One of Congress’s staunchest opponents of climate action launched another attack on climate science this week, this time going directly after the scientists themselves.
It’s an old political tactic with a dark history that is surfacing again as state legislators and federal lawmakers weigh regulations that are opposed by some of the wealthiest and most powerful corporations in the country.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) on Tuesday used his position as the ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to issue a “minority report” that pulls a handful of comments out of thousands of pages of private emails among scientists that were hacked into last year just before the international climate change conference in Copenhagen.
The report goes farther than Inhofe’s usual arguments, though. In it, his staff writes:
“In our view, the CRU documents and emails reveal, among other things, unethical and potentially illegal behavior by some of the world’s preeminent climate scientists.”
Inhofe names 17 top climate scientists, but he doesn’t back up his allegation of “potentially illegal behavior” under any U.S. law. In fact, the person whose emails he overwhelmingly quotes is a British scientist, Phil Jones, who in December stepped aside as director of CRU, the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the UK, during a internal investigation of the emails. For most of the U.S. scientists the report targets, Inhofe offers no basis for his allegations other than to say they were recipients of the emails.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the committee, noted the shift in tone of Inhofe’s attack.
“We are now seeing colleagues attack America’s most respected institutions,” Boxer said at the close of the hearing. “We are now seeing the other side attack our own people in America who are not political, who care about his country, who love this country, who have dedicated themselves to make sure we have the facts.”
Rick Piltz, a former senior official with the U.S. Climate Change Science Program who exposed censorship of climate science during the Bush administration, described the Inhofe report as a "classic Joe McCarthyite witch-hunt: page after page of incorrect and misleading statements, a list of federal laws that allegedly may make scientists subject to prosecution by the U.S. Justice Department, and a list of names and affiliations of 17 ‘key players’ in the ‘CRU Controversy’ over stolen e-mails and their connections with IPCC reports.”
Expert Testimony and Political Pressure
Scientists have been trying for years to explain climate change to lawmakers in states and the federal government. The measurements from multiple sources make clear that temperatures have been warming since the industrial revolution, and the vast majority of scientists agree that human actions, particularly the greenhouse gases pumped out by the burning of fossil fuels, contribute to the problem.
Science is complex, though. As even basic high school science teaches, our understanding of the planet is continually evolving and rarely is our understanding 100 percent certain. Scientific inquiry is, at its heart, about questioning and learning.
That process — and the scientists themselves — are now coming under attack by politicians.
In Utah, scientists from the state’s three largest universities may have put their own careers at risk when they tried to explain to lawmakers there the science of climate change.
When Robert Davies, an associate physics professor from Utah State University, answered a reporter’s question last fall about climate science and explained that some views embraced by lawmakers were considered “fringe,” Republican state Rep. Mike Noel called the state-funded university’s president to complain about Davies by name. The head of the University of Utah’s Atmospheric Science Department also ran into a wall when he tried to explain climate science during a legislative hearing.
A group of 18 scientists at Brigham Young University were so frustrated with what they were seeing, they wrote this in response:
“As Earth scientists in Utah, we are writing to express concern about the manner in which members of the Utah State Legislature have recently dealt with scientific testimony concerning climate change. We encourage our legislators to consider separating the science from the policy issues. Questions about the timing, extent, and causes of climate change are inherently scientific. Substantial scientific evidence supports the following conclusions: first, that climate is changing; second, climate is significantly influenced by human activity; and third, that these changes pose risks to humanity and many other forms of life. Decisions about what to do in response to concerns about climate change, however, must draw not only on scientific input, but also economic, moral, and political considerations. It is unrealistic to expect all of these factors to unambiguously push in the same direction. Therefore, we feel it is irresponsible for some of our legislators to attempt to manipulate the scientific evidence in order to support a political agenda.
“Recently the Public Utilities and Technology Interim Committee of the Utah Legislature invited testimony from Jim Steenburgh, chair of the Atmospheric Sciences Department at the University of Utah, to comment about climate change. Specifically, they asked him to share the findings of a panel of scientists convened by Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr. Professor Steenburgh is a reputable scientist, knowledgeable about the subject, who attempted to give the best available information. The committee also invited one of the few climate scientists who has come to a different conclusion to address them. When Steenburgh was questioned about whether there really was a consensus among scientists in the field about the causes of climate change, he noted that well over 90% of active climate scientists agree that human activity is a significant contributor to global warming. Several of the legislators and other participants attacked the consensus conclusion, saying that scientists had neglected to consider natural causes for climate change, and accused climate scientists of jumping on the climate change bandwagon for prestige and monetary gain. One legislator even went so far as to paint the movement to address global warming as ‘the new religion to replace Communism.’”
Barry Bickmore, an associate professor of geological sciences at BYU and a member of that group who describes his own political views as conservative, said he and his colleagues felt compelled to speak out about the treatment of science.
“The incident involving Davies was particularly galling, and I felt that scientists from BYU ought to speak up since we are not state-funded and are somewhat more immune to bullying by people like Mike Noel,” Bickmore said.
“I have not reconsidered my involvement in trying to educate our lawmakers. If they don’t listen, maybe some of the voters who elect them will.”
The Real Target: EPA’s Endangerment Finding
Despite another letter from BYU scientists last month and the testimony of other professors, the Utah Senate today passed a resolution, already approved by the House, implying that climate science was a hoax.
The actionable part of that Utah resolution is to urge the EPA to drop its greenhouse gas regulations and endangerment finding.
Inhofe’s claims, made at the start of a congressional hearing on the EPA’s budget, also zeroed in on federal greenhouse gas regulations. He was clear about his goal: to prove that “EPA’s endangerment finding rests on bad science.”
The endangerment finding, finalized in December, states that greenhouse gas emissions endanger public health and welfare. EPA was obligated by the U.S. Supreme Court to make a determination, and if it found a danger, to take regulatory action under the Clean Air Act. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said this week that her agency would begin phasing in regulations in 2011.
Those regulation is opposed by high-emitting industries, particularly oil, gas and coal, as well as some big agriculture groups. In Utah, it was a head of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation who explained the House Resolution, line by line, to a committee rather than the resolution’s legislative sponsor. In both Utah and Congress, lawmakers opposed to EPA regulation also cited a conservative group that calls itself the Science and Public Policy Institute and heavily promotes the claims of British business and policy consultant Christopher Monckton.
During the congressional hearing this week, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent, didn’t hold back his anger at colleagues’ attempts to denigrate science for political ends.
“If you want to protect the oil interests, get up there and say you are protecting oil interests," Sanders said. "If you want to protect coal, protect coal; that’s not a problem. We understand that a lot of campaign contributions are coming to you, fine. But let’s not argue about what the overwhelming majority of scientists in this country agree on.”