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Learning from the Climate Hearing

Posted on 6 April 2011 by dana1981

The purpose of the recent U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science Space and Technology climate change hearing was to examine processes used to generate climate science information, and to give "skeptics" the opportunity to present their case to Congress.  Unfortunately, most of the politicians on the committee did not seem interested in learning from the proceedings, instead behaving like lawyers in a court case.

Playing the Role of the Defense Attorneys: Republicans

In most cases, the Republican congressmen asked questions in a manner which in a court of law they would be penalized for "leading the witness."  They often repeated one of the myths in our Arguments Database in the form of a question, expecting their chosen witnesses to affirm the myth, and usually receiving that incorrect affirmation.

Their treatment of the opposing witness (Kerry Emanuel) was rather lawyer-like as well.  Most Republican congressmen did not interact with Dr. Emanuel, and the few who did generally attempted to attack his credibility, referring to him as a green "advocate" or claiming that the Oxburgh Climategate panel on which he participated was whitewashed.

Playing the Role of the Prosecuting Attorneys: Democrats

A few of the Democratic congressmen similarly attacked the credibility of the Republican witnesses.  One congresswoman used her time to ask each witness if he had received any funding from the fossil fuel or energy industry.

Several other Democratic congressmen spent their time confirming that all climate science witnesses agreed that the climate is changing and human greenhouse gas emissions are a contributing factor.   It's unfortunate that these congressmen felt they had to use their time to confirm these aspects of the body of climate science which are settled, but perhaps this is a result of the recent attempts by Republicans in Congress to pass anti-science legislation.

My main criticism of the Democratic behavior was that they failed to challenge the economic claims of Dr. David Montgomery, the lone economist among the hearing witnesses.  His claims throughout the hearing were inconsistent with the body of ecnonomic studies of climate legislation, and will be the subject of a future blog post.  From what I understand, numerous economists provided the Democratic congressmen with information to refute Dr. Montgomery's claims, but for the most part, his statements went unchallenged despite being well outside mainstream climate economics.

Playing the Role of the Expert Defense Witnesses: Christy, Montgomery, Glaser, and Armstrong

Each witness called by the Republicans played a specific role at the hearing.  As mentioned above, Dr. Montgomery presented the "skeptic" perspective of the economic impacts of carbon emissions reductions.  Mr. Glaser presented the opinion that the EPA endangerment finding was flawed from a legal standpoint.  Dr. Armstrong presented the opinion that climate forecasts are fundamentally flawed.  Dr. Christy played the role of the "skeptic" climate scientist being bullied by the consensus scientists, and the Republican congressmen often referred to him as a "maverick".

Dr. Muller seemed like the answer to "one of these things doesn't belong."  His written testimony was devoted to describing that the preliminary results of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project are consistent with the rest of the surface temperature measurement data sets.  Although he did propagate one myth regarding "hide the decline", Dr. Muller also dispelled the myth that the surface temperature record is unreliable, and overall his testimony was accurate and reasonable (which may be why he wasn't asked very many questions).

On the other hand, the rest of the Republican witnesses were quite willing to affirm the climate myths put to them in the form of leading questions from the Republican congressmen, rather than ensuring that our policymakers are correctly informed.  In fact, Dr. Christy was responsible for approximately one-third of the climate myths propagated at the hearing.  As a consequence, Christy's testimony will be the subject of a series of future Skeptical Science blog posts.

Playing the Role of the Expert Prosecution Witness: Emanuel

Dr. Emanuel was a bright spot in the otherwise dark and disappointing hearing.  He refuted several climate myths which had previously been incorrectly affirmed by Dr. Christy and the other Republican witnesses.  Unlike several other witnesses, including Dr. Christy, Dr. Emanuel was willing to state when a question was outside his realm of expertise (for example, a question regarding DDT use 2:07:00 into the hearing).

Perhaps Dr. Emanuel's best contribution to the hearing was his discussion of risk assessment and management; a subject which I have previously written about.  Much of Dr. Christy's testimony focused on our "ignorance" about the detailed workings on the global climate, and the large amount of associated uncertainty.  Dr. Emanuel made the key point that uncertainty is no excuse not to manage risk.  As he put it, the potential results of climate change vary from the benign to the catastrophic, and anyone claiming certainty that the consequences will be benign is just fooling himself.  The fact that we cannot be certain that continuing on a certain path will lead to negative consequences does not mean that we can simply ignore the possibility and probability of those consequences, which seems to be what the congressional Republicans are proposing to do.

