Today’s US Congressional Hearing On Climate Change Was A Colossal Train Wreck

Today’s US Congressional Hearing On Climate Change Was A Colossal Train Wreck

In the midst of today’s highly-anticipated House Science Committee hearing on climate science and the scientific method, right around the time that US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher thundered that certain witnesses (the one mainstream climate scientist in the room, specifically) should be ashamed of themselves for daring to criticise the committee’s chairman, the livestream gave out. Part of me prayed it would stay down for good, and somehow take the whole committee with it.

Lamar Smith, a Republican Congressman from Texas and Chairman of the House Science Committee. Image: AP

The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology fell off the flat Earth’s edge into a profoundly anti-science abyss years ago. Hearings like this one crop up every now and then, often with the same cadre of questionably-credentialed witnesses offering up the same tired fallacies that serve to question the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is real, and that it’s being caused by humans. Today, instead of any sort of reasonable discussion of climate impacts and potential solutions, the hearing mainly entailed a litany of untruths and long-debunked conspiracy theories, along with some incredibly awkward name-calling from the witnesses. This was political theatre at its worst; actual science barely made an appearance.

Presiding over this trainwreck was, of course, Texas Republican Lamar Smith, who has been Chair of the committee since Republicans took the House in 2012. No one would claim that Smith held back when it came to climate change while President Obama was in office, but having fellow climate deniers installed at the White House seems to have given him an extra bit of joie de vivre. Nothing like some honest-to-god momentum toward planetary destruction to add a little spring to one’s step!

Speaking of momentum, the hearing came a day after President Trump signed an executive order aimed at rolling back progress the Obama administration made on climate, ostensibly to bring back coal jobs (not happening, ever), and a couple of weeks after a “skinny budget” from the White House suggested cutting just about everything science-related you can think of, and climate-related programs in particular. It featured one widely-respected climate scientist — Michael Mann, professor of atmospheric science at Penn State — and three Republican invitees whose views on climate change, if we’re being charitable, lie somewhat outside mainstream scientific consensus: Judith Curry, professor emeritus at Georgia Tech; John Christy, professor and director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama at Huntsville; and Roger Pielke Jr, professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado.

The witnesses, along with some of Committee members, repeated a number of claims that the GOP has clung to for decades now: The climate models don’t match reality (yes they do); extreme weather events, like hurricanes and droughts, are in no way linked to climate change (yes they are); there was a consensus in the 1970s that the world was cooling (not even close to true); and so on. Multiple people even brought up the ClimateGate “scandal” involving hacked emails and accusations of fiddling with data, which was investigated to death with no evidence of wrongdoing years ago.

As Democratic Congressman Bill Foster — the only member of Congress with a PhD in a scientific field — put it at one point during the hearing: “This is a very strange mixture of science and… not.” When Mann quoted a recent article in Science calling out Smith for using the committee for political gain, the chairman interrupted him to say that that journal — Science! — “is not known as an objective magazine”.

It was, overall, a horrendously depressing display of scientific illiteracy, but there were some odd bits of optimism to be found. The witnesses all agreed at various points that yes, the climate is changing and that humans play a role (though they disagreed, contrary to overwhelming evidence, on the magnitude of that role), and they also agreed that the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to Earth-observing systems at NASA, NOAA and elsewhere are a monumentally dumb idea.

What’s more, perhaps the best point was made by one of the GOP witnesses, Roger Pielke, Jr: “Scientific uncertainty is not going to be eliminated on this topic before we have to act.”

In other words, not knowing everything is not a justification for doing nothing. But that’s just what opponents of action seize on all the time — uncertainty, to them, means nothing is certain. “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,” Smith said in his opening statement, ignoring the vast piles of evidence on that very topic.

Smith calls hearings like this in an attempt to discredit climate science in general, to question the consensus that human carbon emissions are overwhelmingly responsible for global warming, and to repeatedly inject false talking points into the public record and public consciousness. He makes us write stories like this, where we are forced to entertain the uneducated convictions of the Dana Rohrabachers of the world.

“Those who disagree with the mainstream are being brutalised into silence!” Rohrabacher declared, just before the gods of the internet teased us all with the possibility that the seas had already swallowed Washington and this was all just a bad, drowning dream. But no, the feed returned eventually, in time to hear Congressman Barry Loudermilk quote a 1970s National Academy of Sciences report as if no further science has been done since, to hear Congressman Daniel Webster use the natural causes of the last ice age as “proof” that humans aren’t responsible for warming, and to hear Judith Curry spout the denier favourite, “the climate is always changing!”

More mud was slung, more science misrepresented, more US tax dollars spent, until Smith mercifully put the hearing out of its misery, having accomplished nothing except raising my blood pressure.

This is all so stupid.

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