The Most Anti-Science Congress in Recent History Is Now in Session
Scientists and science historians argue that Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and other climate change deniers may be heading up the most “egregiously wrong-headed” Congress in modern times.
The Capital. Image: Wikimedia
Over the last four years, Congress developed a reputation for institutionalizing an "anti-science" attitude. During the 112th and 113th Congresses, the label was typically applied to its Republicans, who controlled the House of Representatives, and typically because of their propensity to dismiss climate change science. Typically, but not only—misinformed musings about women's reproductive processes, support for creationist education, attempts to remove the peer review process at the National Science Foundation, and efforts to roll back funding for research programs also ignited the ire of the science-loving public.
It's climate change that figures most prominently, though. An incredible consensus of scientists—97 percent of climatologists working in the field, according to one peer-reviewed survey—agree that greenhouse gas emissions produced by humans are warming the globe. A significant majority of congressional Republicans have consistently disagreed, and, succumbing to genuine scientific ignorance or mere political expedience, have vocally denied the science outright. Some ventured to call climate change a hoax, others falsely and repeatedly claimed the science simply wasn't settled.
In 2010, political historian and journalist Ronald Brownstein noted that "it is difficult to identify another major political party in any democracy as thoroughly dismissive of climate science as is the GOP here." Eileen Claussen, then the president of the Pew Center for Global Climate Change, told Brownstein that there is "no party-wide view like this anywhere in the world that I am aware of." (Now, some contenders may have emerged.) The House grew so hostile to climate science and environmental regulations that Democrats drew up a report, backed with a mountain of vote-count evidence, to try to demonstrate that Republicans were leading "The Most Anti-Environment House in the History of Congress."
But until 2015, Republicans only controlled the House. The Democratic Party's slim majority in the Senate served as a check on its climate change-dismissing twin. While the science-challenged House succeeded in blocking any significant legislative efforts to reduce US carbon emissions, that was essentially all it did: lock President Obama's environmental agenda in a stalemate.
After the sweeping Republican victory in November, which wrested the Senate from Democrats, both of the House's legislative branches are now controlled by politicians who either willfully ignore, disavow, or deny outright some of the best-supported science produced in the modern era. The notion can still seem bizarrely dissonant—we're in a new scientific renaissance; we're on the verge of 3D-printing human organs, we're landing probes on comets, and the GOP's party line is to entirely disregard the legion of scientists who point out that our greenhouse gases are trapping excess heat.
Science denial was wrong then, as it is now, but it was not as obviously and egregiously wrong-headed.
The paleoclimatologist Michael Mann, whose work has been instrumental in reconstructing past climate records, and who has been a favorite target of climate denier attacks, says anyone who holds science in high esteem should probably be actively worried about this 114th Congress. He is.
"As a nation, we have always led the world when it comes to technological innovation and scientific progress," Mann told me. "Our quality of life has benefited greatly from our commitment to unfettered scientific exploration. Now, with a Congress that is firmly controlled by those who possess an antipathy toward science, all of that is threatened. It is a matter for great concern among all of us."
You'd be hard pressed to find another time in modern history when scientists were so under siege, Mann said. Or, for that matter, when both branches of Congress were controlled by politicians so contemptuous of science.
"Well, on one level there is a precedent," the Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes told me in an email, "which is when the Republicans controlled Congress in the 1990s and scuttled Kyoto. In that sense, this is deja vu all over again."
"On the other hand," Oreskes continued, "the situation today is much worse than in the 1990s, and much less excusable. This is because while at that time the science was coming together, it was not as iron-clad as it is now. In the 1990s, scientists had already come to consensus that climate change was real and anthropogenic, but there was still a lot of debate about the timing, the likely severity, etc. Science denial was wrong then, as it is now, but it was not as obviously and egregiously wrong-headed. Now climate change is well underway, the science is as good as science gets, which makes it that more obvious that the denial is denial (as opposed to confusion, lack of understanding, etc.)"