A Learning Experience

Overall the hearing was a disappointment, as with a few exceptions, the participating congressmen did not take advantage of the opportunity to learn about climate change, the risks it poses, or the best path forward to address those risks.  The quality of most of the "expert" testimony was quite poor, and as mentioned above, will result in numerous Skeptical Science blog post responses.  We can only hope that the excellent testimony of Dr. Emanuel made an impression on some of the participants, but given the behavior of most of the politicians involved, that seems unlikely.

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Comments 1 to 29:

  1. This is one of the most discouraging reads. It disgusts any time I hear about politics muddling up climate science. Republicans can only ignore science for so long before it comes back and bites them. Unfortunately, in the case of climate science, we don't have the luxury of time. It just irks me when I hear Republicans say that more research needs to be done on climate change, yet then they turn around and attempt to defund NASA's climate research programs. That's the epitome of denial.
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  2. Good gracious, a one-two "punch" from SkepticalScience! An intriguing, insightful, but depressing read.....
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  3. clonmac - several of the Democrats made the point that we need to continue funding climate science research to address the "ignorance" the Republicans were harping on. Hopefully they were listening. You're right, you really can't argue that we don't know enough to act, and simultaneously defund research on the subject.
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  4. Albatross - thanks, many more "punches" to come. Watching the hearing made us fighting mad!
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  5. Dana, I bet. Good that the misinformation, distortion and obfuscation of the Republicans and their witnesses is going on the public record Do you know if anyone has plans to send the copies of this series to senators in the USA?
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  6. Albatross #5 - I believe John has had some discussions with the Union of Concerned Scientists regarding distributing our politician quotes/myths from the hearing (and 'what the science says') to some congressmen. Hopefully they can make it happen.
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  7. Paul Krugman had an excellent editorial on the sham Congressional hearings have become.
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  8. Dana 1981 I believe you are wrong to see these hearings as a lost opportunity to educate your politicians. Very little of the basic science supporting the case for AGW would be beyond the understanding of Einsteins theoretical barmaid and I cannot believe the average congressman doesn't have at least this level of intellect. To lead your witness with carefully crafted questions you need a good basic grasp of the subject under discussion so I also believe that it is not their ignorance that needs to be addressed but as Albatross so succinctly put it their misinformation, distortion and obfuscation. I don't doubt you will do just this in the coming days. Einstein is also quoted as saying " We cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when creating them" The science won't change, the thinking has to.
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  9. invicta - yes, the first post in the Christy series should be published in the next couple of days, and I'll be addressing the economic claims of Montgomery this weekend. The hearing was hypothetically an opportunity to educate politicians. I'm not at all surprised they didn't take advantage of the opportunity, but it's still painful to watch them fail to do so.
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  10. Could we perhaps educate politicians by... trying to educate politicians? I'm not talking about the handful of rabid deniers who are beyond hope, but rather that disinterested majority who are sitting on the sidelines and letting the ignorant and politically motivated lead the way. It's not going to happen in "hearings" like these (it's spelled "h-e-a-r-i-n-g-s," but it's pronounced "laughable farce concocted for political reasons by people with closed minds and absolutely no intention of actually listening and learning"). What would happen if a group of leading climate scientists scheduled a conference specifically for congressmen and congresswomen, in Washington, with a series of seminars and workshops specifically aimed at teaching the science to (and debunking the myths for) the policy makers in our government? Is there any entity (such as the Union for Concerned Scientists) that could fund and organize such a venture? If not... perhaps its time one was created (the Union for Concerned Climate Scientists?). Expecting politicians to responsibly educate themselves is clearly not a workable approach to the problem.
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  11. speaking as einstein's theoretical barmaid, "you can lead a congressman to the science, but you can't make him* think. *sorry, but this is part of the problem.
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  12. Funny how the Republicans take every opportunity to talk up the need for better education, but when its time for them to sit in the classroom......
