Senator Ted Cruz Convenes Contentious Hearing on Climate Science

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Publication date: 
15 January 2016

With numerous charts on hand, Senator Cruz hosted a heated hearing in which he dismissed the conclusions of mainstream climate science as the product of politically-motivated dogma and provided a platform for skeptics to air their views. 

On Dec. 8, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, convened a hearing entitled “Data or Dogma? Promoting Open Inquiry in the Debate over the Magnitude of Human Impact on Earth’s Climate.” Cruz likely scheduled the hearing to coincide with the international negotiations on climate change being conducted in Paris that week by representatives of over 180 countries.

Cruz invited three scientists and one commentator known for their contrarian views on climate change to testify: John Christy, Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Alabama-Huntsville; Judith Curry, Professor of Atmospheric Science at Georgia Tech; William Happer, Professor of Physics at Princeton University; and Mark Steyn, author of the book Climate Change: The Facts. The sole minority witness was David Titley, a former Navy Rear Admiral and current Director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Pennsylvania State University.

Discussion in the three-hour hearing primarily dealt with the extent to which global warming can be attributed to human activity, the treatment of skeptics by scientific societies and federal funding agencies, the implications of climate change on national security, and how policymakers should interpret and respond to climate science. In total, two Republican and five Democratic Senators asked questions at the hearing; only Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) joined Cruz on his side of the dais. Even then, Daines focused his comments on the potential economic impacts of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan on his state of Montana rather than directly engage in the intended focus of the hearing.

Senators and witnesses exchange a flurry of figures and photographs to illustrate their claims

The hearing began with a dispute over whether or not Cruz followed the proper procedure for inviting a second minority witness, Sierra Club President Aaron Mair. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), ranking member of the full committee, noted that Mair was never sent a formal letter inviting him to testify. Cruz responded by asserting that Mair declined to testify via email prior to the hearing, and insisted on keeping a name card for Mair at the witness table.

The rest of the hearing largely consisted of dueling via a series of large charts (13 in total, nine of which were Cruz’s), many with time-series graphs purporting to support or reject the conclusion that the climate is warming and that humans are a significant contributor to climate change.

Cruz began his opening statement by noting that he is a son of two mathematicians and believes that public policy must be supported by evidence. He proceeded to tell the story of how a research vessel studying Antarctic ice loss became trapped in “ice that the climate-industrial complex had assured us were vanishing…it had run into an inconvenient truth, as Al Gore might put it.” He asserted throughout the hearing that “according to satellite data, there has been no significant warming over the past 18 years,” and offered a chart to demonstrate his claim (see Figure 1).

Titley countered with his own chart depicting increasing global temperatures alongside increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels (see Figure 2), and argued that Cruz picked a misleading time window from which to draw conclusions. Cruz’s chart displayed temperature data from 1998 to 2015 whereas Titley’s chart displayed temperature data from 1880 to 2015.

Cruz chart asserting no global warming over the past 18 years

Chart used by Titley to argue Cruz displayed misleading slice of data

One of the most frequently debated figures in the hearing was 97, the estimated percentage of climate scientists that believe recent changes in climate are largely due to human activities. Cruz used a historical analogy to undercut the figure:

In the year 1615, I suspect if you asked 97 percent of scientists at the time [they] would have said categorically that the sun rotates around the Earth, and yet an individual named Galileo dared to actually be a scientist and take measurements and stand up to that enforced consensus.

Sen. Markey (D-MA) responded by flipping the analogy, likening Titley to Galileo among the majority witnesses, and quipped that “the only thing that requires a serious scientific investigation is why we are holding this hearing in the first place.” Markey’s comments triggered a heated reaction from two of the witnesses.

A visibly-offended Curry began questioning Markey directly: “Did you read my written testimony?” she exclaimed, followed by a series of inquiries about Markey’s awareness of certain figures, including the results of a 2013 study in which only 52 percent of American Meteorological Society (AMS) members surveyed stated that climate change is primarily caused by humans (AMS is an AIP member society).

Steyn soon joined what became a near-shouting match, interrogating Markey with questions such as “Do you know what the winters were like in Plymouth Rock?” and “How long has your family been in Massachusetts?” Markey responded “We are new arrivals…the Irish weren’t arriving in 1750, so I apologize for being late to the country and I’ll have to chastise my grandparents,” a small patch of bitter humor in an otherwise tense hearing.

Role of scientific societies in the debate surfaces multiple times

In his oral testimony, Happer argued that there needs to be more of an “adversarial process” to evaluate climate science, carried out by a “Red Team” or a “Team B.” He drew an analogy with the two nuclear weapons labs—Los Alamos National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory—which compete in the design of nuclear weapons. He then cited a 2014 American Physical Society (APS) policy statement review workshop (which Christy and Curry participated in) as an example of one mechanism for reviewing climate science.

APS, an AIP member society, recently updated its 2007 statement on climate change as part of a mandatory review cycle for society policy statements. The new statement maintains a strong conviction that climate change poses significant risks, that human actions are having an increasingly dominant effect on global climate changes, and that the world should act to reduce human influences on the climate, including reducing emissions.

Subcommittee Ranking Member Sen. Gary Peters (R-MI) as well as Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) cited statements by numerous scientific societies in addition to APS, including AMS, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), among others, which all indicate their respective society’s conviction that climate change is a serious problem to which humans are a primary contributor.

Cruz later brought up a different type of scientific society position by asking Curry to reflect on a recent statement by AAAS expressing its commitment to “the principle that scientific inquiry and open scientific communication regardless of field of study should proceed unhampered by intrusions on academic freedom.” Curry responded by arguing that the statement is a “myth,” citing an editorial by Marcia McNutt—the Editor of Science, AAAS’s flagship journal—in which she states that “the time for debate [on climate] is over,” a statement Curry sees as an improper form of advocacy by scientific society leadership that could bias the journal’s review process.

Hearing ends with diametrically opposed views on the state of facts about climate change

As the hearing drew to a close, Peters returned to the 97 percent figure, asking the room to envision 97 other scientists added to the room alongside the three scientists invited as majority witnesses. He concluded by reflecting on the proper role of scientific authority in the policy process and offered his assessment of the state of knowledge on climate change:

We talked about military commanders that have to make decisions based on intelligence reports and best estimates of the risk involved, and weigh that against the potential consequences. That’s exactly what we have to do here in this Committee, it’s what we have to do as U.S. Senators. We have to listen to experts. I’m not a climatologist. I rely on climatologists to give me information and make policy decisions based on that, and oftentimes it is about weighing, weighing the opinions of folks, and in this case, the scales of justice are weighing clearly on the side different from what we’ve heard from four of the five witnesses.

Cruz ended the hearing by listing off a series of eight statements he believed had not been adequately rebutted in the hearing, such as the benefits of carbon dioxide for the planet and “profound” inaccuracies in climate models, and argued that:

None of these eight facts tend to make it through the media gatekeepers that instead enforce, like the Inquisition, a discipline on the heretics that would dare stand in the way of their political ideology of imposing trillions of dollars of costs on people who are struggling. Policy should be driven by facts, and as John Adams said, facts are stubborn things.

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