Scientifically Illiterate Congressmen Are Resigning the World to Ruin

Scientists are begging the world to address climate change. Meet the handful of American science deniers who are ensuring it won't happen.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), gleeful science ignoramus, at CPAC in 2011. Image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The scene played out like pitch-black comedy on March 26th at the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology's 2015 budget request hearing. In the hot seat, tasked with defending the president's call for steady funding for science programs: the renowned Earth scientist and top Obama adviser Dr. John Holdren. Accosting him from across the chamber: a parade of gleeful antagonists, some who seemed to relish their own scientific illiteracy. 

They object to global warming, mostly. They do not believe it is our fault, or their fault, because nothing is.

Watching the hearing now, on YouTube, a once ubiquitous Latin maxim comes to mind: Ignoramus et ignorabimus. It means "We do not know and we will not know," and was deployed by scientists and philosophers in the late 1800s to describe the limits of human knowledge—what was then deemed unknowable. The origin of motion. The true nature of sensation. And here are some of our top statesmen, who abide by it still today, applying it to the realm of the demonstrably knowable, stamping its syllables with stubborn refusal instead of rueful perplexity. 

"We've had climate change since the day the Earth was formed, whenever that was, depending upon whatever you believe," said Representative Bill Posey (R-FL). "I remember the 70s, that was the threat. We're going to have a cooling that's eventually going to freeze the planet, and that was the fear before Al Gore invented the internet and those other terms." He has already made up his mind, even though he clearly has only a cursory grasp of the science he is talking about.

The mock questions, careless repetition of talking points, and baseless dismissals of fact were all set to the backdrop of freshly and deeply grim scientific forecasts about the warming world. Hundreds of climate scientists would just days later issue a meticulously considered plea to governments everywhere: Act. Make policy to reduce emissions. Brace for the storm, because it is already coming. 

"We've had climate change since the day the Earth was formed, whenever that was, depending upon whatever you believe."

Writing as true scientists, their report ticked off the disturbing pronouncements in studied language, backed by a vast supply of carefully scrutinized evidence: There is "Risk of food insecurity and the breakdown of food systems," and of "extreme mortality and morbidity during times of extreme heat," they wrote. The eight hundred climatologist co-authors have "high confidence" that global warming threatens to bring on myriad modes of near-term devastation.

But back in the courtroom, the committee chair—one of the most powerful science policymakers in the world—begins the meeting by disparaging climate change as "alarmism."

"Unfortunately, this administration's science budget focuses, in my view, far too much money, time, and effort on alarmist predictions of climate change," Lamar Smith (R-TX) said. So begins a procession of obfuscation, denial, and provocation, all from non-scientists who appear to believe they are the smartest guys in the room.

The reporter Mark Strauss, who dutifully catalogued some of the most distressing statements that spilt forth (some went so far as to clumsily question whether Holdren himself understood science), exhorted, "this is what the GOP war on science looks like."

"So, when you guys do your research, you start with a scientific—what do they call it—postulate or theory, and you work from that direction forward, is that right?" Representative Randy Weber (R-TX) said. "So, I'm just wondering how that related, for example, to global warming and eventual global cooling." He paused to make a joke about getting the scientists' cell phone number so he could call to ask when to buy a coat, before concluding that science just isn't up to the task. 

"I don't know how you prove those hypotheses, going back fifty, a hundred, what you might say is thousands or millions of years, and how you postulate those forward," he said. There was no question, just that statement. This is, effectively, an admission of scientific illiteracy.

Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) called Holdren out for using "weasel words," and scoffed aloud when the scientist suggested that a changing climate could yield both a wetter world and more drought. There was a glint in his eye, a spark of boorish pomposity, as the congressman stared the scientist in the face and told him that he was wrong, even as his own constituents were still reeling from one of the worst droughts in hundreds of years. He oozed a contempt for nuance, waved it away like an irksome insect. His denial that humans could change the climate is total.

This has happened before, so many times. In this very room, even, scientists have been ignored, insulted, denigrated, rejected by climate-denying buffoons who have allowed themselves to be convinced that their own fleeting command of science is sufficient to disprove a well-documented phenomenon, the greatest physical crisis, maybe ever. 

That is the right word; buffoon. These men are not necessarily or wholly unintelligent. They can be charming, or funny, and are often good at writing speeches. They have no lack of talent. But each is, as Merriam-Webster's instructs us, "a ludicrous figure." They are "gross and usually ill-educated," at least concerning the subject matter over which they govern, as per the definition. And these buffoons have their feet jammed in the doorway to the halls of power at what is perhaps the worst possible juncture in history. 

