Risky business: Will facts ever drive the Congressional debate on climate change?

Our guest blogger is Bill Becker

Watching the debate over climate science in Congress these days is like watching butchers, bakers and candlestick makers debate brain surgery.  At the moment, no other conversation in American politics is so filled with willful misconceptions or so large a waste of time.

During a hearing this week on whether EPA should be stripped of its power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee brought along stacks of scientific studies and a string of climate scientists. The result, as reported by the New York Times:

Despite some fireworks, the handful of members from both parties who attended the hearing left with the views they arrived with.

In other words, the climate debate in Congress is not really a debate. When it’s not about raw politics, it’s a standoff of rigid ideologies and beliefs. That’s part of the problem. Climate science is not about beliefs or philosophies of government; it’s about facts.

But facts aren’t driving the climate conversation on Capitol Hill. Some Members can’t accept climate change because they can’t handle the truth; some think whatever happens is ordained by God; some are principally concerned about keeping campaign cash flowing from the oil, coal and gas industries; and some are committed to preventing progressives from succeeding at anything before the 2012 election. Neither scientists nor science are likely to sway these Members, particularly when paid witnesses and fringe research are available to challenge what the overwhelming majority of climate experts has found.

For these reasons, Congress should stop debating climate science.  Climate science is the right conversation for scientists, but the wrong conversation for Congress. The right dialogue for lawmakers is about managing climate risk.  What should concern policy makers is the possibility the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. Global Change Research Program are correct.  If climate disruption is possible, then Congress’s job is to protect us against that risk by assessing it, attempting to mitigate it, and helping us all prepare for the worst case.

Uncertainty is not an excuse for inaction.  As Climate Progress reports, Sandia National Laboratory assessed the risk of precipitation patterns affected by climate change, and concluded:

“¦compelling risk derives from uncertainty, not certainty. The greater the uncertainty, the greater the risk. It is the uncertainty associated with climate change that validates the need to act protectively and proactively.

The same point is made in “Degrees of Risk”, a report issued last month by Third Generation Environmentalism:

In managing conventional security risks both policy makers and the general public accept that uncertainty is no excuse for inaction. Indeed it is hard to imagine a politician trying to argue that counter-terrorism measures were unnecessary because the threat of attack was uncertain.

In a working paper circulated through the environmental community this week, Andrew J. Hoffman of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business argues that the two poles in the climate debate – the “skeptics” and the “convinced” – already think about risk, but from entirely different perspectives. As a result, the two camps are talking past each other. Hoffman based these conclusions in part on an extensive review of articles on the different perspectives at play in the climate debate. He writes:

Where convinced articles emphasize the physical, social, and health risks from climate change, skeptical articles focus on the risks to quality of life if climate change is addressed and the positive externalities that will occur due to climate change (e.g. longer growing seasons).  Risk is built on two completely contrasting assessments of the threat at hand, one coming from inaction and the other from action.  

The question is, which type of risk should motivate policy makers – the risk of doing something or the risk of doing nothing?  The responsible choice is to plan for climate disruption rather than placing our bets on business as usual. Business as usual doesn’t exist. Whether we all collaborate to build a new clean-energy economy or we allow greenhouse gas emissions and climate impacts to continue growing, we are entering a different world.

Like some members of Congress, the American people may have trouble understanding the nuances of climate science, but they certainly understand insuring ourselves against risk. Most of us do it in other areas of our lives. Reducing risk is why mortgage lenders require borrowers to buy hazard insurance. It’s why drivers buy collision insurance. It’s why homeowners insure themselves against fire, theft and liability lawsuits. It’s why families who can afford it buy health insurance to protect themselves from catastrophic illness and injury. In each case, we protect ourselves not against the inevitable or the likely, but against the possible.

A few similes might further illustrate this point in non-scientific terms:

  • Permitting unabated greenhouse gas emissions is like keeping our foot on the accelerator and our hands off the steering wheel. All of us are along for the ride, and we’re all in jeopardy.
  • Ignoring the analyses of most of the world’s leading climate scientists is, to borrow from Al Gore, like hearing 9 of 10 cancer doctors tell us our child has cancer but since the diagnosis wasn’t unanimous, deciding against treatment.
  • Cutting federal investments in climate research, mitigation and adaptation – spending cuts House Republicans have proposed — is like disbanding the military because we believe there will be no more wars.

The risks of unmitigated climate change have been well documented: natural disasters, drought, instability in volatile regions of the world, millions of climate refugees and so on. But climate skeptics in Congress are ignoring those warnings, as well as the risks to national security – an area that even most conservatives admit is a responsibility of the federal government.

Military and intelligence experts have been making the case for the several years that climate change will multiply threats to our security. A fresh example was detailed this week in a study prepared for the U.S. Navy by the National Academy of Sciences.  The Academy warned the United States is unprepared to defend its interests in the Arctic, where melting summer sea ice may result in international competition over newly accessible oil and gas reserves.