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  13. RickG#12: Hold on there pard, those are the folks who are busy laying off teachers, guaranteeing that future generations of Americans won't be thinking much either.
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  14. Ideology-driven reformers, whether left or right, always have problem with education. Good education might have people thinking, or finding out the wrong facts. And of course a politician's dream, is an education system that would turn out voters that will vote for them. Don't blame the right - the left are just as bad. They just want education to deliver different brands of droids.
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  15. scaddenp#14: Beg to differ, Democratic governors are fighting to keep education spending; Republican governors are cutting budgets and demonizing teachers in the process.
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  16. Well, American politics seems to lack both a right and a left in the way I am used to thinking of the terms. However, both extreme socialist and right-wing states seem to invariably at odds with an open education.
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  17. scaddenp @16 True. For someone from outside the USA, politics there usually lookd like the Far Right (Rep) vs the Centre Right (Dem). It always amuses me somewhat to hear Right-Wing Americans going on about 'Liberals' - Shock and Horror!! Here in Australia our major Right-Wing Conservative party is called the Liberal Party. Although they are full of lots of 'Climate-Denial-as-a-Sales-Pitch-to-the-Right' types. Morally bankrupt really.
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  18. I'm across the ditch. What's missing in US is any party promoting right-wing economic policy - eg balanced budget, no subsidies, free market. The closest you seem to get appears to be the democrats which are liberals (by US standards anyway).
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  19. I thought this cartoon is relevant to this discussion-- H/T to Desmogblog: The 'skeptic' mantra: [The associated article is also worth a read]
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  20. ‘Dr. Emanuel made the key point that uncertainty is no excuse not to manage risk.” - This claim contradicts the foundations of the theory of risk. “As he put it, the potential results of climate change vary from the benign to the catastrophic, and anyone claiming certainty that the consequences will be benign is just fooling himself. The fact that we cannot be certain that continuing on a certain path will lead to negative consequences does not mean that we can simply ignore the possibility and probability of those consequences ...” “ the catastrophic ...” - is the need to earmark 70-90% of the effort to fight AGW - for CCS ... In the case of an incorrect assessment, we will create an ecological threat to the future generations and unproductively we spend "money. " "... The benign ...." - this is the possibility to allocate 70-90% of investment for renewable energy sources - which is always useful (eg to " Peak Oil”). Professor of Economics, V. Klaus has recently stated that environmentalists - Greens - have never had respect for this science - unless he was right.
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  21. "Professor of Economics, V. Klaus has recently stated that environmentalists - Greens - have never had respect for this science - unless he was right." Ah yes, Vaclav Klaus, would know all about having no respect for science-given his complete lack of respect for science as regards Global Warming. He's just another Far-Right, Free Market Fundamentalist who takes all his queues from the fossil fuel industry-much like you do, Arkadiusz.
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  22. 20 Semczyszak "‘Dr. Emanuel made the key point that uncertainty is no excuse not to manage risk.” - This claim contradicts the foundations of the theory of risk." How so? Surely risk theory is to do with assessing the likelihood of events under various degrees of uncertainty. Risk management is identifying risks, assessing their likelihood and impact, and defining policies to minimise overall impacts.
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  23. BTW, Arkadiusz, this is what I found out of Klaus' "professor of economics qualifications", courtesy of Wikipedia: "In 1995, as Prime Minister, he applied for and was awarded the degree of Professor of Finance from his alma mater, so he is sometimes addressed as "Mr. Professor" as is customary in the Czech Republic." You know, where I come from, a person can't get called a professor unless (s)he (a) spends at *least* 5 years at University studying the subject of their future professorship, (b) work up through the ranks of Academia until the time they receive said professorship. Here, such a process can take more than 15 years, yet your beloved Klaus achieved that status after a single year. Your reference to Klaus as "Professor" just sounds like another desperate appeal to authority.
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  24. ‘Dr. Emanuel made the key point that uncertainty is no excuse not to manage risk.” - This claim contradicts the foundations of the theory of risk. Arkadiusz: thank you for reminding me of why I need to move my forthcoming article on the scientific assessment of hazards and risks from the back burner to the front burner. :)
