The reversal of the U.S. Senate’s majority party is falling into place, and there is reason for concern over how new committee chairs will influence the agencies they oversee. Right now two big reasons are garnering the most attention: Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) will chair the subcommittee that oversees NASA, and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) will chair to the subcommittee that oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. Both have gone on record denying human-caused climate change.
While these ascensions are not unexpected, they do represent big changes from the recent years of Democratic control of the Senate. Bill Nelson (D-FL), the previous chair of the subcommittee on on Space, Science, and Competitiveness that Cruz is taking over, was a major NASA supporter and even flew on the space shuttle in 1986. While Cruz has said that it is “critical that the United States ensure its continued leadership in space” — the major Johnson Space Center is based in Houston — this might not be enough to curry his favor when it comes to the agency’s climate change research. In fact, in the last Congress Cruz clashed with Nelson over NASA funding, arguing that the agency needed to get in line with his notions of a smaller government.
“Senator Cruz has been playing to the most extreme elements of his party on climate change,” Keith Gaby, Communications director for climate and air at the Environmental Defense Fund, told ThinkProgress. “Having someone chair the Science Committee who claims there is no evidence of climate change in the last 15 years — when 13 of the 14 hottest years on record have occurred in the 21st Century — is not an encouraging development.”
Gaby said “we can only hope that the other members of the Committee act as a check on his actions.”
Then there’s Rubio, who as chair of the subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, will be forced to grapple with the fact that his low-lying home state of Florida is suffering some of the most severe impacts of climate change.
“With the huge and visible climate change impacts on his home state, we hope Rubio will take a more constructive approach,” said Gaby. “Florida could be a national leader in clean energy, and its economy has a lot at stake when it comes to in the tourism and real estate.”
Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told ThinkProgress he hopes both Cruz and Rubio realize the importance of these key agencies; both to their home states and to the ongoing national and international efforts to strengthen scientific understanding. Both Cruz and Rubio have tried to eschew weighing in on climate change recently by employing the refrain that they are not scientists. Rosenberg sees the other side of this argument being that they should not second guess the science.
“If people want to say ‘I am not a scientist’ OK, but therefore let’s support the scientific work that’s needed, not second guess it,” he said. “We can debate what we should be doing about the ongoing effects of climate change, and what do to, but let’s make sure we are strengthening the science and not undermining it.”
Rosenberg said that while much of what these agencies do doesn’t have to do directly with climate change — making them less susceptible to political theater — that “everything nowadays is in some way connected to climate change.”
The biggest threat that Cruz and Rubio present to climate science is through their appropriations decisions. Rosenberg said it’s best if the budget is focused on line items “without all kinds of strings attached saying you can’t do that or you can’t do that.” He said scientists shouldn’t have to deal with “precooked” messages. Both Cruz and Rubio are believed to have presidential ambitions, and may feel the need to solidify their staunch Republican and Tea Party-driven ideals as a way of distinguishing themselves in a primary. Overseeing these committees could provide an easy outlet for such an undertaking.
Benjamin Schreiber, head of the the climate and energy team at Friends of the Earth, said we’re likely to see a similar breakdown in the Senate science committees as we’ve seen in the House over the last few years. The situation in the full Senate will reflect these changes as well.
“The flip of the Senate is a huge change in the way our country is going to deal with the environment,” said Schreiber. “We’ve already seen that the Senate took up the Keystone XL pipeline as their first order of business. This is a huge symbolic vote to say that the first order of business is going to be to allow a Canadian company build a pipeline through the U.S. to export oil to the rest of the world.”
As for the rest of the 114th Congressional term, Schreiber thinks any sort of scientific progress will be harder to make with Republicans in charge. On top of Cruz and Rubio, this also includes James Inhofe, the climate change-denying Republican from Oklahoma who has taken over chairmanship of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which oversees much of the work the EPA does.
“President Obama has the authority to take a lot of meaningful action on climate change, and we’re starting to see him do that now,” said Schreiber. He went on to say that while Obama can veto pretty much any legislation coming out of the House or Senate, the real trouble comes during the “long theatrical oversight hearings” where there’s a lot of obfuscation.
“Those things grind progress to a halt,” he said. “It’s going to be harder to make progress, and working at any of these agencies is going to be much more difficult.”