Climate Science 101: Holdren, Lubchenco Take Congress Back to School

Dec 2, 2009

Members of Congress took a brief trip back to high school science class Wednesday morning, complete with science experiments, sports analogies, raised voices and a bit of name-calling.

The hearing in Chairman Ed Markey's Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming was expected to provide an opportunity for two of the administration's top scientists to defend the climate science that has come under fire since last week's release of e-mails stolen from researchers — and for the Committee's climate change skeptics to air their accusations.

It did not disappoint.

Several members of the Republican minority called for Congressional hearings and investigations to look into the e-mails and whether they raise questions about the integrity of climate science.

"I'm not sure the U.S. Congress is the best way to get at scientific truth," responded John Holdren, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The scientific community has mechanisms for addressing controversies like these and those have already been set in motion, he said.

A couple minority members took their accusations to another level. Rep. John Sullivan of Oklahoma said he saw a "culture of corruption in science right now."

Holdren replied, "It would be amazing if all the academies of sciences and all the scientists around the world who have come to the same conclusions were part of some conspiracy." He said he doesn't believe "these emails are sufficient to demonstrate a 'culture of corruption' in the scientific community" and pointed out that scientists manipulate data regularly in order to make it understandable and comprehensive. It isn't nefarious, he said.

The hacking of the servers at the UK's University of East Anglia and posting online of the stolen e-mails and documents has provided an unexpected platform for a small but vocal minority of doubters to raise questions about the mountain of research that has been conducted on the effects and extent of climate change, particularly in the last decade.

While they have succeeded in partially distracting from the work being done to mitigate climate change, they can provide no answer for why global temperatures have increased so precipitously as industrialization has increased and spread. A study released last week by 26 climate scientists found global temperatures had increased at a rate of 0.19 degrees Celsius per decade over the past 25 years, parallel to increases in greenhouse gas emissions. This lines up with the findings of past studies.

Other measurements, such as the actual amount of carbon in the atmosphere, point to similar trends.

"The rate of increase has accelerated in the last decade. The increase [of carbon in the atmosphere] in this decade has averaged 1.9 parts per million per year. In the 1990s, it was 1.5 parts per million per year. That's the trend we've got to turn around," Dan Lashoff, director of the Natural Resource Defense Council's climate center, told reporters Wednesday morning.

Jane Lubchenco, administrator of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, testified at the hearing along with Holdren.

"The emails really do nothing to undermine the work of thousands of scientists all around the world that tell us our climate is changing," she said.

The skeptics have plenty of accusations, but no theories of their own for why this change is occurring, Rep. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and co-sponsor of the House-passed American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) bill, told the committee.

"There is no alternative theory that the minority is proposing," he said, "so the deniers have decided to use a small number of emails as a way to cast doubt, ... as a reason why we should stop all efforts."

As an analogy, Markey said that if the body temperature of a child went up two degrees, no one would accept that as the "new normal" for that child; they would use the science available to return her to a normal level.

If that wasn't clear enough for the congressional audience, he added another analogy: baseball statistics. The percentage of players hitting more than 40 home runs in a season spiked in the 1990s. But once Major League Baseball started cracking down on steroid use, the number of home run hitters normalized to pre-1990s levels. Just as ballplayers wanted to keep steroid use quiet so they could keep slamming homers out of the park, he said, climate change skeptics and coal and oil companies today are trying to keep evidence of humans' role in climate change quiet so they don't have to clean up their industries.

Markey was not the only one patiently trying to explain the science.

Lubchenco pulled out pitchers of water and performed actual science experiments for the representatives to demonstrate the effects of ocean acidification. Increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere lead to increased levels of dissolved CO2 in oceans, which raises the acidity of seawater over time. She used chalk to represent the shells of the small organisms that form the base of the food pyramid and partially dissolved them in a vinegar-water mixture representing the projected acidity of future seawater.

Markey thanked her for refreshing their knowledge of high school science.

"This explained to us why just about everyone under the age of 25 wants us to do something about [climate change]," he said. "That's why they call them the Green Generation — because they are up on the science."

Lubchenco's demonstrations failed to impress Wisconsin Rep. James Sensenbrenner, though, the committee's ranking Republican.

Referring to the hacked e-mails, Sensenbrenner said,

"There's increasing evidence of scientific fascism going on," later adding, "There's an awful lot scientific McCarthyism going on," by which he meant name-calling.

Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) came to the scientists' defense.

"It is continually stunning to me that people can see the evidence before their eyes" and continue to doubt the reality of climate change, he said. He turned to Holdren and said, sarcastically, "I just want to ask you if you're a member of a global conspiracy."

Holdren assured the committee he was not.

Inslee then expressed his own concerns about the state of the science, but from another angle — that it has not provided projections that are dire enough. Lubchenco responded that scientists have to err on the side of cautious and conservative estimates.

Later, Inslee spoke with obvious emotion and a raised voice as he talked about climate change's effects in the Seattle area:

"I'd like to be able to catch salmon ... maybe 50 or 60 years from now, and when people watch what I've watched and say that's fascism, I got a problem with that."

While it was not clear what "scientific fascism" might actually be, Holdren tried to address the concerns of Sensenbrenner. This data in the e-mails addressed a "very small part" of what we know about climate science, he explained. He also pointed out that in the time since the data referred to in the e-mails was collected, the National Academies of Science had studied and reported on the same data. The academies concluded in 2006 that the last 50 years have been the warmest in the last 1,000 years and probably much longer, he said.

Holdren emphasized that science is always contentious, but that the science behind anthropogenic climate change is overwhelming.

"I would point out that scientists are human ... but the point is that however this plays out, the great bulk of the climate science will not be changed," he said.

 

See also:

Skeptics Exaggerating Science Scandal to Derail Copenhagen Climate Talks

Scientists Call on Obama, Congress to Take Stronger Climate Action

Obama Orders Return to Scientific Integrity in Policymaking

 

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