President Obama changed the tune in Washington when he ordered that all policymaking be based on sound science. But the shift from opinion- to fact-based decisionmaking still hasn't transferred to Congress.
The problem is evident each time the House and Senate environment committees hold hearings on climate change.
In the interest of balance, the minority-party committee members have the power to invite witnesses to testify. And Republicans such as Sen. James Inhofe and Reps. Joe Barton and John Shimkus (see video) have ensured that climate change deniers without credentials in climate science testify alongside respected scientists.
The result is conflicting testimony that keeps the committee chairmen running interference as they try to clarify fact from fiction and leaves less-informed members of Congress bluntly asking: Who's lying?
Perhaps they should ask John Holdren, who was confirmed last week as director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. He's the president's chief science advisor, America's "scientist laureate." At a conference a few months ago, he spelled out how preposterous the views of climate change deniers are:
"Members of the public who are tempted to be swayed by this vocal fringe should ask themselves how it could be, if human-caused climate change is just a hoax, that the leaderships of the national academies of sciences of every country in the world that has one are repeatedly on record saying that global climate change is real, dangerous, caused mainly by humans, and reason for early and concerted action to reduce those causes; that this is also the overwhelming consensus view among the faculty members of the earth sciences departments at every major university in the world."
"The fact is that anybody who could believe that the cream of the part of the world scientific community that has actually studied this phenomenon could be co-opted by hoaxers or suffering from mass hysteria is just not thinking clearly."
Still, the strategy of climate action opponents to sow doubt about the science at every opportunity continues unabated in the halls of Congress.
They want lawmakers telling one another, as Shimkus did during the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment hearing on Wednesday, that they shouldn't cap greenhouse gases or take any other actions to limit climate change because: "The science clearly is not settled."
That hearing was a perfect example of the problem. Barton's invited witness was Lord Christopher Monckton, a conservative British journalist and former adviser to Margaret Thatcher whose Science and Public Policy Institute is critical of government actions to prevent climate change.
Monckton is not a scientist. Yet, he sat next to two climate science experts and contradicted them, telling the committee matter-of-factly that we are actually in a global cooling period. "There is nothing in the temperature record that should give us any cause of concern today," he said. "None of the disasters envisioned by this committee will happen. ... The Chinese and the Indians are perfectly aware of this."
Also testifying was Tom Karl, director of NOAA's National Climatic Data Center. Karl cited scientific measurements showing that global temperatures and CO2 levels have increased over the past century – data that is undisputed among scientists.
Asked if Monckton was lying about "global cooling," Karl responded that he would have to check Monckton's data but that he had never seen the numbers put together in quite that way.
That's a true scientist's reflex – check the data and methodology before reaching a conclusion.
It's also a significant difference between scientists and deniers that plays into the hands of those who would have Congress do nothing to mitigate climate change.
Scientists are trained to consider every potential variable and be willing to reject their premises if the facts don't support them. When they say that temperatures are rising, ice sheets are melting and the sea level will rise, they have evidence to back it up.
Deniers aren't bound by those standards. Yet, the committees' "balanced" approach of inviting all sides of the argument presents a false impression that the deniers' claims carry equal weight with the scientists' evidence.
Katherine Richardson, a marine biologist who organized the International Scientific Congress on Climate Change earlier this month in Copenhagen, sees the same sort of "balance" problem in media reports. Too often, media homes in on conflict – pitting denier vs. scientist – because controversy sells, she told SciDev.net.
By giving equal voice to deniers, mainstream media has left the public as confused as the lawmakers on Capitol Hill. In a recent Gallup poll, 41 percent of Americans said they believed global warming was exaggerated. Yet, the climate scientists agree almost universally that the rate of global warming and its ability to change the climate as we know it as been understated.
Scientists generally aren't accustomed to speaking out, but earlier this month, more than 2,500 leading environmental experts issued a list of key messages about climate change to try to combat the misinformation and lack of knowledge in the public.
Climate change is so clearly happening, the scientists wrote, that if governments fail to act, that will result in "significant risk" of "irreversible climatic shifts".
Scientists know the facts. Unfortunately, during congressional hearings, the committee chairmen are often the only people publicly demarcating the science from the spin.
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) countered Monckton's testimony about "global cooling" by having Karl repeat the true data on rising temperatures.
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) verbally slapped down another denier who was testifying alongside Stanford biologist Christopher Field and IPCC chief Rajendra Pachauri last week.
At Boxer's hearing, Princeton physicist William Happer (Monckton mentions him in the video) said humans could go back 50 million years to the Pleistocene era, when CO2 levels were 3 to 4 times higher, and everything would be fine. "The oceans were fine, plants were fine, animals were fine, so it's baffling to me that we're so frightened of getting nowhere close to where we started," Happer testified.
Boxer looked at him for a minute and responded:
"I don't even know how to say this, but a lot has happened since then in terms of where people are living and working. We have a society now. So to say go back to those days, I shudder to think of what it means is going to happen."
Boxer has no trouble making her point about the deniers' claims, but their very involvement in hearings means that the real science – the information lawmakers need to make rational decisions – has to be pushed aside while their nonsense is batted down.
What Congress apparently needs is John Holdren at every hearing. Perhaps they could play his testimony on a continuous loop, as a reality check and a reminder that lawmaking must, for the sake of our future, be serious business. The stakes are high. On this, too, Holdren didn't mince his words:
"The attention and credence they receive are a menace, of course, insofar as this delays the development of the political consensus that will be needed before society embraces remedies that are commensurate with the magnitude of the climate-change challenge."