Joe Barton thinks he stumped Nobelist Chu, but instead revealed his own ignorance — or his plot to get his constituents beach front property

Congressman Joe Barton, born in Waco, Texas, is not the sharpest tack in the GOP bulletin board (see Rep. Barton: Climate change is ‘natural,’ humans should just ‘get shade’ “” invites ‘expert’ TVMOB (!) to testify).  But he still thinks he outsmarted our Nobel Prize winning energy Secretary yesterday.

[Extended pause for laughter.]

Obviously he didn’t — but I do think that Chu missed an opportunity to answer the standard denier question that Barton was really asking. The Hill‘s Twitter Room (!) reports in Tweets You Need to Read (!!):

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) thinks he stumped Energy Secretary Steven Chu at a hearing today. He tweets:

I seemed to have baffled the Energy Sec with basic question – Where does oil come from? Check out the video: #tcot

The video is from a subcommittee hearing on energy legislation during which Barton quizzed Chu, a Nobel prize-winning physicist, on oil formation. Here’s how it went down:

Barton: You’re our scientist. I have one simple question for you in the last six seconds. How did all the oil and gas get to Alaska and under the Arctic Ocean?

Chu: (laughs) This is a complicated story, but oil and gas is the result of hundreds of millions of years of geology, and in that time also the plates have moved around, and so, um, it’s the combination of where the sources of the oil and gas are-

Barton: But, but wouldn’t it obvious that at one time it was a lot warmer in Alaska and on the North Pole. It wasn’t a big pipeline that we created in Texas and shipped it up there and then put it under ground so that we can now pump it out and ship it back.

Chu: No. There are-there’s continental plates that have been drifting around throughout the geological ages-

Barton: So it just drifted up there?

Chu: That’s certainly what happened. And so it’s a result of things like that.

Certainly plate tectonics is a key reason Alaska has so much oil (see here).  But Barton wasn’t really asking where the oil came from.

Barton was just repeating a standard global warming denier talking point that it was a lot warmer in Alaska at one point in the past, which deniers continue to assert somehow proves that current warming is part of a natural cycle, and not human driven.

What Chu should have explained is that the climate changes when it is forced to change.  Past warming were driven by natural forcings, including massive releases of greenhouse gases.  But now humans are dwarfing the natural cycles and natural forcings by pumping out greenhouse gases at a much higher rate than ever occurred in the past — see Humans boosting CO2 14,000 times faster than nature, overwhelming slow negative feedbacks. The result, as Wonk Room explains:

During the Triassic, the entire planet was indeed a hothouse and entirely deglaciated. The carbon dioxide (CO2) content in the atmosphere was at its highest ever levels, spiking from 1000 parts per million to 3000 ppm. The end of the Triassic period was marked by one of the largest mass-extinction events in Earth’s history.

Habitable conditions for humanity, hundreds of millions of years later, are very different. Carbon dioxide levels, which had been below 300 ppm for the last 650,000 years and was stable at 280 ppm during the rise of human civilization, have skyrocketed since 1800 because of our burning of coal, oil, and natural gas to 388 ppm, a nearly 40 percent rise.

Indeed, many fear that a huge methane release is what happened during the Permian-Triassic extinction event.  And we are clearly risking that again here on our current emissions path — see Arctic Research Center: The underwater permafrost is thawing and releasing methane and Tundra Part 4: Permafrost loss linked to Arctic sea ice loss.

The last time the planet was as warm as during the Triassic, it was largely ice free, which would yield sea level rise of some 80 meters (260 feet).

Ahh, now I see Barton’s plan.  Look at his district:

A quck check on Google confirms my suspicion about Trinity Country in the East of his district:

Altitudes in Trinity County range from 150 to 400 feet above sea level.

He wants beachfront property for his district!

Maybe he is even buying up land, like Lex Luthor did in the first Superman movie.  Hmm.  That would mean Barton was an evil genius.  Okay, maybe not.  Especially since sea levels probably don’t rise fast enough for him to cash in — see Nature sea level rise shocker: Coral fossils suggest “catastrophic increase of more than 5 centimetres per year over a 50-year stretch is possible.” Lead author warns, “This could happen again.”

Okay, maybe he’s just another anti-scientific denier.

20 Responses to Joe Barton thinks he stumped Nobelist Chu, but instead revealed his own ignorance — or his plot to get his constituents beach front property

  1. Harrier says:

    He’s not only from Texas, but from Waco?

    Christ. That’s where I grew up. At least the congressman who actually represents that district is a Democrat.

