for the post– props! Well yes the aerosols would be SO2. Solar and wind cannot meet the demand- not even the biggest solar plant in the world can run even one steel furnace– alternative energy just doesn’t have the wattage. Or the consistency — here in California wind can make 2GW one day and struggle to make 200MW the next… which drives down the efficiency of fossil plants EVERYWHERE on the grid.

        Batteries are just a wide spot in the pipe line… They can only lose power. Batteries are DC — the world runs on 3 phase AC… too many problems to list. Only hydro is cleaner than nuclear, measured in grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour.

        We use natural gas for more than burning, nuclear power will also provide process heat ( to make fertilizer for instance) after which we make electricity and after that desalinate water… we need liquid fuels– we can make clean liquid fuels with that process heat from coal- and the oil companies can continue to distribute it, and we can keep our cars, and planes and ships.

        I wish we could migrate this thread somewhere else — Union of Concerned Scientists !??

      • I thought this was the UCS blog.
        Tesla figured out how to make batteries for 80% less energy. That means it’s going somewhere! With batteries, you get “a thousand cycles”, with fuel made from clean energy, only “a once through”. Batteries are already more efficient than such fuels (and can be recycled to boot).
        We have some 14 gigawatts of solar capacity in California alone. Ten years ago, it was very much less and ten years from now, at least some what cheaper, and follow the exponential curve.
        Pumped hydro would be great but nobody wants to build big projects any more (just like nuclear). It would only require like 20% more solar capacity than batteries (li-ion is 90% efficient). We need them to be solid state and dirt cheap.
        It seems people would want to build pumped hydro with all the flooding going on (and divert some of that water over here to the dry states! ).

  • Frank N. Blunt

    There is talk about promoting energy interests but nothing about resolving any supposed climate issues?

  • Mike Hugh-jass

    It seems like nothing more than the next chapter for the 2nd edition of, “Merchants of Doubt”

  • solodoctor

    Thanks for the reminder of just how pernicious intelligent and highly motivated elected reps can be when their interests are dominated by corporate interests like Exxon Mobil, big pharma, etc. Thanks to UCS for its ongoing efforts to resist these powerful forces whose priorities are their profits rather than the wellbeing of our environment and the people who live in it.