“Get your popcorn ready,” writes Judith Curry, one of four witnesses who will testify before the House Science Committee on climate change science next Wednesday.
Curry is right. The congressional hearing, featuring some of the more polarizing figures in the climate change discussion, is sure to make for great political theater. But it won’t reveal much, if anything, new about science or advance the conversation about how to address the issue.
The hearing, titled “Climate Science: Assumptions, Policy Implications, and the Scientific Method,” is an act of gamesmanship from a body intent on manufacturing doubt on scientific issues which have long been settled.
The planet’s temperature is rising in large measure because of the emissions of heat-trapping gases from human activities. Scientific assessments from the U.S. government, the National Academy of Sciences and scientific institutions all over the world have confirmed this.
But the House Science Committee has invited a set of witnesses, some of whom have an ugly history of insulting and demonizing one another, to trade jabs on a range of niche issues. The exchanges have the potential to become dramatic but will simply be a distraction. The conflict may give off the unfortunate appearance that scientists don’t agree on anything and that climate change science is “not settled,” despite the fact certain fundamentals are undisputed.
Much more productive congressional discussions would focus on what the most important risks of climate change are, and what are the best options for managing and overcoming them.
But instead, this is what I think you’re going to get — it’s entirely predictable:
Curry, the first witness — invited by the Republican majority, professor emeritus from Georgia Tech — won’t deny some human-induced climate change is occurring. But she’ll say we can’t pinpoint exactly how large the human role is. She’ll talk a lot about uncertainty and how scientists may be underestimating it — especially in climate model predictions. She’ll probably also point out that her research indicates that, in the coming decades, climate warming will be on the low side of projections. She may talk about “tribalism” among climate scientists, which she will allege blocks out dissenting views.
John Christy, the second witness — invited by the Republican majority, professor at the University of Alabama at Huntsville — will also not deny a human role in climate warming. But he’ll make much of the fact that his analysis of satellite temperature data suggest warming is proceeding on the low side of projections. He probably won’t mention analyses of other temperature data sets that show recent warming matches climate model predictions very well:
Michael Mann, the third witness — invited by the Democratic minority, professor at Penn State — will make a compelling case that humans are the dominant cause of climate warming, walking through multiple lines of evidence. He may argue some climate changes are occurring even faster than model projections. He’ll defend his once-controversial “hockey stick” graph that shows temperatures are now warmer than any time in at least the past thousand years and likely point to multiple independent studies that draw the same conclusion.
Roger Pielke Jr., the fourth witness — invited by the Republican majority, professor at the University of Colorado — may end up not being the most convenient witness for Republicans who are dismissive of man-made climate warming. He’ll state he agrees with scientific assessments that show humans playing the dominant role. But he’ll please those unconvinced about the seriousness of warming by stressing it has yet to lead identifiable changes in certain extreme events like flooding and the cost of natural disasters, including hurricanes. He’ll state the condition of our infrastructure plays a much bigger role in the toll of extreme weather events than climate change.
It is not that these witnesses don’t have important things to say and should not be heard by policymakers. But the theme of the hearing, focused on the basics of climate science, is simply unlikely to draw out new, constructive ideas for advancing climate discussions. Instead it will harp on the past and tread over issues that have been beaten to death.
Curry’s ideas on climate change, in the context of the hearing’s theme, are well laid out on her blog and articles all over the Internet. Christy just testified before this committee just over a year ago on related issues. I doubt he’ll add much to what he said before. Both Mann and Pielke have published multiple articles and books that express their findings and positions pertinent to this discussion.
Instead of searching for common ground and discussing how our nation can best deal with climate challenges, what the hearing may well draw out is the ugly side of climate science discourse.
Curry has called Mann a “bully” and his behavior “unethical.”
Mann has called Curry “anti-science.”
Only Christy has largely steered clear from the infighting.
So this hearing may score high for its entertainment value, but it’s unlikely (I hope I’m wrong) to have much value for science — which is unfortunate coming from the House “Science” committee.