In addition, the report estimated that $100 billion in Navy installations are at risk from rising sea levels, another effect of climate change.

“Even the most moderate current trends in climate, if continued, will present new national security challenges for the U.S. Navy, Marine Corp and Coastguard,” the report concludes. “While the timing, degree and consequences of future climate change impacts remain uncertain, many changes are already underway in regions around the world.”

Indeed, as Hoffman notes, national security should be the common ground on which all sides could meet for an adult conversation about dealing with the uncertainties ahead. He writes:

(I)t was surprising to find that national security arguments were not invoked more often by convinced authors. One might have thought that national security would be another possible issue category that the convinced would use to persuade the undecided and skeptical that climate is a problem worth addressing.

Perhaps we can forgive those members of Congress who confuse belief with facts; deny the growing body of observed evidence that climate change is underway; ignore the warnings of our military and intelligence experts; fail to distinguish good science from bad; let ideology interfere with good judgment; and put politics ahead of prudence. Perhaps.

But we should be far less forgiving if Congress fails to protect us from the risk that climate change is not only real, but also a looming global catastrophe. We don’t know for sure how quickly climate disruption will escalate or precisely how bad it will be. But those uncertainties are all the more reason for Congress to pass the laws and preserve the powers for the federal government to help protect us from the most severe consequences of climate change.

–Bill Becker, Executive Director, the Presidential Climate Action Project.

18 Responses to Risky business: Will facts ever drive the Congressional debate on climate change?

  1. Ben Lieberman says:

    It’s time to start putting in on the line with the electorate and making it clear that they are ultimately responsible for what we see when politician after politician, including almost every single elected Republican, make disgraceful, ignorant, and dishonest statements about climate and science. For most people, climate is just another issue and not usually the one the care most about. Americans need to understand that if we are not part of the solution we are a vast part of the problem–there is no middle ground. Those who vote for climate skeptics and deniers are voting to devastate the world’s environment, and they are voting to devastate the world’s environment for their own children and grand-children. Voting for any candidate for office who either deniers climate change or refuses to take action to curb global warming means that you are then responsible for the consequences for everyone.

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    This is excellent, Bill, thank you. I liked the chart, too, but was surprised to see Burma on it.

    The deniers will be proved wrong, but it won’t help. Most of the Vietnam senators who stood up for principle in opposing the war were defeated, and the warmongers rewrote history- somehow blaming the outcome on demonstrators- and had long careers in politics.

    We need a lot more people like you who will call the deniers out, in public and in force. How about this tactic: when I was on the Congressional testimony circuit years ago, I learned that it was not difficult to get meetings with Congressional staffers. Your group or a different one may want to consider arming small groups with fact sheets to inundate the staffs of Congressmen who are clearly guilty of negligence and fraud. This could include press releases and repeat visits.

    Another tactic might be to fact check all media with widely distributed summaries of their terrible coverage of this subject. Fox has gone from Monckton to Watts, and the networks now feature Christy instead of Lindzen, but that’s not good enough.

    I don’t know if these tactics will work, but we need new ideas. There are lots of willing troops, especially among older people like me.

  3. Bill the perception by many is that risk, if any, is far out into the future. Therefore no need to act. This perception and doubt is being fostered (created?) by fossil energy interests and their allies. Consider what environmental economist Robert Repetto has to say about this:

    “Fossil (oil, coal, natural gas) energy interests are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into sowing doubt and uncertainty to blunt public concern and to provide political cover to those politicians they are funding. In America, there is a very concerted effort by fossil energy interests that bankroll right-wing and libertarian “think tanks” like the Competitive Enterprise Institute to create an atmosphere of doubt and uncertainty, just like the tobacco companies did regarding the health effects of smoking.”

  4. Wrex says:

    Here’s an Onion-esque parody of ALEC model legislation which calls for denying the existence of the “Environment” altogether and re-branding the EPA as the Economy Protection Agency…

  5. Wes Rolley says:

    Mike Roddy, as usual, is on to something. From my own experience, in 2006, we managed to set up a small group of activists whose primary goal was to ensure that everyone heard the facts about the Chairman of the House Committee on Resources, Richard Pombo. Nearly every day, this group received one or more notices: sample letters to the editor, talking points for writing something larger, all backed up with facts and references.

    Most of the members of this group had their own activist contacts so that they could parcel out responsibilities to do something. One of the results was that almost every day there was negative commentary about Pombo or positive commentary about one of his opponent (McCloskey in the primary, McNerney in the general election) in every newspaper in the district.

