House Science Hearing Showcases Partisan Climate Debate

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Publication date: 
20 May 2011

The combative tenor of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s hearing on climate science was struck from the outset. Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) opened the hearing by decrying the Obama Administration’s push to regulate greenhouse gases and questioning whether the leaked emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (CRU) cast doubt on the integrity of climate science. Hall said:

“The leaked emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit in November of 2009 revealed that the scientists most vocal about the effects humans were having on the climate were not following accepted scientific practices. When these emails came to light, the Administration proclaimed that the science generated by a corrupt process was still robust, and still justified the policy measures it was taking. For many of us here, these emails were evidence that the trust in the underlying process was misplaced. I may not be a scientist, but as a politician, I can tell when someone is trying to pull the wool over my eyes.”

Hall continued:

“The legitimate questions that have been raised about the processes used to generate climate change science and policy have thus far been cast aside. The reluctance to engage in conversations with people who have doubts or question the veracity of climate science is at the heart of the wrong doing that undermines trust in climate change science.”

Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) countered the Chairman in her opening statement, laying out the position shared by most Democrats on the Committee. She said that, when Democrats were in the majority, Republicans claimed that scientists who dispute the consensus on climate change were consistently silenced and that Republicans would give these experts “a platform to dispel the alarmists’ mistruths about the science of global climate change.”

However, Johnson noted that:

“Instead, the witnesses before the Science, Space and Technology Committee [today] include a business school professor of marketing, an economist, and an energy industry lawyer. We also have three legitimate scientists, but it is worth noting that not one of them refutes the notion that the global climate is changing and that humans are a factor.”

Johnson went further, saying:

“Congress should acknowledge that we are not the experts, and that allowing partisan politics to dictate the scientific understanding of climate change is cynical, short-sighted, and, by definition, ignorant. I implore my colleagues to recognize the value of research, and resist efforts to defund and destroy the very scientific community that will give us answers.”

The witnesses testified on a wide range of issues related to climate change. J. Scott Armstrong, professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, argued that those who predict long-term climate warming and significant harm from this warming have done so using faulty forecasting methods. Richard Muller, professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, had long expressed doubts about the integrity of the surface temperature data sets used to argue that the climate is warming. However, he testified that his research demonstrated that data integrity is adequate and available data sets support the conclusion that there is climate change occurring.

John Christy of the University of Alabama testified that the process by which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change writes its reports is flawed because it reinforces the views of the scientific majority without adequately addressing the views of those who disagree. Peter Glaser, a lawyer at the firm Troutman Sanders LLP, argued in his testimony that the Environmental Protection Agency’s finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare failed to allow adequate public comment and was based on a flawed analysis.

David Montgomery, an economist and independent consultant, testified that regulating greenhouse gases will have a net economic cost and will not create jobs or a competitive U.S. clean energy industry. Kerry Emmanuel, professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, testified on behalf of the mainstream view that climate change is occurring and anthropogenic greenhouse gases are the primary driver.

After the witnesses’ prepared testimony, Hall asked Glaser whether the EPA often changes regulations between issuing its proposed and final rules. Glaser responded that they do, citing the EPA’s recent rule regulating air pollution from industrial boilers, which changed substantially from its draft to final form due to public comment. Glaser continued, saying that in the case of the greenhouse gas endangerment finding, the EPA only allowed 60 days for public comment and failed to incorporate this feedback into its final finding. He charged that this failure was due to EPA’s determination to regulate greenhouse gases, which led the agency to undermine its normal process. Since this hearing took place, the EPA has decided to delay implementation of regulations covering greenhouse gas emissions from major industrial facilities.

Hall then said that to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S. would have to eliminate coal as a fuel for electricity generation, and asked Montgomery what the economic repercussions of this action would be. Montgomery responded that it would impose potentially large costs and have disruptive effects depending on how rapidly the change was phased in. Rep. Chip Craavack (R-MN) expressed concerns similar to Hall’s later in the hearing.

Johnson asked the scientists on the panel, Christy, Muller, and Emmanuel, whether we are seeing global temperatures rise and whether greenhouse gases are at least in part to blame. Christy said that greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere do have a warming influence, but we cannot say with certainty whether the temperature will continue to rise. Muller answered that we are seeing warming and that greenhouse gases are a factor, but the issue is the amount of future warming. Emmanuel responded that the planet is warming and that the bulk of the evidence implicates greenhouse gases, but also acknowledged the uncertainty of future projections.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) spent his time questioning Emmanuel on the release of emails from CRU, an incident often referred to as “Climategate”. Sensenbrenner quoted a British Labour Party Member of Parliament, who referred to this panel as a “whitewash,” and asked Emmanuel to respond. Emmanuel replied that the panel’s objective was to determine whether there had been a breach of scientific integrity, not to conduct a wholesale review of the quality of the science. He argued that the panel was comprised of many gifted scientists who had no “ax to grind” in the climate debate, and that this panel concluded that CRU was an enterprise of great integrity.

During his question time, Rep. Brad Miller (D-NC) had a heated exchange with Glaser, which he prefaced by calling Glaser’s testimony “the most bizarre testimony I’ve ever heard.” He suggested that by offering a personal opinion on the same matters for which he has appeared as an attorney, Glaser was acting unethically, a charge Glaser denied. Miller called Glaser’s testimony a lightly edited version of a brief Glaser produced for his clients and asked if Glaser’s personal opinion differed in any way with his clients’ opinions. Glaser responded that he had not reviewed his congressional testimony with his clients but hoped that they would agree with his opinions.

At that point, Chairman Hall asked Miller to stop interrupting the witness. Miller countered that his understanding of committee procedure meant this question time was his to control, and that he was allowed to interrupt a recalcitrant witness. When someone suggested that Miller be given extra time for Hall’s interruption, Hall quipped that he would give Miller an extra five minutes because “he keeps getting himself in more and more trouble.”

Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA) and Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) also questioned the possible bias of the witnesses. McNerney questioned Montgomery about serving as an expert witness for Exxon-Mobil, which Montgomery acknowledged but said was on an entirely unrelated issue. Edwards asked the full panel whether they had ever been paid by a company or trade association involved in the oil, coal, or energy industry. Muller and Glaser responded that they had, Armstrong could not recall, Christy and Emmanuel responded that they had not, and Montgomery said that he had not been directly paid by such a company but his consulting firm had had these companies as clients.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), citing Emmanuel’s acknowledged uncertainty about climate change predictions, asked Emmanuel why he still supported taking action to address climate change. Emmanuel likened it to purchasing an insurance policy against the possibility your house will burn down, saying that such a purchase is not based on forecasting that your house will catch on fire, but rather on an assessment of risk. In a response to a later question from Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD), Emmanuel elaborated on this theme, saying that while the outcome is not certain, the evidence suggests that we are facing a grave risk from climate change, and that those who say we should not act due to short-term economic considerations are being “colossally irresponsible.”

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) asked Emmanuel how he came to form his current belief on climate change. Emmanuel explained that in the 1980s, he did not feel that the evidence for climate change was conclusive. In the intervening twenty years, however, considerable new research has been conducted and he now believes the evidence for human-caused climate change is very strong.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) opened his question time by saying that the political left has attempted to stifle debate on climate change and belittle those who disagree with the view that climate change is occurring. He also took issue with some of the questions his Democratic colleagues asked during this hearing, saying that they were attempting to call into question the integrity of the witnesses.

Hall closed the hearing by saying that the witnesses on this panel had been asked to come because they had raised questions about climate change science. He said that the Science Committee would continue to engage on this issue and would hold further hearings on questions related to climate change.