A science-free Congress?

To our dismay, and the nation’s detriment, self-described climate change deniers – strongly supported by fossil-fuel interests “” continue to mislead Congress and the public.

In late January, we joined 14 other leading scientists in writing a letter to every member of Congress, asking our elected representatives to separate science from policy. We called attention to the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change, urging Congress to “address the challenge of climate change, and lead the national response”¦” We want Congress to understand that, with each passing day, the problem worsens.

Our letter was certainly not the first plea to Congress to address climate change, and it won’t be the last. An open letter just last May from 255 members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences urged similar actions. But the race to run away from the problem is nothing short of staggering.

So begins an excellent Politico op-ed by John Abraham,  associate professor of thermal sciences at the University of St.Thomas, Peter Gleick,  president of The Pacific Institute, Michael Mann,  director of the Earth Science Center at Penn State University, and Michael Oppenheimer,  professor of geosciences at Princeton University.

The NYT magazine published a piece last month  with a similar theme, “Fact-Free Science,” which noted:

… more than half of the Republicans in the House and three-quarters of Republican senators … now say that the threat of global warming, as a man-made and highly threatening phenomenon, is at best an exaggeration and at worst an utter “hoax”…. These grim numbers, compiled by the Center for American Progress, describe a troubling new reality: the rise of the Tea Party and its anti-intellectual, anti-establishment, anti-elite worldview has brought both a mainstreaming and a radicalization of antiscientific thought.

Even former leading Republican members of the House have made the same point (see Former GOP chair of House Science Committee Sherry Boehlert on “Science the GOP can’t wish away”).

While some ‘appeasers’ think we should let the deniers win the debate and simply stop talking about climate science, that is the road to certain ruin.  As difficult as it is to imagine a aggressive action on climate or clean energy energy time soon, there  is no possibility whatsoever of  the nation and the world taking the necessary steps to avert multiple simultaneous catastrophes in the coming decades absent  abroad understanding of the science.  Moreover, if only the anti-science crowd participates in the debate, then there is no possibility the public’s confusion will end.

Imagine if the  public health community had taken the same view of the lies from  the tobacco industry and given up on the health message.

“Energy independence” and “reducing dependence on oil” are great messages — indeed, they have been great messages for decade upon decade upon decade now, far longer than  climate change has been a major message — but they have never succeeded in creating a sustained set of policy is to actually reduce oil consumption in absolute terms (let alone the set of policies needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in absolute terms).

In the end,  you can’t cure the disease unless  you understand the diagnosis and prognosis.  And so we come back to the article by the four scientists:

Nothing exemplifies this more than a bill by House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), to overturn the scientific finding by the Environmental Protection Agency that greenhouse gases are harmful to human health.

We are saddened and disturbed that Upton is apparently planning to hold a vote in committee very soon to overturn a science-based determination absent any scientific justification for doing so.

This science-free approach serves only the interests of oil and coal producers and other big polluters who don’t want Congress “” or the American people “” to know what decades of scientific research have revealed about current climate trends and the growing future risks we face.

Science is the Achilles heel for those who try to perpetuate the myth that climate change is not occurring, or that the massive build-up of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere is not the main reason the climate is changing. There is no serious disagreement in the scientific community that global temperatures are increasing, sea levels are rising, the oceans are becoming more acidic and that fossil fuel combustion is the primary cause.

In addition, the rapid shrinking of Arctic sea ice and the pattern of extreme weather and climate “” including widespread drought, extraordinarily intense rainstorms, heat waves and wildfires “” reflect more than just natural climate variability.

These findings have been confirmed by all the leading scientific academies around the world, most prominent among them, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, which last year issued a series of four comprehensive reports that were unambiguous. The academy stated, “Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities “¦ and in many cases is already affecting a broad range of human and natural systems.”

Like the tobacco industry before them, fossil fuel interests regularly trot out discredited voices, false and disproven arguments and selective and misleading evidence to generate doubt. Their goal is to create the perception that fundamental aspects of climate science are controversial. They are not.