  2. max says:

    It’s easy to mock Barton but he was elected-is he representative of his district? If the voters in his district do not want him to represent them he can be voted out of office.

    I too think that Chu could have asked what exactly Barton was driving at and then answered that question.

  3. Phillip Huggan says:

    My favourite refutation is that grains only evolved 6 million years ago. If there were Homo Sapiens around tens or hundreds of millions of years ago in a warmer world they’d have trouble ever industrializing out of huntr gather existence.
    Joe needs to find out just what research will yields crops and food that is secure in a warmer world, or he needs to teach Texans how to forage for insects (do you need to take off the legs and jaws of ants when you boil them or is that just for raw?) and teach Texas doctors how to treat insect food gastro-disorders and teach Texan cooks some BBQ insect cuisine. Obama almost took Texas; makes me see Texans in a new light.

  4. Andy says:

    A recent Nova episode discussed the conditions in the arctic at the end of the Cretaceous when carbon dioxide levels were much higher than today; though similar to what they will be in 2100 if we keep at this lunacy. At that time Alaska was further north and yet had a climate similar to that of the SE U.S. It goes to show that we are heading towards a climate where even the north pole and south pole will have a temperate climate and the rest of the world will either be a hot desert or a sauna.

    I lived in College Station and say Mr. Barton speak when he first ran for office. He is truly ignorant of most things in this world and tries very hard to stay “uncontaminated” with the truth. A very scary and a very, very crazy human being.

  5. Dennis says:

    When Barton said:

    “I have one simple question for you in the last six seconds. How did all the oil and gas get to Alaska and under the Arctic Ocean?”
    Chu’s response should have been:

    “That’s not a simple question. It’s very complex and will take a long time to answer correctly. I’d be happy to send you some scientific literature which answers precisely and correctly. But I can’t do that in the time left.”

    That would send the message: stop trying to reduce science to soundbites. And when Barton starts answering with soundbites Chu could return with one or two facts that render the soundbites incomplete.

  6. cougar_w says:

    Dennis is correct. The inane patter at the very end of any long discussion/event is a bad time to start a serious conversation. People are mentally “packing up” and not wearing their intellectual defensive armor. Chu did fine, as far as it goes, and Barton was his enemy from the outset so anything Chu said (at any time) would have been used against the science regardless.

    Scientists are wading into deep water. Political circus is so entirely alien to scientific discovery and discussion that real scientists wearing their science hat run the risk of being entirely un-done there. People like Barton or NOT fools. They are demagogues. They are crafty and vile, scum-sucking bottom feeders that are constantly whipping the mob into a foaming frenzy to suit their political ideology and ambitions. We see this pattern emerge too often for it to go ignored.

    Science in general — and climate science in particular — may well become the divisive wedge used to split the people into warring camps suited to the needs of tyrants. I don’t know how to prevent this other than to hew to one’s training, stick to the facts, and take all the time you need to patiently explain the situation.

    As with parenting, there are no short-cuts.

  7. Leland Palmer says:

    As Joe says, the best answer to the denier talking point about CO2 being higher in the past is the rate of change argument – that extremely high rates of change could send the system out of control.

    That does appear to be what happened during the Permian/Triassic mass extinction, although it is possible that there was massive direct intrusion of magma into methane hydrate deposits in that case.

    It is at least possible that melting of permafrost and massive firestorms in our forests could provide enough methane and CO2 to trigger huge releases from methane hydrate deposits, causing a methane catastrophe.

    The Permain/Triassic mass extinction killed something like 95% of all species on earth, which means something like 99% of all individuals perished. It took the climate hundreds of thousands of years to recover from this event.

    And, relative to current rates of change, it happened relatively slowly.

  8. cougar_w says:

    [best answer] I’m not as sure that arguing rates of change will mean much to the average spectator.

    Perhaps more moving would be to point out that yes indeed the poles used to be warmer. Lots of strange looking things lived there once and because the climate changed out from under them they are now lost forever. Extinct. Buried and rendered to oil and coal. It’s kind of a warning, don’t you think? At least those beasties at the poles could make a reasonable claim that it wasn’t their fault at the time. And notice that it works both ways, so that due to AGW and human-mediated CO2 emissions (and climate feedbacks) the climate is quickly heading BACK to those good ‘ol days fully 100 million years before Man evolved and civilization was born and all our works created and all our writings writ. You might be tempted to think of it as Revenge of the Mindless Polar Beasties, except this time we can only blame ourselves for our demise. And this time MUCH more will be lost besides a few ba-zillion tons of trees and stupid plodding animal life. It sort of gets personal at that point, you hear what I’m saying?

