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Political Climate Changes

Republicans’ stance on global-warming science suggests a rough road ahead for researchers

by Cheryl Hogue
November 29, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 48

Credit: NOAA
The decreasing pH of the oceans and its effects on corals were among the issues raised at a recent 
House hearing.
Credit: NOAA
The decreasing pH of the oceans and its effects on corals were among the issues raised at a recent 
House hearing.

Climate-change scientists will face tough scrutiny from Republicans controlling the House Science Committee in the coming two years if lawmakers’ comments at a recent hearing are any indication. Republican congressmen discussed their skepticism about climate-change science at a Nov. 17 hearing of the House Science & Technology Subcommittee on Energy & Environment.

Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), who is expected to take the gavel of the full House Science & Technology Committee in January, laid out his doubts about global-warming science and policies at the hearing.

“Reasonable people have serious questions about our knowledge of the science, the evidence, and what constitutes a proportional response,” Hall said. “Sorting scientific fact from rhetoric is essential, and we have a long way to go on this topic.”

E-mails from climate scientists that were hacked and posted on the Internet last year, Hall said, “exposed a dishonest undercurrent within the scientific community.” They also “ignited a renewed public interest in the level of uncertainty of the scientific pronouncements,” he said. “While there were only a few scientists involved in this unethical behavior, it only takes a few bad apples to spoil the whole bunch.”

That incident, he said, has far-ranging effects. It casts doubt on “all scientific endeavors involving the government,” he said.

Hall also reiterated his staunch opposition to policies for curbing greenhouse gas emissions, saying such actions would destroy jobs, hinder economic growth, and hurt U.S. competitiveness.

Credit: Office of Rep. Hall
Credit: Office of Rep. Hall

Also laying out his views at the hearing was Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Md.), who could become chairman of the Energy & Environment Subcommittee when Republicans take control of the House.

“We don’t now agree on the facts” about climate-change science, he stated. But Bartlett is deeply concerned about U.S. dependence on oil imports and about peak oil—the time after which the rate of petroleum extraction will decline. He also passionately supports development of alternatives to fossil fuels.

Bartlett said he believes it is irrelevant whether the human contribution to climate change is small or large. If the planet’s climate system is near a tipping point, human influence, even if small, could trigger irreversible changes, he said.

Credit: Office of Rep. Bartlett
Credit: Office of Rep. Bartlett

“I’m a conservative Republican, but on these issues, I’m not an idiot,” Bartlett stated, maintaining that the U.S. needs to create new, green jobs and become a major exporter of new energy technology.

Outgoing subcommittee Chairman Brian Baird (D-Wash.), who did not run for reelection, explained why he held a hearing on climate-change science—a subject probed by congressional panels for more than two decades—as his swan song.

“I believe that many members of the public, and perhaps some in Congress, have never had the opportunity to consider the basic science and the long history of investigation and data that underlie understanding the greenhouse effect and, more recently, ocean acidification,” Baird said. “I place a paramount importance on scientific integrity, and this hearing was a chance to go back to the basics for an open discussion.”

The 16 witnesses who testified at the nearly four-hour hearing included National Academy of Sciences President Ralph J. Cicerone and researchers from academe and the federal government who discussed basic climate-change science. Among others testifying was Rear Adm. David W. Titley, a Navy oceanographer who discussed the implications of climate-change effects—such as ice-free Arctic Ocean shipping lanes and increased storm surges—for national security and naval operations.

Witnesses called by Republicans included dissenters to mainstream climate science: Massachusetts Institute of Technology meteorology professor Richard S. Lindzen and Patrick J. Michaels, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. Both believe the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels won’t lead to dramatic global warming.

Subcommittee member Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) suggested there was a conspiracy behind most climate research. He called predictions of human-induced climate change a “scare tactic” to get people to accept draconian controls over their lifestyles.

Rohrabacher also carried out perhaps the most novel line of questioning at the hearing. He noted that the south polar ice cap of Mars has receded, suggesting that increased solar output is responsible for this phenomenon, as well as observed rises in Earth’s temperature.

Witness Richard B. Alley, a professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University who studies the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, responded that the recent melting of the martian ice cap is linked to dust storms. Alley also said direct satellite observation is a far more accurate way of measuring the sun’s output than is an indirect calculation based on the shrinking of the red planet’s ice cap.

To illustrate his concern about ocean acidification due to rising CO2 levels, Rep. Robert D. Inglis Sr. (R-S.C.), the top Republican on the subcommittee, brought a prop—a jar filled with a vinegar-and-water solution and a single hard-boiled egg. The egg’s shell had dissolved after several days submerged in the acidic brew. He expressed worry that the declining ocean pH would harm corals as well as the tiny shelled organisms at the base of the marine food chain, disrupting human food supplies.

Inglis also warned climate scientists to prepare for “difficult hearings next year” under the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Inglis is leaving Congress after losing a June primary to Tea Party-supported Rep.-elect Harold W. (Trey) Gowdy III.

“Do not come here defensively,” Inglis said. He urged climate researchers to view congressional hearings called by Republicans as “fabulous opportunities to educate skeptical lawmakers.”

The departing lawmaker also offered advice to his fellow Republicans: “If you’re a free-enterprise conservative and just think the science is a bunch of hooey, if you miss the commercial opportunity, you’ve really missed something,” Inglis said.

The Chinese, he said, plan to develop innovative technologies needed in the 21st century and sell them to the rest of the world.

“We may just press the pause button here for several years. But China is pressing the fast-forward button,” Inglis said.



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