That explicit brand of denial is prominent in the party's new Senate leadership. Many of the men—and they are all men—who are now stationed in the nation's most influential science posts each exhibit views that can be considered science-illiterate at best, and at worst, outright hostile to modern scientific inquiry.
A Congress of Denial
"The last 15 years, there has been no recorded warming," Ted Cruz (R-TX), the new chairman of the Science, Space, and Competitiveness subcommittee, recently told CNN. "Contrary to all the theories that—that they are expounding, there should have been warming over the last 15 years. It hasn't happened." Except, of course, that it has. 2014 was the hottest year on record, according to satellite data.
Cruz's appointment made headlines, primarily because worried NASA-watchers noted that he has voted to reduce the agency's funding, questioned the value of its non-space programs, and once did permanent damage to its ongoing research by successfully advocating for the government shutdown. And, of course, because he does not believe in climate change, a phenomenon the agency has documented at length. Cruz has already hinted that he wants to refocus NASA solely on space, and away from what he calls "political distractions extraneous to NASA's mandate," leading some to speculate he's eyeing gutting its earth science budget.
Marco Rubio (R-FL), who now chairs the subcommittee that considers ocean and air issues and controls the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the organization that monitors the climate, also doubts that climate change is real. "I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it," Rubio said in a 2014 interview with ABC.
James Inhofe (R-OK), the man now in charge of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, is perhaps the most flagrantly and unabashedly opposed to mainstream science of all. Far beyond merely doubting its existence, he calls global warming the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on mankind."
And that's just in the Senate. Over in the newly reshuffled House of Representatives, Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), a man who once actually demanded Obama apologize to the state of Oklahoma for funding climate change research, has been appointed the chairman of its Environment subcommittee. That subcommittee is a part of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, the organ that oversees scientific matters on the other side of the legislative divide. Its members, new and old, are also profoundly ignorant of science.
The defenders of tobacco never controlled both houses of Congress. They did not have political leaders who made it a point of pride to reject well-established science.
In fact, after Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) delivered his infamous biology lesson on "legitimate rape" in 2012, I was compelled to list, in detail, the myriad ways the House Science Committee had science backwards.
Now Akin is gone, but many of its other members persist: Lamar Smith (R-TX), the committee's climate change-denying chairman, continues to lead the committee, and continues denying climate change. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) is still convinced that global warming is "bogus." James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), who once said that he personally believes that "solar flares are more responsible for climatic cycles than anything that human beings do," continues to regard climate change as "propaganda."
Meanwhile, the sitting chair of the space subcommittee, Steven Palazzo (R-MI), led a charge to cut $650 million worth of NASA's earth science programs, as well as its asteroid research funding. All told, he proposed $1 billion worth of cuts to the already contracting agency.
According to the Center for American Progress, 56 percent of the Republicans in the 114th Congress have publicly dismissed or denied climate change. Broken down, 72 percent of Republican Senators deny climate change, as do 68 percent of the new Senate and House leadership, and 62 percent of the members of the House Science Committee. By way of comparison, 83 percent of Americans believe in climate change, according to a December 2014 poll.
The Road to Denial
How can that possibly be? How can so many public leaders, seeking to govern a rich, technologically advanced, thoroughly modernized nation, who are at least intelligent enough to run a savvy campaign to get themselves elected, be so confounded by what amounts to very basic science? How have we come to see the rise of what may be the most anti-science Congress in recent history?
Oreskes says that this strain of science denial originated as a political strategy much like the one Congresses past deployed to shield tobacco companies from the powerful, emergent consensus in the medical establishment that cigarettes caused lung cancer. She authored a book, Merchants of Doubt, that "showed how the strategy of denial came from the tobacco industry, and was applied to acid rain, ozone, etc."
"In that sense," she said, "this is old news. However, what is really terrifying about what is going on now is this: In the case of tobacco, the industry was in sustained denial for decades."