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  25. Though less publicised, many Australian Members of Parliament have been smitten with the pseudo-skeptic disease exhibited by far too many members of Congress. The National Party simply denies that climate change is occurring. As far as they are concerned natural variability explains it all – but if farmers can earn additional income from government mitigation schemes, more power to them. Members of the Liberal Party (under present leadership, converted to right wing conservatism) hold a variety of views. A few accept the science and need for action but remain silent rather than show the Party is split on the issue. Most seem to somewhere between the few recognising the science and those typified by Senator Minchin who not so long ago, while still Senate Opposition Leader described AGW as a left-wing international conspiracy for world domination and an ‘abomination’ to be rejected by all. This sad state of affairs is, at least in part, the fault of climate scientists, the august bodies to which they belong and the Australian government led by a self-declared “true believer”. None have done enough (or anything) to have leading climate scientists present Members of Parliament and their staff, including Party Officials, with evidence supporting the reality which is AGW – or the effects it will have on Australia. This neglect applies to Federal, State and Local Government. If climate scientists do not provide information to those who govern us, they should not be surprised at the negative attitude they display. There is obvious truth in what Gerda (11) has to say on the subject but on the other hand, unless politicians are personally presented with evidence of cause and effect, do not expect them to act responsibly, either here or in the USA.
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  26. Agnostic at 10:39 AM, you seemed to have seriously overlooked the efforts of Professor Tim Flannery who has been given the responsibility by the Labor government to address such matters. Promoted as being one of, if not the foremost climate change authorities in Australia, and with the resultant high profile bestowed upon him, surely the results of his considerable efforts are becoming evident, or do you disagree? Is there anyone more able then Tim Flannery to convey the reality?
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  27. My comment refers to climate scientists. Professor Flannery though very well informed is not a climate scientist, and his recent appointment has yet to demonstrate any success in public education, let alone education of those who govern us. Like you, I wish him every success in his February, 2011 appointment as Climate Commissioner. What I am critical of is the role of climate scientists over the past 3-5 years in providing information to our politicians – and of politicians for not seeking such advice and the gullibility of those who accept the views of the likes of Plimer in preference to the findings of climate science.
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  28. Agnostic at 11:52 AM, as is the case in almost every field, those who hold the technical expertise, are far more often than not, not sufficiently skilled to effectively articulate that knowledge to a broader audience. Thus it matters not whether the person who is appointed to undertake that role has the same qualifications or not, but rather whether he can accurately interpret and convey that knowledge to the intended audience. It is very simple, if such anointed person is deemed to effectively fulfill that role by those who appointed him, and by those whose knowledge he is presenting, then his word is as good as those he represents. If he is deemed unworthy, then he should be replaced. In the private sector, there are generally no if's and buts, either they fly majestically or are grounded. Fortunately for Professor Flannery, those who appointed him have been very clear in putting all their faith in him being the best available, something that I expect many see as a fact.
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  29. johnd, I believe Professor Flannery may be the "best available" at least in part because of his high public profile. Personally, I blame the politicians for the parlous state of the climate debate in Australia. In particular, when Abbott started his ... spiel about "Great Big Tax", Rudd should have had a press conference on a bleached section of the Great Barrier Reef, and discuss the CSIRO finding that with a 2-3 degree C increase in temperature, "97% of the Great Barrier Reef is bleached every year", and that with a 3-4 degree C increase, there is "Catastrophic mortality of coral species annually", "95% decrease in distribution of Great Barrier Reef species", and "65% loss of Great Barrier Reef species in the Cairns region". Pointing out that 2 degrees C is the target of the international community, and that 4 degrees C is likely to be the minimum increase with BAU might help drive the point home. The fact is, in making their various policies, the politicians of the world are gambling that 97% of climate scientists are significantly in error. You have the Republicans (and Abbots) who are betting the scientists are almost completely wrong; and the Democrats (and Guilards) who are betting they are right about the prospects, but that they are substantially over estimating the impacts. Unfortunately the stakes they are using is our future. For Australian politicians, the most visible (but not the largest) portion of their stake is the Great Barrier Reef. Abbot is betting the survival of the Reef on Andrew Bolt knowing more about climate change than do the scientists of the CSRIO. It is not a bet I am sanguine about.
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