All their claims, all the studies they cite and all the evidence they have presented has been thoroughly reviewed by climate scientists. There is no scientific basis for contesting the academy’s finding. But that doesn’t stop fossil fuel interests from pouring millions of dollars into distorting, misrepresenting and, at times, falsifying the science.

We are disheartened that many in Congress choose to be guided by those who profit from pollution. Now we learn that Republicans in the House are proposing to cut more than $170 million in climate change programs, as well as to compromise the EPA’s ability to carry out its science-based mission. Given the staggering costs of disaster response and the financial ambush awaiting us if we fail to anticipate the risk of massive climate disruption, such action can only be labeled irresponsible.

These same Republicans pledged no cuts to national security. Yet the growing risk of climate change has been clearly identified as a national security threat by top military experts and analysts.

If Congress turns a deaf ear to science, it would be up to mayors, city planners, the building trades, transportation officials, health care workers, small and large businesses, universities, city councils, agriculture interests, water management officials and many others to take the lead in laying out the risks. We are grateful that many already are.

Hear!  Hear!

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17 Responses to A science-free Congress?

  1. Paulm says:

    America land of the …..

  2. 350 Now says:

    UNEP and DDT question

    Can someone help me (non-scientist) understand this – the next to last paragraph in the article:

    “One might think insecticide companies would defend DDT, recognizing that important principles of sound science and evidence-based public health policies are at stake. Yet in their myopic way, industry lobby group CropLife International is lining up behind UNEP and pushing for an early elimination of DDT, claiming of course that their own products are suitable alternatives.”

    Do “they” have other compounds, safer or not, that doesn’t have the press baggage that DDT has that they are now promoting?

  3. Joan Savage says:

    It seems that some members of Congress are acting like the burghers of Hamelin-town. They want science to fix things, but they don’t want to pay science its due. When the Pied Piper drove the rats out of Hamelin (ultrasound frequencies from the pipe could do the job), the burghers did not pay for the service. The burghers thought that with the rat problem fixed, they had no more need of the piper and therefore could get away with ignoring him.

    The future of the country would be wise to follow the piper of science and get the heck out of Hamelin.

  4. Mike Roddy says:

    Abraham and friends did a great job here- very cogent and to the point. American science academies need to run with this, by hiring scientifically literate lobbyists to pound away at Congressmen, and by becoming a lot more aggressive in calling out the disastrous press coverage of climate hazards.

    And I’m glad that you pointed out the pitfalls of the cowardly koombaya let’s-make sure-we-don’t-offend-anybody approach, Joe. It’s about like saying “Don’t smoke because you’ll save money, be able to enter marathons, and you won’t stink up the house”. No, it’s because cigarettes will kill you. So will burning all of this oil and coal.

  5. Joan Savage says:

    To (#2)

    Yesterday Joe Romm posted a detailed comment on use of DDT and some alternatives, in the context of one of the witnesses before the House committee, a DDT proponent.

  6. Jeff Huggins says:

    Thanks For This, And …

    Thanks for this piece. I share the frustration.

    That said, I think that we — i.e., our side, the movement, the movement’s organizations, and so forth — are dropping a very big ball in an important sense.

    In my view, efforts to shed light on, and “combat”, some of the chief instigators of climate change denial, confusion, inaction, and delayed action — the major oil companies — are dismally insufficient. The efforts so far have been ineffective. Most of them fall far short of the persistence, creativity, inside understanding, verve, and (other factors) necessary to even have a decent chance at success. The efforts to “combat” the oil companies’ efforts, and shed light on them, and actually turn the tide of public opinion regarding oil and the companies themselves (including folks on their boards, for example) have fallen fall short of what’s needed. The sooner we realize this, the better.