  9. Mark says:

    Am I right that the main real finding from the 6 seconds is that we now know that Barton had never heard of continental drift?

  10. russ says:

    Come on! Don’t be so hard on old Joe. He actually missed out on the rest of the hearing as he sat there waiting to get his single question in.

    All he could think of the whole time is ‘my question – my question – I have to ask it!

  11. Anne says:

    This is really getting out of control.

    The denialist Rs are throwing out ludicrous questions, mostly from the denialist playbook written by CEI and the Chamber of Commerce, and appointing clowns to pretend they are credible witnesses. (The Right Honourable Christopher Walter Monckton, Third Viscount Monckton of Brenchley kind of says it all, doesn’t it?)

    Steven Chu did not have to begin a 6-second tutorial on geology 101. And other respected scientists don’t have to put up with this crap any more either.

    From now on, there should be one standard line that is used to call out these idiots. Any time
    a really dumb, denialist, leading question is asked, the answer will be the same:

    (I’m open to editorial suggestions here)

    “In my expert opinion, that question is a dishonest, manipulative attempt to keep the public from knowing the truth about climate change, and, in the interest of protecting scientific integrity and my own self-respect as a scientist, I refuse to answer.”

  12. Gail says:

    Anne, that response might just give them ammunition. I’ve been wondering about this:

    Let’s suppose you take your child to the doctor and the doctor’s diagnosis is, “Your child has cancer and is going to die if we don’t immediately start a treatment regimen that is going to be expensive and very painful.” You don’t like that prospect so you take your child to another 99 doctors, all but one of whom graduated from major medical schools and practice at world-class facilities, and they all tell you the exact same thing – except for the one. He’s a chiropractor and he assures you that he can cure your child with vitamins and herbs.

    What are you going to do with your child?

  13. Steve H says:


    Their response would be to wait 6 months, see what new advances have been wait. If none, wait another six months, etc etc.

  14. russ says:

    Anne – Good choice of wording.

    Arguing climate change with Barton is like arguing religion – his mind is made up with no chance of change.

  15. Gail says:

    Anne, Steve H and russ, of course, you are all correct. This is galling. We will never even get the meager pleasure of saying “I told you so” because for many of these deniers, their golf courses will turn brown, their grocery store shelves will be empty, their summer house at the shore will be smashed in a hurricane or their winter house in ski country will be consumed in a wildfire and THEY STILL WON’T GET IT!

  16. Your reply was very good, but for Steven Chu to give that answer, it would’ve required. . .

    1: For Steven Chu to have more than 1 minute to deliver his answer.

    2: For Barton to actually care about the correct answer.

    Good observations though.

  17. kano says:

    Gail — no, no, no!

    Here’s how your analogy ought to run: All the competent climate-cancer experts recommend a treatment that is *NOT* expensive. It costs only 1/10 of 1% of your annual salary.

    The problem is that you’ve raised a shortsighted and self-indulgent child, and this treatment will be “expensive and very painful” for some of your child’s playmates who have been selling him drugs (e.g, Exxon).

  18. Saffi says:

    The last time the planet was as warm as during the Triassic, it was largely ice free

    If you follow the recent discoveries of geologists like Peter Ward, apparently the last time the planet was as warm as during the Triassic it was also nearly OXYGEN free. Yikes.

    Google (“low oxygen” AND “Permian”) and be afraid.

  19. Gail says:

    Saffi I have wondered if there is a point at which CO2 and ozone will crowd out oxygen.

    kano, I understand that deniers lie about what switching to clean energy will cost for their own nefarious political and economic purposes.

    Even so, my point is that people who are used to self-indulgent unsustainable lifestyles WILL find adjusting “expensive” in the sense that, they are going to have to scale back if and when governments come to grips with climate change.

    For instance, there will be water rationing in many places. People who have sprinkler systems are going to be forbidden to use them. The price of water will rise. Restrictions on plumbing fixtures will be mandated. That’s one of the sorts of “expenses” I meant.

  20. Chris Winter says:

    Tempting as Anne’s sort of answer might be, it’s not a good idea for any member of the cabinet to annoy a congresscritter.

    I think it would be more effective to recast the question in terms of politics. Perhaps something along these lines: “That’s like me asking you to explain why the outlines of your district are where they are — in 25 words or less.”