Ana Unruh Cohen: House Science Committee Majority Membership Flunks Science

May 18, 2018 – Ana Unruh Cohen is Managing Director, Government Affairs, Natural Resources Defense Council.

Sixty years ago, amid U.S. fears that the Soviet Union would win the Cold War race for mastery of outer space, the House of Representatives created the committee that now oversees science, technology and space.

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It’s hard to imagine more serious work.

Science, technology and space, after all, are remaking every aspect of our world in new ways every day—from artificial intelligence, quantum computing, smart phone communications, medicine and autonomous vehicles to the tools we rely on for intelligence gathering, law enforcement and national security.

Given the stakes for the country in understanding these keys to our future, the House Committee on Science, Technology and Space should be an important national asset. Under the chairmanship of Rep. Lamar Smith, R-TX., it’s become something of an embarrassment, with some of its members routinely betraying a shocking ignorance about the fundamental forces at work in our world and our lives.

“The Earth is not warming. The White Cliffs of Dover are tumbling into the sea and causing sea levels to rise. Global warming is helping to grow the Antarctic ice sheet.”

That was the (only slightly) tongue-in-cheek lede to an article in the respected E&E News, reporting on Wednesday’s committee hearing on technology and climate change.

One low point, among many, occurred when Rep. Mo Brooks, R-AL., said the White Cliffs of Dover and parts of the California coastline were crumbling into the sea, causing the oceans to rise. So, said Brooks, does silt from rivers like the Mississippi.

“Every time you have that soil or rock or whatever it is that is deposited into the seas, that forces the sea levels to rise,” said Brooks, “because now you have less space in those oceans, because the bottom is moving up.”

Yeah, no.

Average global sea level is rising, at about one inch every eight years. There are three key causes on the scale of human lifespans.

First, water expands, and therefore takes up more space, as it warms. Scientists call that thermal expansion, and it’s responsible for roughly half of global sea level rise.

Second, glaciers and ice sheets are melting, with the run off making its way to the sea.

And, third, liquid water storage on land is shrinking, as lakes and rivers dry up in parts of the world subject to extended drought and desertification, while use of groundwater is on the rise. As that water evaporates, it eventually makes its way to the sea.

Rising sea levels, and the increasing frequency of floods and high water along our coastal cities, are not being caused by rocks falling into the ocean.

Congressman Brooks should understand, also, what’s happening to the great ice sheet of Antarctica. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has a major center in his district that performs cutting edge earth science.

Warmer air holds more moisture than cooler air, so warmer global temperatures are resulting in ice accumulation in some parts of Antarctica. On balance, though, the continent’s ice sheet is shrinking, adding large volumes of water to the ocean as it does. And the rate of that shrinkage is accelerating, according to more than a decade of NASA satellite data.

Just last summer, in fact, an iceberg the size of Delaware broke off of Antarctica and drifted out to sea.

None of that, though, stopped Brooks from wrongly disputing that Antarctic ice is shrinking.

Another committee member, Rep. Bill Posey, R-FL, doesn’t seem to know the difference between the last Ice Age—about 20,000 years ago—and the death of the dinosaurs—some 65 million years ago.

Posey asked one of the hearing witnesses, Philip Duffy, president of the respected Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, how warm the Earth was before the last ice age.

“Before the last ice age?” Duffy asked, to make sure he’d heard the question correctly. Roughly the same as it is today, he responded.

“Ya think?” Posey replied sarcastically. “You don’t think it was maybe 30 degrees warmer when dinosaurs last roamed the Earth?”

Chairman Smith set the tone for the hearing with an opening statement meant to sow doubts about consensus climate science and what he termed the “alarmist findings” of scientists that have warned for decades of the need to cut fossil fuel pollution to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.

Then Smith got to his central point: an attack on the 2015 Paris climate agreement and the Clean Power Plan—the signature climate achievements made by President Obama.

Backed by Republicans like Smith, President Trump has announced plans to withdraw U.S. participation from the Paris accord, which gathers every other nation in the world around a pledge to shift away from dirty fossil fuels and toward cleaner, smarter ways to power our future.

Similarly, Trump’s embattled Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt, is working to weaken or repeal the Clean Power Plan, which provides a framework for cleaning up the dirty power plants that account for nearly 40 percent of the nation’s carbon footprint.

You wouldn’t know it from listening to the addled views of some members of the House committee on Science, Technology and Space, but we know what’s happening to the world’s climate.

We just wrapped up the four hottest years since global record keeping began in 1880. Of the 18 hottest years on record, 17 have occurred in this century.

We see the results in rising seas, widening deserts, raging wildfires, floods and storms. We see species disappearing at a faster rate than at any other time in 60 million years. We see the Great Barrier Reef dying before our eyes.

We also know what’s causing it. We’ve raised global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide more than 44 percent since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

And we know what we need to do about it: end our dependence on coal, oil and natural gas, by investing in efficiency, so we do more with less waste; build, right here in this country, the best all-electric and hybrid cars anywhere; and get more clean, homegrown American power from the wind and sun.

The House science committee should be full-on helping us to advance this vital agenda.

“Instead,” the committee’s ranking Democrat, Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, observed Wednesday, “today’s hearing is a continuation of the majority’s seemingly unending attempt to call into question climate science and promote delay instead of action.”

Precisely.

NRDC works to safeguard the earth — its people, its plants and animals, and the natural systems on which all life depends.  www.nrdc.org