Climate Change Hearings and Policy Issues

December 16th, 2006

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Ryan Meyer, a PhD student at ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes and collaborator in our SPARC project, has a letter in the current issue of Science.

Here is Ryan’s letter:

The Random Samples item “As earth warms, Congress listens” (6 Oct., p. 29) ends with a proclamation by the National Resources Defense Council’s David Doniger that climate change hearings “don’t do anything.” Although Doniger’s frustrations are understandable, his lament misses a crucial point: In fact, it is precisely what climate hearings actually do that so badly hinders policy progress.

Climate change hearings are held because the issue is deeply divisive. As Nobelist Herbert Simon reminded us, “when an issue becomes highly controversial–when it is surrounded by uncertainties and conflicting values–then expertness is very hard to come by, and it is no longer easy to legitimate the experts” (1). Studies of discourse in these settings, including my own analysis of examples from the last 15 years (2-4), show, for example, that discussions of uncertainty have had the dual effect of justifying increased research funding while delaying policy decisions–a win for both the scientists and the politicians!

Scientists must recognize that when they testify at such hearings, they are participating in a political event, not a scientific one. When issues are highly polarized, a hearing may be a useful tool for adding to the public record or building support for a particular policy position, but it should not be seen as a way to impose scientific rationality on politics.

Ryan M. Meyer
Consortium for Science Policy and Outcomes
Arizona State University
Tempe, AZ 85287-4401, USA


1. H. A. Simon, Reason in Human Affairs (Stanford Univ. Press, Stanford, CA, 1983), p. 97.
2. S. Shackley, P. Young, S. Parkinson, B. Wynne, Clim. Change 38, 159 (1998).
3. J. van der Sluijs, J. van Eijndhoven, S. Shackley, B. Wynne, Social Stud. Sci. 28, 291 (Apr. 1998).
4. R. Meyer, Perspect. Public Affairs 3, 85 (Spring 2006).

The article of Ryan’s that he refers to is titled, “Intractable Debate: Why Congressional hearings on climate fail to advance policy” and can be found here in PDF. Do pay attention. Ryan is someone I expect that we’ll be hearing much more from.

4 Responses to “Climate Change Hearings and Policy Issues”

  1. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Relevant op-ed:

    On a swift boat to a warmer world

    By Daniel P. Schrag | December 17, 2006

    I AM A climate scientist and an optimist. This may seem like a contradiction, with all the talk of scorching heat waves and bigger, deadlier hurricanes. But it’s not.

    Let’s be clear: I am not a skeptic on climate change. In my earth science courses, I teach that burning fossil fuel is raising atmospheric carbon dioxide to levels not seen on Earth for more than 30 million years. In public lectures, I show pictures of what would happen to Florida and the Gulf Coast if half the Greenland Ice Sheet melted, asking people to imagine abandoning New Orleans and Miami. I tell people that, unless we take action to reduce emissions, the question is not whether this is going to occur, but when.

    Yet I am an optimist because I believe we can fix the climate change problem. We can deploy the technologies to meet our energy needs while slashing carbon emissions: plug-in hybrids, windmills, carbon sequestration for coal plants, and even nuclear power. We have responded to larger challenges in the past, such as when FDR appropriated most of the nation’s industrial capacity to build ships, tanks, and airplanes for World War II.

    Unfortunately, I am a little less optimistic today than I was a couple of weeks ago, before testifying at the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. It was Senator James Inhofe’s last hearing as chair of the committee, and the focus was on media coverage of global warming. I was invited by the Democratic staff to counter arguments that global warming is a hoax perpetrated on the American people by scientists like me.

    Inhofe is a climate skeptic. But I still hoped I could help educate our lawmakers — maybe not Inhofe, but perhaps some of the others. In my opening statement, I explained that global warming is not a partisan issue. America should lead the world and capitalize on an extraordinary business opportunity as we invest in new energy technologies, I said.

    Then I watched in horror as Inhofe’s witnesses spouted outrageous claims intended to deceive and distort. Two were scientists associated with industry-funded think tanks. They described global warming as a “mass delusion” among the scientific community, sowing confusion by misrepresenting the ice core data that connects carbon dioxide and temperature over glacial cycles, and claiming that “global warming stopped in 1998″ — an anomalously warm year. They even recommended burning as much fossil fuel as possible to prevent another ice age.

    Unfortunately, the format does not allow for direct debate. Some senators defended the integrity of the scientific community, including Barbara Boxer, who will become chair of the committee in January. But amid the collegiality and decorum that is the tradition in the Senate, no one stood up and called this hearing what it was: a gathering of liars and charlatans, sponsored by those industries who want to protect their profits.

    Later that day, Inhofe issued a press release that specifically highlighted my testimony, claiming that I “agreed” with him that the Kyoto Protocol “would have almost no impact on the climate even if all the nations fully complied.” In fact, I had interrupted him during the hearing to object to this claim, reminding him that Kyoto was only conceived as a first step, and never as a long-term solution.

    I later learned that Inhofe’s communications director, Marc Morano, was a key figure in publicizing the swift boat veterans’ attack on John Kerry in 2004. Morano, it seems, is still up to his old tricks, twisting the facts to support his boss’s outrageous claims. This made my visit complete: a glimpse at our government that sees the world only through glasses tinted by special interests, which treats science as a political football, no matter what is at stake.

    I am still an optimist. We still have time to avert a climate catastrophe. But I am not counting on government, or at least this government, to lead us toward a solution. As our leaders accept the outrageous spectacle I saw the other day as just a normal day in Congress, we will have to take the first step without them.

    Daniel P. Schrag is professor of earth and planetary sciences at Harvard and director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment.

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  3. TokyoTom Says:

    I find it ironic that the key statement by Meyer falls outside of his conclusions: “politicians are the actors in this relationship that are best positioned to understand interests, values and decision making – not climate scientists. Especially on their home turf.”

    The failure of Congress to act on climate change is a political one that represents a deadlock of interests, not a failure scientists to explain.

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  5. Mark Bahner Says:

    “The failure of Congress to act on climate change is a political one that represents a deadlock of interests,…”

    Maybe the “failure of Congress to act” (as you would like them to act!) is simply due to Congress considering that the costs outweigh the benefits.

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  7. Sylvain Says:

    “Maybe the “failure of Congress to act” (as you would like them to act!)”

    Or caused by a lack of compromise by those who wish to hit home run policies (costly and/or restrive) instead of trying to agree on policies that shows a good return faster.

    To solve this issue people will need to find inventive solution that will reduce the impact on how people live their life and from which they will see short term benefit. A good example could be how the price of gas got lower when people changed their habits in buying smaller car. An incentive to buy such car could reduce significantly GHG’s emissions. There is more chance that people will support action if the propose action don’t impair their right to have car but only reduce the possibility to have a low CAFE car.