    Efforts so far have been akin to trying to stop, or slow, or change the direction of, a massive freight train by waving at it nicely and whistling softly. They’ve been akin to a person with some sort of delayed-action-syndrome, or a person acting in slow-motion, trying to play Bop-A-Mole against a machine with an assortment of moles that appear and disappear in fractions of a second, over here and then over there, saying one thing but doing another, with smoke and mirrors. Efforts so far have failed to find the “Achilles’ Heels” of the major oil players in terms of public understanding and perception, specific board members, the efforts and reputations of major institutional investors, and so forth. We are, literally, letting the major oil companies get away with “slow murder” against many millions of people, against other species, and against future human generations. And our efforts to address that problem have been dismal. A D-minus at best.

    Who out there wants to get much more serious about being much more effective at addressing the oil problem and the oil companies most responsible for the problem, in civil and effective ways of course? That is the question. Who (or what) are the organizations that do this, or are trying to do this, or that want to do this? Which of them have at least modest funding so they don’t have to depend entirely and only on volunteer help?

    If one of those organizations (existing or being formed for this purpose) would like to get serious about the oil problem and the oil company problem, please contact me, and we can explore ways to work together. I was a top chemical engineer from Berkeley, worked for Chevron (in research and engineering) for several years, had offers from Exxon and Shell as well as Chevron (and still have the old offer letters; call me crazy), was a Baker Scholar at Harvard B-School, a McKinsey consultant, an exec at Disney, and etc., and I think I can help an organization that wants to get serious about addressing the oil problem. Efforts to date have (obviously) been ineffective — indeed, not even close to being effective — and it’s frustrating to watch it all from the sidelines. If I were Rex Tillerson these days, I wouldn’t be worried all that much about the “offense” that the other side — i.e., us! — is putting on the field.

    The sad truth is, if this were a football game against Big Oil, the present score would be 95 (them) to 3 (us). Any coach would understand that such a situation calls for more talent, and new talent, and fast. If you know of funded organizations that want to get seriously serious about combatting the oil problem and the oil company problem, please send them my way.

    Be Well (no pun intended),


  7. Wes Rolley says:

    I tend to agree with Jeff’s comments (#6) but don’t have the money to do more than pay for my own gasoline. That is probably why I have started to put more effort into very local activity.

    Still, I wonder if Ex-Governor Schwarzenegger might be on to the right tactic in his speech at ARPA-E 24 min video at

    At least I agree with his take on using the health issue’s related to the reckless burning of fossil fuels. Had I been there, I might have asked him why the California Air Resources Board did not take stronger enforcement action while he was governor, but it has been well documented that poor air quality costs CA over $20 Billion per year. Even Forbes business magazine lists two San Joaquin Valley cities, Fresno and Bakersfield in the top 3 most toxic cities in the US.

    There is a need to focus on what this is doing to our children: rates of asthma, cost to education for missed school days, etc. It is time to start asking why some politicians hate our children.

  8. Scrooge says:

    This is a battle between the common people and the big oil elites. The scientists have done and are still doing their job.
    Big oil gets the repugs to their rally meetings and fill them full of their tea bag/birch nonsense and the illiterate incompetent republican politicians convince themselves this complete crap is true.
    These are tough times. Our golden age may have passed, the repugs have decided the Kochs can pull their strings and let the riff raff middle class bear all the burdens of fixing americas problems.
    The republican puppets won’t stop till we are back to the gilded age. They could care less about the people of this country and world. They only care about the crumbs their puppet masters allow them to put in their pockets.

  9. Mimikatz says:

    If the GOP is as pro-national security as they pretend, why are they not listening to the military people who are terrified at the challenges that climate change will being? It seems to me that there should be a sit- down between these military leaders and Upton and his ilk who chair relevant committees. Or is the military more terrified of havimg their budget cut by vengeful Congressmen?

    The combination of the securitynthreats and the theats to children should be a sufficient one- two punch to deliver against the Koches and friends.

  10. catman306 says:

    A Reality Free Congress? (alternate title, alternate reality)

  11. Wes Rolley says:

    Mimikatz (#9) should be right. However, with the opposite message blanketing the media, how is one to know?

