Climate Science Contention

2017-04-03T14:28:17+00:00 April 3, 2017|
Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) and Lamar Smith (R–TX) (Credit: House Committee on Science, Space & Technology)

(Click to enlarge) Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) and Lamar Smith (R–TX) (Credit: House Committee on Science, Space & Technology)

A “sparring session,” “train wreck,” and “food fight” are not words normally used to describe activities in the halls of Congress, but they were last week. During a contentious, partisan hearing that drew accusations of “bullies” and “Stalinist tactics,” there was one point of agreement from all four witnesses – funding for climate science should continue. But that didn’t stop climate science from coming under sharp scrutiny during the hearing held by the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, as witnesses and committee members alike debated the bullying of climate scientists, how to keep politics out of science, and federal investment in the issue. Disagreement was clear from the outset, as Chairman Lamar Smith (TX-21) 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.” In turn, Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX-30) called the hearing another attempt by Republicans to insert an agenda of climate change skepticism into the science that informs useful and protective regulations by federal agencies.

Much of the discussion centered on the “bullying” of scientists by others in their profession, though the question as to who was on the receiving end of the harassment depends on who you ask. Dr. Roger Pielke Jr. (Professor, Environmental Studies Department, University of Colorado), who does not believe that climate change is contributing to increased frequency of extreme weather events, admitted that he was “not representative of mainstream views.” (Approximately 97 percent of scientists observe that climate change is happening and attributable to human activities.) He claimed that climate scientists like him, whose results and viewpoints disagree with the rest of the climate science community, are targeted for attacks. Ranking Member Johnson countered by observing that though Dr. Michael Mann (Distinguished Professor, Atmospheric Science, Pennsylvania State University) has been called a bully, he has been a target of attacks himself. Dr. Mann – known for his “hockey stick” graph of climbing carbon dioxide levels – agreed and said that the main goal of these attacks is to silence climate scientists.

Dr. Mann also addressed the increased politicization of the scientific process and the (perhaps intentional) effects it can have on scientists’ research. He insisted that scientists must not be threatened, by politicians or other scientists, based on their research topics and their funding source. “Every time you publish,” Dr. Mann stated “it could result in [Freedom of Information Act] FOIA requests and congressional inquiries. The intention is to cause scientists to retreat. Science relies on the ability of researchers to carry out unfettered research in the natural world.”

Echoing earlier statements, Representative Andy Biggs (AZ-5) raised concern that, given the complexity of the climate system, climate funding across agencies can be duplicative and wasteful. Dr. Judith Curry (President, Climate Forecast Applications Network) countered that most of the information obtained by federal funding is critical to our understanding of the climate system, such as ocean observing. However, she added that it may be dangerous to assume that climate change is caused by humans, as it puts a filter on the perspective of climate modelling. She encouraged funding for Earth observing systems and for more fundamental climate dynamics research on decadal to century timescales to be the most cost-effective activities moving forward. Representative Elizabeth Esty (CT-5) highlighted the precariousness of federal funding, emphasizing, “Everything is on the cutting block … the proposals in the so called ‘skinny budget’ from the president would be for cutting research.” Despite disagreements on exactly what climate science should be funded by the government, she pointed out that there is agreement that robust funding should continue. “Most of us carry insurance on our homes even though we’ve probably never lived in a home that’s burned to the ground. If the risk is sufficiently great, we take steps even without certainty.”