A poll came out this week indicating that huge majorities of the US public think that the federal government isn’t doing enough to protect the environment. About 70 percent would like to see more action on clean water, and over two-thirds would like to see additional steps taken on climate change.
All of which provides a backdrop to the truly bizarre spectacle that took place in a hearing held by the House Science Committee this week. In a hearing meant to focus on technological solutions to climate change (like the hugely popular wind and solar), Republican members of the committee decided to once again raise questions about whether humans were influencing the warming climate, with one Congressman suggesting that the warming-driven rise in our oceans might instead be caused by rocks falling into the seas.
The poll comes courtesy of the Pew Research Center, which obtained the opinions of over 2,500 US adults. Despite a steady stream of rhetoric about the government overstepping its bounds, fewer than 10 percent felt that the US is doing too much to protect air, water, animals, and wilderness. Only 13 percent felt this way about climate change. In contrast, substantial majorities (from 57 to 69 percent, depending on the issue) thought that the government wasn’t doing enough.
In addition, large majorities like some of the actions we could take to handle climate and pollution issues. A total of 84 percent of Republicans and 93 percent of Democrats would like to see more solar farms, and similar numbers supported expanding wind power.
That said, partisan differences definitely exist. Conservative Republicans are far less likely to agree with the majorities on the issues mentioned above. Fewer than a quarter of the Democrats surveyed favor expanded fossil fuel production, while roughly 60 percent of Republicans did. And three quarters of Republicans felt it was possible to cut regulations and still protect the environment; only 35 percent of Democrats felt the same. Only a minority of Republicans felt climate policies helped the environment, and even fewer felt they were good for the economy.
There’s also some disagreement on basic facts. Only 18 percent of conservative Republicans think that humanity’s driving climate change, even though 40 percent of them recognize that most climate scientists think that’s the case. Perhaps as a result, nearly one-third of the conservative Republicans actually think policies to address climate change do more harm than good for the environment.
Meanwhile, in Congress…
This would seem to be the perfect backdrop for an interesting debate in Congress: everybody would like to see something done, but the parties disagree on the appropriate policy solutions. And this week, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology had a hearing scheduled called “Using technology to address climate change”—the perfect place to debate the appropriate policy response, right?
Instead we got this. The head of the Committee, Texas’ Lamar Smith, opened the session by stating, “The climate is always changing, but what remains uncertain is the extent to which humans contribute to that change.” It took awhile for the only scientist present, Philip Duffy of the Woods Hole Research Center, to get the opportunity to address this. He noted that the total of human influences on the climate happens to be equal to the amount of temperature change we’ve seen over the last few decades.
But Smith was only getting started with the misinformation. He went on to complain that the IPCC’s high emissions scenario has… high emissions. Specifically, his complaint was it got those high emissions via heavy coal use, which is declining in the US. But rather than recognizing the scenario for what it is—one possible future—Smith went on to claim that it “further undercut the reliability of the IPCC’s findings.”
Smith wasn’t done, of course. “In the field of climate science, there is legitimate concern that scientists are biased in favor of reaching predetermined conclusions,” he said, but the congressman neglected to provide any evidence that these concerns actually exist or are legitimate. “This inevitably leads to alarmist findings that are labelled as facts,” he went on to claim. Randy Weber of Texas later echoed that thinking, asking one of the experts present, “Do you think the study is part of the hype to force more regulations on the energy industry?”
Smith’s inane comments might be the lowlights of any other Congressional committee, but the Science Committee was only getting started. Arizona’s Andy Biggs noted studies have concluded that rising ocean levels will cause salt water intrusions into island aquifers in the near future. But, because desalination technology exists, he called these “irresponsible, exaggerated, and unrealistic,” and an example of the “folly of climate alarmism.”
The topic of sea level rise came up repeatedly during the meeting. Smith interjected at one point to show a graph that compared sea levels rising at a sedate pace even as carbon emissions boomed. Duffy had to point out that the graph showed a single tide gauge in San Francisco, and the global rise was larger and accelerating. But the most striking example came from Alabama’s Mo Brooks, who argued that sea level rise was being caused by rocks falling into the ocean from places like the white cliffs of Dover.
For the most part, the experts brought in to testify were left on the sidelines. The panel had invited Judith Curry to testify, as she will reliably state that the uncertainties in climate science are much larger than her fellow scientists will acknowledge, although she doesn’t identify any sources of uncertainty that aren’t already factored in. But Curry’s flight was cancelled, and the remaining experts—Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute and the Manhattan Institute’s Oren Cass—all agreed with Duffy that climate science had correctly identified humanity’s role in driving climate change and that this needed to be addressed.
Cass and Nordhaus tended to get sidelined as Duffy, the obvious defender of climate science, ended up being asked to defend various policy options and economic implications as well. Still, these experts did manage to make their points. Nordhaus noted that no countries have put a price on carbon high enough to drive emissions down significantly, and most successes have been driven by the increasing economic competitiveness of renewables. As such, he argued for more partnerships between government and private industry to foster making additional technologies competitive—an argument that was about the only thing that was in keeping with the supposed topic of the hearing.
Cass’ primary argument was that many of the studies that are used to promote policy actions are unrealistic, as they assume current conditions will extend into the future. His primary example was a study that indicated northern US cities that see heat-related deaths rise considerably over the course of this century—but only if they didn’t adopt the levels of air conditioning typically found further south. Adapting like this, he argued, is much cheaper than the cost of having people die from heat, and therefore estimates of future costs were exaggerated.
Under questioning, Cass acknowledged that cost estimates also don’t do a good job of including factors like people being forced to spend less time outside, or the loss of species. So, these estimates have a large amount of uncertainty in any case. But the discussion of this uncertainty largely got lost in the inane questions about whether climate change and sea level rise are actually happening.