  12. David Stockbridge Smith says:

    I just flashed on a protest idea; Surround the capital with people & banners proclaiming the building and institution as a “Science Free Zone”. Inside the zone, people can demonstrate pre-science technologies. For example, Instead of cell phones, people can use tin cans connected with strings, Instead of cars, use of horses or those chairs carried by 4 slaves (from Roman times.) A display of Civil War medical technology might be interesting. Signs indicating anachronistic items, No cell phones, modern medication etc… This could be accomplished with less than 200 persons.

  13. Michael Tucker says:

    I’m not so sure about describing the Tea Party worldview as anti-intellectual, anti-establishment, and anti-elite.

    The Tea Party is most definitely anti-intellectual. But the Tea Party shamelessly supports big oil and big coal and those are without a doubt the most elite entities in the world today. I see the Tea Party as most decidedly elitist!

    However anti-establishment just does not fit. They are for 19th century energy production and you can’t get more establishment than that.

    “more than half of the Republicans in the House and three-quarters of Republican senators … now say that the threat of global warming, as a man-made and highly threatening phenomenon, is at best an exaggeration and at worst an utter “hoax””

    But this is really no surprise. Do these numbers reflect those who previously did agree with the science but then flipped after the 2008 election? I’m sure they do. Since we all know the abysmal state of education in this country it is no wonder how we can end up with a congress full of people just like these.

    “We are disheartened that many in Congress choose to be guided by those who profit from pollution.”

    Yeah we all are disheartened but, with the help of the Supreme Court, the Gang Of Polluters is laughing all the way to the bank!

    We hope that science would be the Achilles heel for this sort of nonsense but I guess the war against education and teachers in America is working.

    Keep up the fight! Do not listen to ‘appeasers’!

  14. Jim Groom says:

    A science-free Congress? Why the ? mark? It has been made clear for several years now that most of the members of congress are not up to the task of evaluating scientific testimony. The down-hill slide has begun and will only get worse until the American people wake up from their slumber…if that happens at all. I’m an optimist in general, but in the case of congress working for the good of the nation and its people I’m becomming more and more pessimistic each and every day. Todays hearings provided nothing to change my mind in any way.

  15. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Michael Tucker #12, the Tea Party and its Mad Hatters (mercury poisoning from coal burning, perhaps)are both anti-elite and pro-elite. They are anti the intellectual, moral and spiritual elites who recognise our predicament and can understand the science, but pro the moneyed, fascistic, elites who they admire because they are so stupid as to actually believe that they might one day be rich like them. Of course they have as much chance of that as flying to the moon, possibly less.
    The Tea Party phenomenon is the result of generations of Rightwing brainwashing. You have the society of vicious, greedy, stupid and ignorant homunculi that the Right set out to create, and, believe me, the situation in Australia is the same. Subject any population to relentless lying, fearmongering, hatemongering and appeals to greedy, ignorant, individualism, and constantly demonise any collective action or even any action to protect the environment that sustains our existence, and you end up with a deranged rabble of enraged fools, absolutely bent on self-destruction. It reminds me of a cartoon where two scientists are standing next to a cage filled with lab rats, which is being bombarded with bright lights, noise and pollution. One scientist says to the other, ‘They’ve just elected a conservative government’. The local rats here are in a fever pitch at the moment, driven to hysteria by a ruthless Rightwing media and a deranged opposition, all over $90 a year on electricity prices and six cents a litre on the price of petrol as the result of a carbon tax. The fate of their children, well, it’s beyond their intellectual and moral capacity to comprehend.

  16. David B. Benson says:

    See no climate change.
    Hear no climate change.
    Speak no climate change.

  17. David Lewis says:

    Long time Republican supporter Dr. Kerry Emanuel, who also happens to be a Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT, was interviewed recently on NPR “Science Friday” 2/4/2011 during a show entitled “Taking the Politics Out of Climate Science” and said this:

    “My feeling is that at this point in history, if a politician simply denies that there’s any human influence in the climate, in the face of all the evidence, it so much casts doubt on that person’s ability to weigh evidence and come to a rational conclusion that I can’t see myself voting for such a person, no matter what they say about other issues”.

    Joe wrote about Dr. Emanual last year –