Chair of House Science Committee thinks we need to focus on the benefits of climate change

Smith saw climate change in the Arctic, and came back with a very optimistic view of the problem.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Zach Gibson
CREDIT: AP Photo/Zach Gibson

In mid-May, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), along with at least eight other members of Congress, traveled to the Arctic to meet with climate scientists and learn about federally-funded research currently underway in the Arctic Circle.

The trip, first reported by Buzzfeed News, raised eyebrows among climate activists, mainly because Smith has long been one of Congress’ most outspoken climate skeptics, often using his position as Chairman of the House Science Committee to stage hearings aimed at undermining the consensus on climate science and discrediting scientists.

To see the impact of climate change firsthand, there is hardly a better place than the Arctic, which has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the planet and seen record-low levels of sea ice in recent years. Climate scientists like Michael Mann greeted news of the trip with optimism, telling Buzzfeed that it “suggests positive engagement.”

Smith, however, appears to have learned all the wrong lessons from his time in the Arctic. This week, he wrote in an op-ed published on the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal blog that “the benefits of a changing climate are often ignored and under-researched,” extolling the potential for climate change to “increase international trade and strengthen the world economy” by opening up new shipping lanes in the melting Arctic. It’s a perspective Smith shares with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has praised climate change for creating new economic opportunities for Russia in the Arctic.

The op-ed is a departure from Smith’s traditional style of climate science denial, which, up to this point, has largely been to attack climate scientists as biased and climate data as manipulated. In the piece, Smith acknowledges that an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is contributing to climate change; instead of focusing on the consequences of climate change, however — like sea level rise and the inundation of island nations and coastal cities, increased likelihood of intense drought, or expansion of diseases — he argues that the public needs to focus on the benefits instead.

But if Smith’s new stance signals a shift for the congressman, it might also point to the emergence of a more dangerous perspective on the issue of climate change. Scientists overwhelmingly agree that human-caused climate change is real and poses a serious, imminent threat; what happens when a powerful politician, with a vested interested in maintaining the status quo, begins arguing that carbon emissions are actually good for the planet? What stops someone who holds such a view from pushing pro-fossil fuel policies under the auspice of boosting food production or stimulating international trade, as Smith alleges?

For more than 50 years, climate scientists have worked to build a robust body of data showing that the burning of fossil fuels is contributing to a greater increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, and that, in turn, is changing the climate. And for nearly just as long, fossil fuel companies and petrochemical billionaires, like Charles and David Koch, have been funding misinformation campaigns aimed at undercutting the scientific consensus on climate change in the public sphere. The result is that more than a century after David Charles Keeling began plotting the curve of increased carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, the debate over climate science has only intensified.

But as concern over climate change reaches a three-decade high in the United States, politicians who are finding it increasingly difficult to challenge the science turn to another tactic: acknowledging the existence of climate change while extolling its benefits and relishing in its uncertainty.

The truth is that, for the overwhelming majority of people on earth, the negatives associated with climate change will far outweigh the positives. Numerous studies have shown that while an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide can help plants grow, too much can have the opposite effect — decreasing a plant’s natural protein, for instance, or triggering droughts and intense storms that hinder production.

Likewise, while climate change will certainly diminish sea ice in the Arctic, that decrease will set off a feedback loop where dark ocean waters absorb more sunlight, heating the Arctic even faster. That feedback, in turn, could drive more extreme weather at lower latitudes, or accelerate both sea level rise and the melting permafrost. And more shipping through the Arctic will certainly open the region up to increased maritime traffic, which could portend invasive species, devastating oil spills, and increased carbon emissions.

But it’s not just the far-reaches of the globe, or the food system, that will see more harm than benefit from climate change. According to a study published earlier this summer in Science, Smith’s own district — Real County, Texas — is set to be one of the hardest hit, economically, by climate change. In Texas, climate change could raise the number of heat-related deaths, increase dangerous flooding, and intense storms. It could also result in annual damages totaling $3.9 billion for the state.

But Smith doesn’t have to worry about those impacts. He has enough personal wealth to rebuild a damaged home, or move from an inhospitable climate. And he has access to the kinds of lifesaving technologies — like air conditioning — that can help lessen his risk of heat-related illness.

Over the course of his political career, Smith has received more than $600,000 in campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry. If Smith were to acknowledge the dangers posed by climate change, he would effectively be acknowledging that the industry that has given him more money than any other poses a threat to the lives of millions. Accepting the dangers of global climate change means understanding that the status quo — a world fueled by oil, gas, and coal — is an untenable plan for the future. For Smith, however, the status quo represents security.

When Smith says climate change benefits the world, what he really means is that climate change benefits people like him: people with millions of dollars, who live in industrialized nations, and can view the consequences of climate change as a minor inconvenience.

Smith is right that grappling with climate change is complicated. It’s filled with uncertainties, and requires broad, systemic changes now to benefit generations years in the future. Unfortunately for the millions who are and will be threatened by climate change, it’s people like Smith who truly have the power to implement the ambitious changes needed to combat climate change. And for those people, Smith’s denial of the problem is more than inconvenient — it’s dangerous.