Congressional Climate Briefing - The End of Climate Skepticism?

Ed Schipul/CC BY-SA 2.0

On 14 November 2011, the US Congress Natural Resources Committee held a briefing called "Undeniable Data: The Latest Research on Global Temperature and Climate Science" (video recording available here). The briefing was held by Representatives Ed Markey (D-MA) and Henry Waxman (D-CA), who were the architects behind the Waxman-Markey climate bill (a.k.a. the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009) previously analyzed by Skeptical Science.

It's worth remembering that the Waxman-Markey legislation was passed by the US House of Representatives, and the USA would have a carbon pricing system in place if Senate Republicans hadn't exploited the filibuster rule to prevent similar legislation from going to a vote in the Senate.

During the subsequent 2010 elections, the Democrats lost their majority control of the House of Representatives.  Since gaining control, Congressional Republicans have held one climate hearing, and mostly invited climate "skeptics" to testify.  As a result, the climate hearing resulted in a compilation of climate myths and misinformation, economic myths, and the participants seemed uninterested in learning from the proceedings.

The Republicans have since refused all Democrat requests for further climate hearings, which is why Waxman and Markey held a less formal briefing in this case. Rep. Waxman also noted that the Republican-controlled House,

Has voted 21 times to block actions to address climate change, including a vote to deny that "climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities and poses significant risks for public health and welfare."

Unfortunately, the Republican anti-climate science trend continued, as no Republican congressmen attended this briefing. Rep. Waxman also commented that while the Republicans have claimed that it's Congress' job, not the EPA's, to regulate carbon emissions, Congress has refused to do so, and that while they claim that "the science isn't settled," they refuse to hold climate hearings to learn about the science.

The Republican justification for missing this briefing was that they are focusing “on creating jobs and promoting common-sense solutions that protect both the environment and the economy.”

However, climate change and its solutions are inextricably linked with jobs and the economy, and how are policymakers to come up with "common-sense solutions" if they remain in the dark about climate change and its impacts?  Moreover, Congressional Republicans have recently found the time to debate the reaffirmation of the national motto "In God We Trust", whether to mint a commemorative coin for Major League Baseball, and to allow Americans from stats which allow concealed weapons to conceal them in states which do not allow them. Surely devoting an hour or two to holding a climate hearing is more important than these other issues for which they have managed to find the time in their busy schedules.

The scientific experts at Monday's briefing were Dr. Richard Muller of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project; Dr. Ben Santer, an expert on climate change attribution; and Dr. Bill Chameides, vice chair of the National Academy of Sciences' Committee on America's Climate Choices. Dr. Chameides has provided a summary of the briefing here.

Dr. Muller spoke first regarding his skepticism of global warming two years ago, but the BEST project confirmed the accuracy of the surface temperature record and put his concerns to rest.  Dr. Muller distinguished between true skeptics and closed-minded deniers, and stated that those who continue to deny that global warming is happening fall into the latter category.  Dr. Muller's implication that we should only accept the reality of global warming now that his project has confirmed it for the umpteenth time rankled Dr. Chameides a bit:

He seemed to imply that all scientists should have been skeptics like him before his study, and that he's the only one to have taken skeptics' criticisms seriously and actually investigated their claims....Did those other scientists [who previously investiaged these issues] violate some sacred principle of scientific skepticism by accepting their own exhaustive studies' results without having waited for Muller to come along with his study? Certainly not.

Nevertheless, Muller's contribution adds a welcome and independent piece of evidence on global warming, evidence that has been accumulating over many decades of scientific study.

Dr. Muller expressed similar doubt about the magnitude of the human contribution to global warming (although he noted uncertainty cuts both ways, and the human contribution could be even larger than we think), and suggested that natural oceanic cycles and solar activity could be playing a larger role in global warming than climate scientists believe.  As with the temperature record two years ago, Dr. Muller is expressing "skepticism" about subjects which he has not personally researched.  However, other scientists like Dr. Santer have thoroughly researched the causes of global warming.

Dr. Chameides called Dr. Santer's presentation "a tour de force."  In it, Dr. Santer discussed the various "fingerprints" of man-made global warming, many of which we have examined at Skeptical Science.

© Skeptical Science

Dr. Santer devoted the most time to the cooling upper atmosphere, which is an expected "fingerprint" of an increased greenhouse effect, as more heat is trapped in the lower atmosphere.  Dr. Santer discussed that warming caused by natural ocean cycles or solar activity would result in a different pattern.  Increased solar radiation reaching Earth, for example, would cause all layers of the atmosphere to warm.  Every observed "fingerprint" is consistent with what we expect from man-made global warming.

During his presentation, Dr. Chameides focused on climate change from the risk management perspective. Dr. Chameides suggested that as with a strong financial portfolio, we should take a diversified approach to addressing climate change, including implementation of a carbon pricing system, preparing for climate adaption, investing in clean tech R&D, informing the public about climate science, and engaging in international efforts to mitigate climate change.  Dr. Chameides' main conclusion was that the prudent path forward must involve a comprehensive federal policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Crucially, despite his remaining skepticism, Dr. Muller also agreed that the remaining climate uncertainty is not sufficient to preclude us from acting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  The take-home message from each presentation is:

Muller: The planet is undeniably warming.  Muller is personally not convinced how much of that warming is due to humans, but believes the remaining uncertainty is not sufficient to prevent us from taking serious action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Santer: The scientific evidence clearly indicates that the observed global warming is predominantly caused by humans.

Chameides: The prudent path forward involves a diversified risk management approach, which must involve a comprehensive federal policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Overall it was a very interesting and informative briefing.  Unfortunately, the fact that it was attended by zero Republican congressmen suggests that contrary to the hearing subtitle, it will not be the end of climate skepticism, but perhaps it at least represents a small step in the right direction.  Maybe Congressional Republicans will find some time to listen to climate scientists when they're finished classifying pizza as a vegetable.

Tags: Congress | Global Climate Change | Global Warming Science

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