Learning from the Climate Hearing

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.

Posted by dana1981 on Wednesday, 6 April, 2011

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