In a recent House Energy and Commerce Committee climate hearing, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) jokingly asked if some of his fellow colleagues were going to overturn the law of gravity, “sending us floating about the room.”
It seems funny until you realize that it’s in response to a disturbing trend in Congress of misusing, manipulating, or ignoring scientific facts and academic research. As Lisa Jackson, the head of the EPA, put it, if they keep it up, “[p]oliticians overruling scientists on a scientific question would become part of this committee’s legacy.”
Just one example: in another Energy and Commerce Committee hearing last week, Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) disparaged the link between greenhouse gases and increased asthma rates due to higher temperatures, saying this about what causes his own flare ups: “It’s horses, it’s dogs, it’s cats … but it’s not carbon dioxide. It never has been; it never will be. I exhale carbon dioxide every time I take a breath.”
Burgess’s comments about asthma and greenhouse gas obscure the issue. Scientists do not claim that inhalation of greenhouse gases causes respiratory issues. Instead, higher temperatures mean more ground level ozone, longer pollen seasons, and more mold allergies. That is how CO2 is linked to respiratory problems. Burgess, who is a medical doctor, should be able to figure this out.
The committee subsequently voted three separate times to overturn a scientific finding on the dangers of global warming.
These anti-science bromides are often accompanied by claims about standing up for the best interests of blue-collar workers and middle class Americans. In the same hearing, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), accused scientists of having “a conclusion and try to make the facts fit,” and worried that the U.S. economy shouldn’t be put in a “straitjacket because of a theory that hasn’t been proven.”
But it is often big business that stands the most to gain when science is ignored. Environmental regulations often generate massive benefits for the public (a recent analysis shows a 20 to 1 ratio for air quality rules), with firms in polluting industries paying a fraction of that amount to clean up their act. Because cleaner air, or a stable climate, has less effect on their bottom lines, polluters disregard the outsize public benefits and complain mightily about their compliance costs, giving backup to politicians who question the link between environmental protections and the health of the public.
Skewing public opinion on scientific realities is a cheap way to fight public health protection.
Often, the details are technical, findings are presented in the midst of in-depth statistical analysis, and the scientific conclusions are necessarily tentative. Confusing the public by scrambling or misrepresenting the facts is easier than trying to fight a rule that everyone acknowledges would protect public health.
Climate change is certainly a complicated issue with many unclear facets. Even scientists and economists who are experts in the field find interpreting the data to be a challenge. But to ignore the worldwide scientific consensus that there is a problem is dangerous. And talking down to the public by misrepresenting research is a cynical and shortsighted way of running our government.