The fossil fuel industry, a major Republican donor, has a vested interest in preventing or delaying restrictions on carbon pollution, the necessary step to combatting climate change. Oil giants like Exxon and industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute have spent a fortune lobbying Congress to oppose climate measures and, as with the tobacco fights, funding pseudoscientists and front groups to seed doubt about climate change in public forums. Thus, Republicans often renounce scientific findings in order to justify advocating coal, oil, and gas interests, as when they call for clean air protections to be struck down, or for the construction of a tar sands oil pipeline like the Keystone XL.
"This is an overall, leadership-led agenda," David Goldston, the director of Governmental Affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told me. "And that agenda explicitly involves trying to undermine a wide range of environmental protections. They've been very explicit that they want to block any and all action on climate change." Congressional Republicans, from the leadership down to the rank-and-file, have clearly demonstrated they will deny science in order to justify doing so.
"There were politicians from tobacco states who defended the industry (and Jimmy Carter notoriously said that they were going to make 'even safer' cigarettes)," Oreskes said, "but the defenders of tobacco never controlled both houses of Congress. They did not have political leaders who made it a point of pride to reject well-established science. Our political leaders never defended tobacco disinformation in this systematic and sustained manner that the Republican leadership has defended fossil fuel disinformation."
Physicist and climate expert Joe Romm, who runs Climate Progress and served as an advisor on Showtime's global warming series A Year of Living Dangerously, echoes Oreskes' analogy.
"Scientists are now as certain that humans are the primary cause of climate change as they are that smoking is harmful to your health," Romm told me. "The hammerlock science deniers have on the Senate and House shows that the political strength and disinformation campaign of the fossil fuel industry is of a vastly greater scale than the tobacco industry's ever were."
Now, there are certainly a number of Republicans (and some Democrats) who genuinely do not believe that climate change is real, as opposed to those who knowingly distort scientific truths expressly for political purposes. Some, like ex-Congressman Paul Broun, do appear to believe that biblical truths render the concept of anthropogenic warming impossible, and others have no doubt sincerely let political ideology blind them to scientific fact.
They could do a bill that says NASA shouldn't be doing climate work.
Research published in November 2014 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology concluded that "in the case of climate change, Republicans are especially skeptical of the relevant science, particularly when they are compared with Democrats." The researchers found "that this phenomenon is often motivated. However, the source of this motivation is not necessarily an aversion to the problem, per se, but an aversion to the solutions associated with the problem." Resistance to environmental regulations and carbon pricing probably come first, in other words, and the climate denial follows, not the other way around.
So it likely is with the party as a whole. In 2005, the conservative columnist David Brooks wrote that, "Global warming is real (conservatives secretly know this)." Shortly before that, the infamous Luntz memo leaked, which was meant to advise Republicans on opposing climate measures, and noted explicitly that "the scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed." The room for reasonable doubt was shrinking, and Luntz suggested Republicans—who at that point were reluctantly agreeing with the science (even George W. Bush pledged to fight climate change in a State of the Union address)—fabricate some of their own. "Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate."
Republicans took his advice, to spectacular effect, and, after years of repeating 'the science isn't settled' like a mantra on campaign trails, and with the help of fossil fuel industry contributions, a phony 'climategate' scandal, and a Tea Party caucus intent on maintaining ideological purity, willing to punish candidates who endorse climate science, the party eventually convinced itself of the veracity of its own cynical anti-science proclamations.
So, it's 2015, and Congress is more awash in climate change denial than it ever has been.
"One really has to go back to the dark era of Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union, where scientists were jailed if they disagreed with the party line on matters of science, to find an analogue for what we are facing here today," Dr. Mann said. He should know. Republicans opened an "investigation" into his research—ostensibly in relation to the phony hacked climate email scandal—in a move that fellow scientists saw as a disturbing indication that unfavorable science could be put on trial. The investigation, of course, never uncovered any evidence of wrongdoing.
