“Alt-science” is finding a home in Washington.
In the age of “alternative facts” and the declaration of news as “fake” if it challenges previously held political beliefs, fringe and industry science that bucks years of federal research is gaining newfound prominence. Now, conclusions not published in any of the world’s premier science journals could soon be influencing federal policy, backed by Trump administration officials, congressional Republicans, conservative think tanks and a billionaire investor.
Within the field of climate science, there is virtually no debate about the basic cause of climate change. The vast majority of researchers long ago determined that human activity — chiefly the burning of fossil fuels — is causing the planet to warm.
There are, of course, some researchers with a long history of peer-reviewed studies who question man’s role in global warming and have concluded that more discussion is needed to determine its full extent. Still, the recipe for curtailing climate change, as determined by most of those who study climate, starts primarily with curbing the burning of fossil fuels.
Today, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee will hold a hearing that will frame climate change as a debate, by including the field’s most prominent skeptics as witnesses. It also will explore the hostility faced by those who come forward with views outside the mainstream. In addition, a bill that would allow for greater industry participation in U.S. EPA’s Science Advisory Board, which can strongly influence regulations on industry, is expected to pass the House this week.
David Titley, director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Pennsylvania State University and a former chief operating officer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, argues that the framing is purposeful. As long as climate science is framed as a debate, he said, exaggerating the amount of uncertainty can be used against any sort of regulation that restrains fossil fuel use.
“You don’t need to disprove climate scientists; you just need to simply show, ‘Hey, there’s a debate; nobody really knows, and why should we do anything?’” he said. “It’s the perfect outcome if you don’t want a debate about policy.”
Science has long been bent in Washington to fit inside political opinions. But the current onslaught that is hitting climate scientists is unprecedented in recent years, longtime observers said.
Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State who will participate in the House hearing, said the elevation of untested anti-climate change theories is why actual scientists will march on Washington next month. He said there needs to be more outrage about the climate denial research now gaining increased influence in Washington.
“It is hard to believe that here, in the 21st century, powerful political forces are working so hard to return us to the Dark Ages, to reject the Enlightenment and everything we have learned,” he said. “It is shocking and frightening. What we are witnessing is an attack on the very foundation that modern civilization is based upon.”
Transition member: NASA, NOAA research is not science
When the Heartland Institute hosted its 12th annual conference on climate change in Washington last week, it featured sessions on how fossil fuels improve human health, encourage plant growth and are capable of establishing world peace. A number of speakers claimed that their research was ignored by the world’s reputable science journals, not for its shoddiness, but because of a massive global conspiracy of environmentalists and liberals.
In the audience were a few members of Trump administration’s transition team for EPA and NOAA as well as Robert and Rebekah Mercer. The Mercer family has poured millions of dollars into Trump super political action committees as well as in groups that promote climate denial and attack legitimate research as fraudulent. They also own part of the Breitbart News Network, the alt-right news organization that routinely portrays climate change as a liberal hoax.
Energy companies, including Exxon Mobil Corp. and Peabody Energy Inc., in turn spend millions of dollars to support Heartland or the sponsors of the conference, according to bankruptcy filings and other public disclosures.
Steve Milloy, a member of the Trump administration’s transition team at EPA and a lawyer who runs a blog that criticizes climate scientists, said he expects the type of science espoused at the Heartland conference to play more of a role in setting policy in order to reframe climate research as a debate. He said the research at NASA and NOAA is not actually science.
“We need to establish rules for doing science, because government scientists apparently don’t know what science is anymore; we need to take away the money, get rid of the authority,” he said. “We need to stop playing along with these people.”
Kenneth Haapala, a member of the Trump administration’s landing team at NOAA, said he expects climate skepticism to inform Trump administration policy. Haapala, who has been called a “swamp alligator” by Democratic lawmakers because he rejects mainstream climate science, runs the Science and Environmental Policy Project, which produces reports that attempt to run counter to mainstream climate science.
“I think we’re going to see more healthy skepticism coming from the official position,” he said.
‘It’s where the science meets policy’
The Trump administration has already outlined cuts to climate research at EPA, NOAA, NASA and the Department of Energy.
House Science Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) has routinely accused federal agencies of fraud if he does not like their scientific conclusions. Smith told the crowd, to a raucous cheer, that he would be open to crafting legislation that would punish scientific journals that publish studies that don’t meet his standards of peer review, which he did not define.
“The days of trust-me science are over,” Smith said.
Some in the crowd at Heartland were hobbyists who conduct their own scientific research in retirement. Others have the ability to directly influence Trump administration climate policy. Rebekah Mercer silently glared at a reporter when asked why her foundation had invested $6 million in Heartland and the Heritage Foundation, as The Washington Post recently reported.
David Kreutzer, who now serves as EPA deputy associate administrator for policy, economics and innovation, also sat for some of the sessions.
The rhetoric of cutting science that is used as a basis for regulation means that there can be no meaningful discussion about how to prepare humanity for climate change, said Maria Zuber, chairwoman of the National Science Board. The proposed cuts to climate science appear to center on business interests and ignore the real risks of global warming, she said. Climate skepticism is connected to concerns about regulation of business, she added.
“My feeling on the matter is that the problem is not climate science; the problem is either real or perceived issues with overregulation that is bad for business and the loss of jobs, so until we address those two issues, we’re not going to be able to have a serious conversation about the appropriate investment to mitigate the risk,” Zuber said.
James Taylor, one of the conference speakers and a senior fellow for environment and energy policy at Heartland, said it’s for the White House to stop ignoring climate skeptics. He said there is plenty of evidence in peer-reviewed scientific literature to suggest that the world is not in a climate crisis. And while he said he believes humans have some role in causing change, he expects mainstream science will not be ignored in Washington during the Trump administration.
“Looking at the Trump administration, looking at the future, it’s where the science meets policy,” he said. “For people who believe we’re creating a climate crisis, there are still affordable abundant energy options that would significantly reduce greenhouse gases. Nuclear power is emissions-free; hydropower is emissions-free; natural gas cuts emissions in half.”
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.