Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson recently held an alternative hearing on climate change for members of Congress and the public, defying the leadership of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Johnson, ranking member of the committee and a Democrat who represents the 30th district of Texas, decided to hold what she calls a “round table” on global warming because she feels that the committee chair—Lamar Smith (R–Texas)—has not allowed real climate experts to speak about their research at the hearings he has run. Instead, she says, Smith gives climate change deniers a platform to express their views.
Johnson says this problem is not confined to global warming, and that under Smith’s leadership the committee does not focus enough on science issues in general. So Johnson plans to host a series of these round tables on issues such as ocean acidification, environmental justice, artificial intelligence and more. Scientific American asked Smith’s staff for comments on the alternative hearings and Johnson’s remarks but did not receive a response by the time of publication.
Scientific American spoke with Johnson about her plans for the round tables and what she hopes they will accomplish.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
You held a climate change round table late last month. What did it entail?
It’s important that the science behind global climate change be acknowledged. And clearly, at the rate we’re going with the leadership in the current [House Science] Committee, it’s probably not going to happen. So we wanted to make sure that the scientific information had an opportunity to be discussed.
We had that [round table], and we plan to have several more to discuss a number of topics—but [climate change] is certainly an important one. We had two panels: one with experts who could talk about the research as well as the effects of what’s happening with the climate. The second panel had to do with the international view, from ambassadors as well as participants in the  Paris [climate] conference, to show that this is a world view—deniers might be confined to the United States.
Why not discuss these issues during the standard House Science Committee hearings?
Because the chairman in the majority has control over what is discussed, and we have not been successful in getting [climate change] discussed with actual scientific research. Whenever the topic has come to the surface, we get at most fringe witnesses—people who agree to be in denial. The experts who do the research on a daily basis are never allowed to speak during the regular order of business.
In my judgment the country is moving backwards with this type of committee leadership. But we don’t want the public to believe that it’s the entire committee. There are people on the committee who believe strongly in research, the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency and in NASA. So we have no choice but to attempt to do some alternative hearings to make sure that people are aware that we do believe in science, and that it should be discussed—we should not deny good research. It’s an opportunity to listen to a view that we never hear on the committee.
What do you currently see happening with science issues in the House Science Committee?
There really is not much focus on the science. It’s focused on the administration or against the agencies, and it’s always an approach of suspicion and denial.
Would you say that applies only to climate change or science issues in general?
It’s science issues in general. I’m in my third term of dealing with this particular chairman. And almost exclusively, the goals seem to have been pointed against anything the Obama administration had made any type of goals on—the attitude was to be against it. Now the attitude is to cut the agencies that are doing the research in these areas—as if to say: “We’re not going to even listen to them. We don’t want them to do the research.”
You are planning to do a series of round tables. What issues do you want them to focus on?
We need to look at the public health implications of climate change, ocean acidification, environmental justice, biological engineering, forensic science, artificial intelligence—there are a number of issues that we’re not getting the opportunity to have honest hearings on under the leadership of this committee. We cannot afford to sit idly by and let those topics slide as if they don’t have an impact today.
What do you hope these round tables will accomplish?
I don’t know the impact they might have on Congress, because those of us who are interested in getting the scientific evidence at this time appear to be Democrats—although we know there are members on the other side who are not blinded to this information. But they are influenced by their leadership.
But it’s foolhardy for us to just give in and act as if nothing is happening, just because the leadership feels that way. So I feel an obligation to respond to the public. Whether we can get [anything] done will depend on the committee leadership, and this administration’s leadership.
When you look at the cabinet that this president [Donald Trump] has put in place, it does appear that they are in agreement with each other that they’re going be in denial [about climate change], and if they don’t like the research, they stop it. Well, that is not how we got to where we are on the world stage, and I don’t think we should step off the stage as if we’re going to stop thinking and living for the future.
Is this the beginning of a larger effort by some members to change attitudes toward science in Congress?
I cannot begin to guess why the attitude persists from this leadership for us to go backwards. But what I can say is, I’m not willing to cooperate with it. We might be hampered temporarily, but we want the public to understand that we do not have our heads in the sand. We’re getting a lot of positive feedback from the general public. People are very concerned about climate change, about environmental safety, about the conditions of our water and air. That concern continues to be expressed, and we feel an obligation to be responsive. At the rate we’re going, though, I don’t know how much we can do.
Are you concerned that elected officials are putting less stock in evidence-based thinking? If so, what larger steps could help stop or even reverse this trend?
A leading nation cannot afford to be governed by ignorance for more than a very short period of time. The leadership that we have on this committee is out of step, and people will react to it. The facts are real. The world is aware of [climate change]. And we look like a group of ignoramuses, saying, “It’s not happening.” The people of this nation will not tolerate that for very long.
This attitude is so temporary and backwards that it’s worth pushing ahead to the extent that we can—to continue to acknowledge the scientific evidence, and hope that we don’t lose too much ground.