But it raises the question: What kind of damage could a science-averse Congress do?
"They'll go after the smog rules. They want to block the ability of the president to declare national monuments," NRDC's Goldston said. "Not like they're proposing alternatives, but it's clear they want to block the rule the EPA has put out to protect and strengthen the Clean Air & Water Act."
"The way they're going to be most damaging is going to be through spending bills," Goldston said. "They're going to try to load up the spending bills with riders." In the now-Republican controlled Appropriations committee, Republicans can roll back research and regulatory budgets. The EPA especially is under the crosshairs, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has explicitly said getting the agency "reined in" is a "top priority. But what will happen in the science committees is open to speculation.
"They could do a bill that says NASA shouldn't be doing climate work," Goldston said. "There's been a movement by a couple of these individuals to take NASA out of the Earth Sciences altogether. There's been a greater tendency to single out climate research than there has been before."
Belligerent committee leaders may pose some problems to science agencies, he said. "Cruz," for instance, "can use his position in problematic ways, including pushing bills that may be damaging. But the greatest danger resides in the overall leadership-driven plan."
And that includes dismantling the Obama administration's carbon pollution regulatory regime, the first nationwide effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To guard his climate legacy against Congress, Obama may be forced to keep his veto pen inked. The president has already hinted he'll use it if Congress succeeds in passing legislation to approve the Keystone XL.
This is a mistake the Republican party has made repeatedly. They think that by attacking the environment they can get broad agreement.
Still, even as climate denial reaches its apogee in Congress, there are signs that this historic science-forsaking frenzy may be on the wane. A majority of the public strongly believes that climate change is happening, and most believe that it is caused by humans. The same is true even of Republican voters, a new Yale poll shows, providing even further evidence that it is the donations-soliciting party leadership that outspokenly denies climate change, not its science-literate constituents. The notion that climate change is a hoax was voted "lie of the year" by PolitiFact readers.
This shifting attitude may be why industry-friendly candidates had to resort to the now-infamous "I'm not a scientist" dodge on the 2014 campaign trail, in order to avoid incriminating themselves as dullards to an increasingly climate-observant public. And Republican Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) was forced to say not only that he was sorry, but to stress that yes, he actually believed in manmade climate change to appease his voters, who made a stink when he claimed that global warming wasn't caused by humans, and that Greenland had been melting long before the Industrial Revolution.
The ultimate test of this Congress's dedication to science illiteracy could come as soon as next week, when the Senate may be forced to vote on an amendment to the Keystone bill, offered up by Bernie Sanders (D-VT), which would require senators to publicly state whether or not they believe the scientific consensus that human activity is warming the planet.
Climate change is well-accepted by the American public, and the Senate risks embarrassing itself by denying the science so directly and so squarely on the Congressional record. Such a vote would reveal just how disconnected the party is from the mainstream.
"This is a mistake the Republican party has made repeatedly," Goldston said. "They made it in the 80s. They made it in the mid-1990s. They think that by attacking the environment they can get broad agreement, both within their congressional members, Senate and House, and with the broader public. And, what has happened every time, they find out that they were wrong. This is not a good political issue. And they're making that mistake again."
The question is whether they're making it fast enough. Congressional Republicans have proven remarkably resolute in their capacity to deny climate science, even as public opinion the world over shifts around them. This year, the international community has its best chance yet to draft a treaty to reduce global carbon emissions—and this Congress will almost certainly prevent the US from signing. Couple that with likely-to-shrink budgets for science programs, an incipient assault on environmental protections, and continued hostility toward climate scientists, and educators, students, researchers, and, sure, any member of the public that enjoys the fruits of scientific research had best brace themselves for the tenure of the most science-allergic Congress in decades.
"The President and indeed all Americans must be vigilant if we are to ensure that the pro-pollution, anti-science forces do not succeed in destroying a livable climate," Romm said.