In this political climate, is it possible to have a “rational discussion” about anything?
Democrats on the House Science and Technology Committee seem to think so. They’re holding a hearing today entitled “A Rational Discussion of Climate Change: the Science, the Evidence, the Response.” The “discussion,” of course, is likely to devolve into an exchange of old bromides between politicians on both sides.
But the colloquy seems to have achieved what was, perhaps, its main purpose: to shine a light on the surprising number of House Republicans who either doubt or outright deny the science behind global warming. As Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones told Need to Know in our Climate Desk podcast last week, as much as half of the Republican caucus has openly denied that climate change is occurring, or that it is caused by human activity. And only one of the Republicans elected to the U.S. Senate in this month’s midterm elections — Mark Kirk, of Illinois — has accepted the science behind global warming.
But it’s not just climate policy that will suffer, advocates say. As the Union of Concerned Scientists documented in a recent report, several of the Republican lawmakers poised to lead committees with jurisdiction over energy and climate policy in the House have expressed a desire to investigate the science behind global warming, and perhaps subpoena the scientists who have conducted that research. Rep. Darrell Issa of California, who will likely head the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has said he plans to call climate scientists to testify before the panel.
Republican officials have, of course, engaged in these types of attacks before. The Virginia attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, has issued at least two subpoenas now for public and private records related to the research of a prominent scientist, Michael Mann. Mann used to work at the University of Virginia, and Cuccinelli has accused him of possibly “defrauding taxpayers,” based on a batch of hacked e-mails that came to be known as “Climategate.” Mann has called the claim “harrassment.”
Given that history, Mann and other climate scientists are preparing now for an even more intensive round of attacks, subpoenas and investigations by House Republicans. On the day of the election, for example, Mann gave a talk at the Geological Society of America’s annual meeting in Denver, Colo., about the “challenges” facing the climate science community, including “the stiff headwind we must fight of a concerted disinformation effort designed to confuse the public about the nature of our scientific understanding of” climate change. The slides included pictures of ExxonMobil and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Not all of Mann’s colleagues, however, agree with his confrontational approach. Mark Chandler, a climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, gave a talk at the Geological Society conference entitled “From Words to Action: Not a ‘Business as Usual’ Approach to Climate Change Communication.” In an interview, Chandler explained that he prefers to focus on the challenges climate scientists face in communicating their work to the public, rather than the “disinformation campaign” conducted by those opposed to climate change legislation.
“There’s no lack of well-funded denialists,” Chandler acknowledged, before adding that “none of that should matter if we had done a better job communicating what is a very studied, well understood scientific issue.”
He added: “I just don’t think it’s productive to continue to bash away at that community.”
Chandler fears that fresh investigations by House Republicans will only force climate scientists into a defensive posture, and that the climate science community will respond in the way that it has historically responded to climate deniers: “You don’t understand! You’re an idiot!”
“My fear is that we’re actually going to, because of what’s happened, be pushed a little more into being our own worst enemies,” Chandler added. “I think the risk is that we’ll be responding to these subpoenas with more of the same.”
The alternative, Chandler argues, is to change the conventional “elitist” image of climate scientists — an “old guard scientific group,” as he put it — and “find ways to get more pragmatic about our field and how we work with people.” That includes shedding the climate science community’s traditional hostility to business and allowing teachers — who have the most direct contact with the public in the realm of science education — to take more immediate ownership of the climate change issue.
Otherwise, Chandler warned, besieged climate scientists will spend the next several years fending off Republican subpoenas and fighting with people whose opinions are already set.
“The problem is that we have not found ways to bring it to the masses. We lecture to people,” Chandler said. “We’re either preaching to the choir, or we’re preaching to the people we can’t convert.”