04 Oct

Science committee makes a science of ignoring science

After a summer of planetary upheaval, nobody can say the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology is ignoring the messages sent out by the quivering natural world.

After all, the committee scheduled a hearing on what we could learn from the solar eclipse.

It seems a fitting agenda for a committee that often seems to be operating in the dark.

“When we came back to the Capitol after (Hurricanes) Harvey and Irma,” explains Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., who’s spent years on the committee, “I suggested to the chairman that we should be having a conversation about climate change, and he said, they’re not caused by climate change.”

To go with the special glasses used to watch the eclipse, the committee leaders may be using special glasses to watch the climate.

The science committee chairman, Lamar Smith of Texas, warns against “so-called self-professed climate scientists,” and argues, “the benefits of a changing climate are often ignored and under-researched.” Plants respond well to warmer weather and more carbon in the atmosphere, he declares, and melting Arctic ice will open up more shipping lanes. Smith has used the committee to attack and subpoena climate scientists – and darned if there aren’t a lot of them – who warn of the dangers of rising global temperatures and sea levels.

And a summer that saw his state’s largest city – along with Puerto Rico and much of Florida – virtually drowned, as Houston was hit by its third 500-year storm in three years, hasn’t changed his mind.

A long way from the Gulf of Mexico, Bonamici also had reason to wonder about the summer’s atmospherics. “While they’ve had floods and hurricanes in the Southeast,” she notes, “the Northwest was burning up,” with massive forest fires in southern and central Oregon and the Columbia Gorge.

It’s not that climate change causes hurricanes or forest fires, but it does seem to fuel them. Warmer weather and warmer ocean water strengthens hurricanes, creating the 40 and 50 inches of rain that Harvey brought Houston and the unprecedented one-two punch of Iris and Maria in the Caribbean. And while no climate condition can affect teenagers’ drive to be stupid, Bonamici notes, “We had a very hot, very dry July and August, so when the 15-year-old threw the firecracker, it was a tinderbox.”

The science committee works along with an administration that’s not very interested in the summer’s developments, either. The president, who’s said that climate change is a Chinese-driven hoax, sniffed after the hurricanes, “We’ve had bigger storms than this.” Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency head who seems to be working to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, piously declared about any connections to climate change, “To use time and effort to address it at this point is very, very insensitive to the people in Florida.”

This sounds like the kind of insight the science committee might want to ask him about, except that Pruitt has never appeared before the committee – despite suggestions from Bonamici, ranking minority member on the subcommittee on the environment, that it might be a good idea to call him in. This might be part of why Donald Beyer, a Democratic member of the committee from Virginia, thinks it’s time to return science to the science committee.
But actually, the committee’s influence – if not its interests – seems to be expanding. One member, Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma, has been named by the president to be head of the National Aeronautics and Space Agency. (The job typically goes to a scientist, but apparently being a member of the House science committee is just as good.) Besides space travel and watching out for asteroids, NASA has been a major force in climate studies; James Hansen, former head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has been warning and testifying about climate change since the 1980s.

As a freshman congressman, Bridenstine demanded on the House floor that President Obama apologize for spending money researching climate change. He has declared, wrongly, that temperatures stopped rising a decade ago, and warned against “climate change alarmists.” Earlier this year, Bridenstine suggested that earth sciences studies might be happier in some other agency outside NASA.

With the smoke still rising from Northwest forest fires, Bonamici seeks to be optimistic.

“Recently,” she said hopefully, “Mr. Bridenstine has told me that he thinks that humans are contributing to carbon dioxide, and it’s affecting climate change.”

So possibly prospects for actually addressing the new weather aren’t totally eclipsed.

And, Bonamici suggests, there are other avenues. There is now a 58-member House Climate Solutions Caucus, with equal numbers from both parties.
“It took a while for me to join,” she recalls.

“I had to find a Republican.”

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 10/1/17.