    It took time to turn out the material, but I have to think that it was one of the reasons for Pombo’s defeat. We need to have organized action in district after district, targeting key individuals. It would also help if there were still Republicans like McCloskey to give cover for those who wanted to vote against the Pomboids. Unfortunately, McCloskey has changed parties and the rest, like Sherwood Boehlert or Lincoln Chaffee, have been driven out of Washington.

    I would love to see the smart, knowledgeable, articulate Californians on this list like Mike and Jeff Huggins, find a way to work together and take down one or two key Congress Critters. We almost did that when Debbie Cook (Post Carbon Institute) ran against Dana Rohrabacher. Rohrabacher, Buck McKeon, Darrell Issa and Dan Lundgren would all make good targets. It is achievable when we work together. Some, like McKeon, might be unassailable now, but it all adds up.

  6. Jeff Huggins says:

    Excellent, And …

    That’s an excellent post, Bill. Thanks.

    The only thing I’d say, or add, is this (going beyond the scope of the post in order to remind us of a vital point):

    When we talk about risk at all, we usually talk about it thus: Let’s consider the risks to ourselves, associated with problems of our own making, and then (hopefully) take actions to mitigate those risks, “adapt” to them, or (what a striking thought?!) even change the habits of ours that are causing the problems in the first place.

    In other words, we approach the matter (when we do at all) from the standpoint of not wanting to shoot ourselves in the feet. The concern (and risk) is the harm we are doing, or might do, to OURSELVES. It’s as if we were teenagers considering whether to continue going 100 mph on a narrow country road, or to lower our speed to a safe 25 mph, by considering only the potential damages that we might cause to ourselves and our own car, disregarding entirely the fact that at 100 mph, we are likely to kill and injure OTHER people by our actions.

    There is an ethical issue here — a very real one — often overlooked in all of the discussions and deliberations, including those that consider the matter from a risk standpoint. If my own actions result in risks to me, that’s one thing: Of course, even the “we” here is a large number of people, e.g., people in the U.S., so we should be very careful to avoid creating risks for ourselves and each other. But if my actions cause risks to OTHERS (people in other countries, future generations, etc.), that’s a whole additional ball-game. I cannot simply assign myself a “right” to knowingly engage in actions that create substantial risks for others. It is this aspect of things that is almost entirely ignored, it seems to me. Many of our discussions proceed as if the only things that should matter to us are harms (or risks) to US. Instead, we should also be deeply concerned about — and indeed ashamed about — actions of ours that create harms/risks to OTHERS.

    I’ve submitted a proposed post to Joe that deals with that aspect of the subject in relation to “free markets” and “fairness”. I’m hoping that Joe will like it, and run it, if he decides that it fits within the scope of CP’s subject focus. Stay tuned. (Joe?)

    Thanks again for the great post, Bill.

    Cheers, and Happy Friday,


  7. Mike Roddy says:

    Thanks, Wes, I always appreciate your posts, too. Shit, our names practically rhyme!

    Getting rid of Pombo was a big deal, thanks for that, and your experience there could be a big help. I hope one of the big organizations listens, and provides the funding needed. Pombo was considered invincible, and always won with big majorities until you and McNerney came along. Apparently Pombo didn’t look so good when his deeds had some light shown on them. The same tactic could work all over the country. Few Americans know, for example, that Walker and his Wisconsin extremists have collected big money from foreign lobbyists, especially from petro states. If Americans knew that oil oligarchs were bankrolling Republicans trying to tear apart EPA, a lot could change. Big surprise: the mainstream media has completely ignored this story.

  8. Jeffrey Davis says:

    Climate isn’t going to improve by neglecting the issue. As Auden said of poetry, rhetoric makes nothing happen.

    The Koches and their peers are just insuring a world that will get worse, little by little, until the degradation isn’t so little anymore. After a certain point — when CO2 percolating out of the summer Arctic tundra equals human production, for example — feedbacks are going to eclipse any mitigation efforts that can reasonably be made.

    Then, we’ll be at the mercy of physics and chance.

    All so we don’t have to pay for the externalities of carbon fuel.

    What a world.

  9. Chris Winter says:

    From the post:

    Perhaps we can forgive those members of Congress who confuse belief with facts; deny the growing body of observed evidence that climate change is underway; ignore the warnings of our military and intelligence experts; fail to distinguish good science from bad; let ideology interfere with good judgment; and put politics ahead of prudence. Perhaps.

    I’m all in favor of taking a harder line. Facts are facts, and misinformation is misinformation. We shouldn’t accept the latter from members of Congress — not on climate change, on vaccinations, on smoking and lung cancer, or on any other scientific topic.

    This doesn’t mean we have to elect scientific experts. (Well, a few wouldn’t hurt.) But it does mean they should be scientifically literate. Alas, I don’t foresee this coming about until we bring the scientific literacy of our populace up to where it should be.

