Chris Mooney on "A Committee of the Future," and a Rep. From the Past

Why do House global warming hearings draw so many more people than Senate hearings? I don’t know, but I arrived late Thursday to Capitol Hill and so spent half of my time listening to the House Science and Technology Committee hearing on the new IPCC report in an overflow room. (I didn’t try at first to invoke “journalist’s privilege” to get in the main room, although later, Seed‘s Washington correspondent was ushered in.)

The opening of the hearing was in some ways the most interesting part. In an historic moment, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gave testimony on her global warming legislative agenda (i.e., carbon caps), as well as her plans to create a special select committee to deal with the issue. Apparently this has never happened before the science committee — a House speaker testifying, honoring that committee with her presence. It was, in fact, the first time that Speaker Pelosi has testified before Congress in her new role. As she commented in her remarks: “because you are a committee of the future, I think it’s appropriate.”

If there was ever a sign that the new Congress actually takes science seriously, this was it.

House Republicans—and particularly James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin—misbehaved in response to this, demanding the right to question Pelosi just as they would any other witness (although apparently it’s traditional to let fellow representatives go on to other duties after testifying). But Pelosi handled it well, and made their probing look rather petty. Later, Republican Vernon Ehlers kind of made up this lack of decorum when he commended Pelosi’s appearance and amusingly commented: “Any time the leadership pays any attention to this committee is good…personally I sometimes think this is the Rodney Dangerfield committee, we do a lot of good work but don’t get a lot of respect.”

In any event, the hearing webcast should be available at this link. You should check it out, both to watch Pelosi’s appearance and also to get a fuller sense of some other aspects of the hearing.

Dana Rohrabacher: Twelve Years Later, Nothing Learned
In The Republican War on Science, I discuss how the Gingrich Congress undermined science on a range of issues, particularly global warming. A centerpiece of the agenda was a series of 1995 hearings, chaired by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California, investigating “Scientific Integrity and Public Trust”—hearings that were really all about attacking politically inconvenient science, not only on climate change but even on ozone depletion.

Now it’s 2007, but it seems Rohrabacher hasn’t progressed much at all. At the hearing today, he nastily went on the attack against the climate scientists testifying, after first entering into the record statements from scientists “who are not part of this so-called consensus.” Rohrabacher then asked a series of dumb questions—“Is the glacier named after you melting?” he queried IPCC Working Group One co-chair Susan Solomon—all of which were intended to advance a tired old strategy: Go on the offensive against science and scientists to get what you want politically. At one point Rohrabacher even accused Solomon of being “very dishonest” as she attempted to answer one of his questions (the chief impediment to her forthright reply being the fact that she was repeatedly cut off and hectored by Rohrabacher himself).

Anyway, I hope the video of the hearing will be available soon so that everyone can watch Rohrabacher, er, distinguishing himself.

Scientists as Communicators
The hearing featured four climate scientists, all heavily involved with the IPCC process. I was very interested to see how they presented their knowledge, and there really was a vast disparity in terms of the deftness with which they did so.

Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research was the best communicator, I felt, largely because he was not only entertaining but willing to at least try to earnestly answer the elected representatives’ sometimes oddball questions (even while admitting that there were limits to his knowledge). Richard Alley of Penn State also gets high marks in my book for being funny and using a colorful analogy that—I’m not kidding—compared a melting ice sheet to a pancake on a griddle. Susan Solomon, however, I found less effective. She kept on essentially saying, “I’m not enough of an expert to answer that question” and using this as a default excuse, rather than finding crafty ways of going as far as she could to inform representatives without exceeding the bounds of her knowledge.

Hurricanes and Global Warming
The topic came up, but there were no attempts that I saw (I left early) to attack the new IPCC report by questioning its treatment of this controversial area. I was surprised, to tell you the truth, that Rohrabacher didn’t get into this. Kevin Trenberth fielded one hurricane question and, I thought, did so quite carefully, sticking very closely to the IPCC report itself.

Anyway, it has been fun to get up to the Hill the past two days—something I hope to continue doing—and I hope folks have enjoyed these dispatches…

Originally published February 11, 2007


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