Because they believe they know science better than scientists—ludicrous—they vote against any action to repair the damage being done to the carbon-saturated climate at all. They, along with scores of their fellow Republicans, have banded together to form what may be the most uniquely scientifically ignorant cliques in international governance. As Ronald Brownstein wrote in a 2010 piece for the National Journal, "It is difficult to identify another major political party in any democracy as thoroughly dismissive of climate science as is the GOP here." They comprise the Congressional Science Committee that doesn't get science, and they are determining our policies. Or blocking them.

Many of these men and their colleagues were responsible for stymying the best hope the nation had at reducing carbon pollution—a cap and trade bill that died in the Senate in 2009. Yes, the event detailed above is just a relatively inconsequential budgetary debate, and yet it still lays bare a profound insensitivity, an inability to grasp basic science; when they are actively arguing against corrective legislation, or that oil companies should continue to be gifted subsidies, they become much more onerously uninformed. The Speaker of the House himself laughed off the idea that carbon emissions could be harmful, believing the whole debate to be about whether CO2 is carcinogenic.

The sheer failure to understand the basic tenets of the science at play here should be deemed outrageous and unacceptable; like the revelation that the politicians writing our technology laws who don't understand how the internet works. But worse. And it is not conjecture—this rampant disbelief in evolution, in climate science, has been documented, tallied, recorded. Willfully made public.

These are men, and there are more of them, who are chuckling at what would appear to grade schoolers to be insurmountable contradictions—how can there be more heat and more snow?—while there is a simple scientific answer to that question and the gates to a hell are opening.

In the Senate, it gets worse. That's the lair of the uncontested anti-science lion, James Inhofe (R-OK), who has authored a book about global warming entitled The Greatest Hoax. It is named after a line in what is perhaps his most famous speech, in which he claimed "climate change is the greatest hoax that has ever been perpetrated." 

But it's bad everywhere, across the entirety of what we might call the science-illiterate caucus of the GOP. Some Democrats, too. The House Energy Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) has stated "I do not say that [climate change] is manmade." Governor Chris Christie pulled his state out of the east coast's regional carbon-reducing cap and trade program. Just two months ago, twenty-four House Republicans voted against an amendment that would have added language to an energy bill that stated climate change was occurring. In essence, they were voting against the reality of climate change. 

It is still unclear how, exactly, the high tide of science denial has swept so influential a body—it likely involves an unholy nexus of the financial influence of campaign donors, well-organized propaganda from industry lobbies, a pervasive and very popular libertarian-leaning free market ideology that happens to be incompatible with the root of the climate problem, and, inside the skull, at the core of it all, psychological phenomena like motivated reasoning and bias confirmation that condition us to organize new data to fit our preconceived worldview. They don't want to understand the science, and so they do not.

It is them, after all—the Lamar Smiths, the Dana Rohrabachers, the James Inhofes, the Fred Uptons, these ruddy-faced Neros—who are ultimately more responsible than any other party on earth, for failing to allow its richest nation to act to address what science has revealed to be an existential crisis. This is what the public doesn't realize.

Every major scientific institution on the planet says we must reduce emissions, immediately, at, no exaggeration, human civilization's peril. Scientists, that notoriously introverted lot, are currently doing their version of standing atop a mountain with a megaphone, of holding a celeb-studded benefit concert in a stadium: They are banding together by the hundreds, issuing grim reports, making sweeping, unambiguous statements and policy recommendations.

The IPCC 5th Assessment Report is unequivocal: Global warming is our fault, it's getting worse, and it's already wreaking havoc on the lives of millions. The American Association for the Advancement of Science—which bills itself as the world's largest general scientific society—recently took the extraordinary and unprecedented step of launching a campaign to illustrate to the public that there is no serious scientific disagreement on the climate issue. It is real, manmade, and begs urgent reaction.

Meanwhile, nearly every other government on Earth, even the conservative ones, acknowledges the need for policy to address climate change. And even the majority of American voters now support enacting laws to curb the carbon pollution that is driving disaster. The gaping disconnect lies between the global public and this small band of scientifically confused politicians. 

Emboldened further by a vocal contingent of fellow anti-scientists, this group of mostly white, mostly Republican, mostly privileged men has, for the last five years, stamped out the hope of any serious reform. Because the US is the largest historic contributor to carbon dioxide gases, the world has awaited its move—without it, there is every excuse for China, India, Australia, Brazil, Russia, and everyone else to continue to pollute.

Because of these gleeful buffoons, every prospective move has been thwarted. Congress, and its conservative controlling stake, are resigning the entire world to rising seas and temperatures. To severe water shortages, and yes, to tragic deluge. To heat waves, to drought. This is not hyperbole. The inaction of these few, wealthy lawmakers is condemning millions of people to ruin.

These modern ignoramuses are doing worse than merely fiddling while Rome burns—they are staring at the flames, and arguing that it is not hot.