  10. Bill Becker says:

    Mike (No. 2): The organization I work for now (Third Generation Environmentalism) is meeting with and briefing as many Members and staffers on the Hill as it can to make the case for “climate risk” management. We’ll see where it goes.

    Stephen (No. 3): You’re right. I was just looking again at the latest report of the U.S. Global Change Science Program, which lays out the likely impacts of climate change, region by region, under high and low-emission scenarios. But the report also describes what’s already underway. The challenge is how to help make the information digestible, and palatable, to lay people. One strategy we’re exploring is to equate climate risk management with several other risks the public accepts as a federal responsibility: nuclear war, terrorism, and so on.

    We need to combat the “energy tax” argument, too. In fact, we need to reverse it. I’m curious why there’s so little discussion about how fiscal conservatives, deficit hawks and free market advocates are not cutting oil, gas and coal subsidies, or raising the very low royalty and lease rates we charge those industries.

  11. Michael Tucker says:

    “fiscal conservatives” or “small government” are just talking points to get people to pay attention. Propaganda pure and simple!

    If they take campaign money from big oil and coal they will ALWAYS support subsidies. Haven’t you heard? Since many of the ‘subsidies’ are really tax breaks, ending them would be, according to GOP propaganda, the same as increasing the tax on those industries.

  12. Solar Jim says:


    I agree with M. Tucker. You need to develop a more accurate understanding of how the stinking cesspool of graft and corruption works. Otherwise, you present yourself as another liberal Washington elitist who is not really accomplishing a lot, except writing about your opinions.

    If you want to combat the “energy tax” argument try starting from the concept that this is the wrong framing. I think we wish to tax mined geologic materials like petroleum. True energy, like solar or wind or geothermal heat remains untaxed. Therefore, try thinking in terms of Matter and Energy. For example, consider the phrase “Oil is not a resource of energy.”

  13. CW says:

    I can’t imagine all those in Washington with no or little conscience caring about a risk to society. It’s risks to themselves they care about. This risk to society might be recognized by the majority in another 15 to 20 years (when so many representatives are dead!). But it may never be recognized as such by the majority either — it may always be seen as ‘natural variation’ or ‘God’. So if there’s no direct and near-term consequences to them, there’s no risk here of concern to them.

    I do agree with the notion alluded to in the post that it’s not really a debate we’re watching but a power struggle. Power struggles do seem to care little for facts.

  14. Everett Rowdy says:

    Republicans have no principles: they only respond to power, whether expressed in oily dollars or as hard-flung mud.

    The next time there is a climate change hearing, the Democrats should call as witnesses only children – children who understand the dire situation and who want to make a difference. Have these children ask the Republicans why have they foresaken science, why they are in favor of dirty air and poisoned water, why they are dooming the kids’ future.

    In all contested congressional elections, run full-page ads or 30 sec TV/YouTube ads showing a group of school kids and all of the projected climate change catastrophes these kids will see – thanks to Republican corruption. If you want to be really savvy, be sure to use school kids from the schools where the children of major Republican donors attend.

    The problem with those of us who understand the science is that we are using the science to promote our position. That’s great for getting published in a peer-reviewed journal and 100% ineffective for stirring anyone’s values. We have to stop citing the IPCC reports and start showing the children who will be affected and describing the hell the Republicans are prescribing for them.

    Showing how Republicans are dooming our children’s future will not convert any Republicans (the kids aren’t multi-billionaire oligarchs or hard-hitting swiftboat NRA types). But it should appeal to the rest of humanity that does care. And that may be enough to vote out Republicans in the polls.

  15. Warren says:

    I find it ironic that high school Congressional debate is perhaps the most fact-based type of debate, while our actual Congress suffers from the dual paralysis of anti-science and special interests.

  16. Michael B. says:

    Facts? Who needs facts when you have got the money?

    Plutocracy Now: What Wisconsin Is Really About
    By Kevin Drum | Mother Jone, March/April 2011 Issue

  17. Nick Palmer says:

    I must say I thought Everett Rowdy’s post #14 was rather clever.

    “Republicans have no principles: they only respond to power, whether expressed in oily dollars or as hard-flung mud.

    The next time there is a climate change hearing, the Democrats should call as witnesses only children – children who understand the dire situation and who want to make a difference.”

    Whilst over simplified (There are Democrats who have no principles and only respond to power) this was a blog post, not a PhD thesis) it does highlight the tendency to a certain way of looking at the world which can be summarised as “I’ve got a right, nay, a destiny, to do whatever I want for the benefit of me and mine and no-one should be allowed to stop me”. It’s individualism bordering on solipsism. I blame the Reagan/Thatcher yuppie years for multiplying an existing human behaviour to absurd lengths in a process which has been called the industrialisation of individualism.

  18. Robert In New Orleans says:

    Until elections are publicly financed, big money will have precedence over everything else.