I've seen some surreal moments in our nation's capitol, but few can compare to watching Republican members of Congress lecture John Holdren last week on the meaning of "science." Here are some highlights.
Holdren, the president's science advisor, was the lone witness at a hearing held by the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology to review the White House's fiscal year 2015 budget request for science agencies.
You can watch the two-hour video here—or better yet, don't. We've watched it for you. Plus, you don't want to be more embarrassed than you already are about a science committee that includes a congressman who describes evolution as a "lie from the pit of Hell" and another who claims that climate change is a liberal plot to "create global government to control our lives."
Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) set the tone of the hearing right away, beginning with the observation, "Unfortunately, this Administration's science budget focuses, in my view, far too much money, time, and effort on alarmist predictions of climate change." Smith then questioned Holdren about the National Science Foundation (NSF), which, he said, was swindling American taxpayers by funding apparently useless programs, such a $340,000 grant to study the ecological consequences of early human-set fires in New Zealand.
And that was one of the more courteous exchanges during the hearing. What came next was a series of Bizarro World lectures on climate change.
Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) demonstrated his inability to grasp the idea that the world's climate varies across different regions (which, in fairness, is a sensible line of questioning—if we were living on the forest moon of Endor):
Rohrabacher: Do you believe that tornadoes and hurricanes today are more ferocious and more frequent than they were in the past?
Holdren: There is no evidence relating to tornadoes. None of all. And I don't know any spokesman for the administration who has said otherwise. With respect to hurricanes, there is some evidence of increased activity in the North Atlantic, but not in other parts of the world. With respect to droughts and floods, there is quite strong evidence that in some regions they are being enhanced by climate change—not caused by [climate change], influenced by climate change.
Rohrabacher: "I don't mean to sound pejorative...but they're Weasel words—that in some areas, "globally" there's not more droughts, "globally" there's not more hurricanes and they're not more ferocious. Is that correct?
Holdren: If you want to take a global average, the fact is a warmer world is getting wetter, there's more evaporation so there's more precipitation, so on a global average there's unlikely to be more droughts. The question is whether drought-prone regions are suffering increased intensity and duration of droughts, and the answer there is yes.
Rohrabacher: [snickering] So we actually have more water and more drought? Okay, thank you very much.
Note to Rohrabacher: You can read about how increasing levels of temperature and precipitation can worsen droughts here. Or, if reading is not your thing, here's a short animated video (with pretty colors!)
Next on the GOP lineup, Bill Posey (R-FL) observed that cycles of extreme climate change are normal, and then trotted out the Newt Gingrich "dinosaur" argument. ("Hey, it was hot during the Jurassic Era, and T-Rex seemed perfectly content."):
Posey: How many ice ages do you think we've gone through?
Holdren: The Earth has undergone climate changes throughout its entire history. The difference is that, for most of that history, there weren't 7 billion people on the planet who needed to be fed, clothed and kept prosperous. And the other difference is that the pace of change was generally much slower.
Posey: I'm aware of that. You know, obviously, we've had global warming for a long time. You can't have one single ice age encompassing three ice ages. We had to have warming periods between each one of those, so that is a natural phenomenon. You know, just because we're alive now, the tectonic plate shifts aren't going to stop, the hurricanes and tsunamis aren't going to stop; the asteroid strikes aren't going to stop. These things have been going on for eons and they're going to continue to go on for eons....What do you think the temperature was on Earth before the disappearance of the dinosaurs?
Holdren: There have been periods when the temperature was 3, 4 or 5 degrees Celsius warmer than it is now. The difference between the circumstances you're describing and the circumstance we're in now, is the changes that are being imposed on the climate—in a substantial part because of human activity—are faster than the ability of ecosystems to adapt and maybe, even more importantly, faster than the ability of human society to adapt....The natural changes, which we understand and which are underway on a long-term basis as we speak, would, if they were the only influences, be cooling the planet rather than warming it. We would be in a long term cooling trend as a result of the natural forces affecting climate that we understand. We are, instead, in a warming trend, which suggests that human activity, is overwhelmingly responsible for the difference.
Posey: I remember the 70s, that was the threat. We're going to have a cooling that's eventually going to freeze the planet, and that was the fear before Al Gore invented the Internet….
Saving the last for best, freshman congressman Randy Weber (R-TX)—whom the National Journal has labeled a "conservative legend in his own mind"—expressed his doubts about whether this whole science thing actually makes any sense:
Weber: So, when you guys do your research, you start with a scientific—what do they call it—postulate or theory, and you work from that direction forward, is that right?
Holdren: It depends on what sort of science that you're talking about, but the notion of posing a hypothesis and then trying to determine whether it's right is one of the tried and true approaches in science, yes.
Weber: So, I'm just wondering how that related, for example, to global warming and eventual global cooling... I don't know how you prove those hypotheses, going back 50, 100, what you might say is thousands or millions of years, and how you postulate those forward.
Silly scientists! But what Weber and his GOP colleagues overlooked—because that would require research and stuff—was that the NSF-funded program denounced at the very beginning of the hearing was a classic example of how researching the past helps us better understand climate change today.
Here's a summary about why Montana State University researchers are so interested in the topic of human-caused forest fires in New Zealand:
Dave McWethy, assistant research professor in earth sciences and Cathy Whitlock, professor of earth sciences, chose New Zealand because humans arrived there just 700 years ago, and changes to the environment after people arrived were dramatic.
"Our goal is to better understand how the first peoples of New Zealand influenced the environment and how resilient landscapes were to human activity," McWethy said. "New Zealand provides a unique setting for examining human impacts because the country was settled fairly recently during a time of relatively stable climate. In addition, the wet forests of New Zealand were highly sensitive to disturbances, such as fire."
The first peoples in New Zealand initiated a sequence of events that caused the loss of more than 40 percent of the forests, and this deforestation occurred within decades of human arrival. It was accomplished by the introduction of a new disturbance—fire.
According to McWethy, New Zealand provides a dramatic case of how rapidly forests can be transformed by introducing a new disturbance. "Information from this research may also help us better understand how climate change and land-use change will influence fire and other disturbances in the western U.S."
Holdren told the committee that basic research such as this NSF-funded program is crucial to "promoting the progress of science." Somehow, I doubt that any of the GOP members of congress were listening.
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