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Climate Change

Perhaps we should sell tickets to congressional hearings in which climate scientists face off with Republican climate change skeptics in the House of Representatives. The media (and the public) love conflict and direct assault on scientific evidence and the integrity of scientists should provide plenty of it. It may not rank historically with the Scopes Monkey Trial as media spectacle of science-on-trial, but it may be the closest we've seen in a long time.

Congressional hearings ideally provide an avenue for members of Congress to gather evidence from experts that would allow them to assess the real-life effects of policy proposals. In reality, congressional hearings usually have little to do with finding the truth, but instead are stacked to promote the policy outcomes favored by the majority party. The majority party chooses the witnesses, so they disproportionately invite witnesses who favor their perspective. With the 2010 midterm elections giving majority party control of the House to the Republicans, they have the ability to set the congressional agenda, decide the topics for committee hearings, and decide who to call as witnesses. Calling climate change scientists, however, would differ from the usual model as Republicans would be calling experts with the purpose of attempting to discredit them and their work, thus undercutting the science and public support for climate change legislation.

Many establishment Republicans have long been skeptical of alarmism by environmentalists, the accuracy of their long-term predictions, and the costs that environmental regulations impose upon business. But they are not seeking a confrontation with scientists since being seen as anti-science isn't a political plus. Instead, the dynamics of the contemporary debate are driven by the newly-elected tea-party Republicans who believe that the underlying science is fraudulent and is an attempt by the "elite" to increase their control over the lives of ordinary Americans.

If much of current climate change science is fraudulent or just wrong, it deserves to be exposed. But given the number of independent scientists using different ways of studying climate change who have reached similar conclusions, the changes of this happening seems unlikely. The hearings, then, provide an opportunity for scientists to make a public case for their results — a platform that scientists rarely have, particularly given the media's likely amplification of the hearings. Scientists' defense of climate change science may not change the minds of many in Congress (or of their most fervent supporters), but like the Scopes Monkey trial, they could provide a push for public debate — which thus far has been very apathetic about the issue — and become a critical historical event in the evolution of the climate change issue.

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Jeff Gillman loathes advice that is given without concern for the consequences. He wrote a tell-all book after hearing self-proclaimed experts spouting things such as feeding syrup to plants, and lectures on a variety of topics including homebrewed remedies and organic pesticides.

Eric S. Heberlig is a tenured associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. He is co-author of Classics in Congressional Politics and American Labor Unions in the Electoral Arena, and of journal articles on legislative, interest group, and electoral politics.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. How the Government Got in Your... Used Hardcover $11.50

Jeff Gillman and Eric Heberlig is the author of How the Government Got in Your Backyard: Superweeds, Frankenfoods, Lawn Wars, and the (Nonpartisan) Truth about Environmental Policies

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