Man scratching his head.

Democratic leaders in the House are pushing hard to get a comprehensive climate and energy bill passed by summer, with discussion of their draft bill slated to begin this week. But at hearings designed to discuss the particulars of climate policy, Republican representatives and their witnesses have been bogging down the proceedings with skeptical rants and cockamamy theories.

Take, for example, the March 25 hearing on climate-change adaptation in the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, chaired by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

“The earth will end only when God declares its time is over,” declared Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), explaining why it’s unnecessary to worry about climate change. In an exchange with witness Lord Christopher Monckton (more on him below), Shimkus suggested the planet is “carbon-starved” and asked, “If we decrease the use of carbon dioxide, are we not taking away plant food from the atmosphere? … So all our good intentions could be for vain. In fact, we could be doing the opposite of what the people who want to save the world are saying.”

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Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) chimed in with his own analysis: “Adapting is a common natural way for people to adapt to their environment … I believe that the earth’s climate is changing, but I think it’s changing for natural variation reasons,” he said. “And I think mankind has been adopting, or adapting to climate as long as man has walked the earth. When it rains, we find shelter. When it’s hot, we get shade. When it’s cold, we find a warm place to stay.”

A few weeks earlier, at a hearing on renewable power, Barton raised the question of whether expanding wind power might actually cause the planet to heat up:

Wind is God’s way of balancing heat. Wind is the way you shift heat from areas where it’s hotter to areas where it’s cooler. That’s what wind is. Wouldn’t it be ironic if in the interest of global warming we mandated massive switches to energy, which is a finite resource, which slows the winds down, which causes the temperature to go up? Now, I’m not saying that’s going to happen, Mr. Chairman, but that is definitely something on the massive scale. I mean, it does make some sense. You stop something, you can’t transfer that heat, and the heat goes up. It’s just something to think about.

(And if you think that’s bad, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) told ABC on Sunday that “the idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical. … Every cow in the world, you know, when they do what they do, you’ve got more carbon dioxide.”)

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The witness skepticism program

The witnesses Republicans bring to hearings are just as out of touch with climate science.

Democrats, who control Congress and thus chair its committees, schedule hearings on topics of their choosing and invite witnesses. A committee chair isn’t required to grant the minority party their pick of witnesses, but if the minority objects to the panel, they can request a second day of the hearing for which they pick all the witnesses. To avoid that messiness, chairs tend to let the minority pick at least one or two panelists.

At the March 25 hearing, Democrats’ five witnesses included the director of the National Climatic Data Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the director of natural resources and environment at the Government Accountability Office, and leaders from the National Wildlife Federation, the National Council of Churches, and Oxfam America.

The NOAA representative, Tom Karl, presented on the trends toward increased droughts and forest fires, and an uptick in the frequency and severity of coastal storms that the agency forecasts. John Stephenson from the GAO talked about the “growing understanding” at his agency that the costs of inaction could be greater than the costs of mitigating climate change. Even the witnesses who don’t work in climate science or government stuck to the topic at hand — adapting to a warmed world — without claiming expertise they don’t possess. Bishop Callon Holloway of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, speaking on behalf of the National Council of Churches, testified about the “call to be good stewards of the earth,” reflecting on the values of “stewardship and justice” that should compel us to protect the poor who would be affected by climate change.

In stark contrast, the Republicans’ witnesses challenged the very idea of climate change, and thus the whole basis for the hearing. First up was E. Calvin Beisner of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, who warned that “fear of catastrophic, man-made global warming is a mistake,” and argued that because the “biblical worldview sees the world and ecosystems as the work of a wise God,” humankind couldn’t possibly be affecting the climate. Going further, he warned that restricting the amount of carbon put into the atmosphere would harm the poor, and that Americans are “morally obligated to provide access for the poor to affordable, abundant fossil fuels.”

The minority’s second witness was Lord Christopher Monckton, aka the 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, a British hereditary peer who’s become a minor star in the climate-skeptic world. “The right response to the non-problem of global warming is to have the courage to do nothing,” he told the panel. He readily agreed with Rep. Shimkus: “We are a carbon-starved planet.”

Monckton argued that if Congress moved to address climate change, it would “create green jobs by the thousands and eliminate real jobs by the millions … Green jobs are the new euphemism for vast unemployment.”

He also contended that aggressive environmental regulation in California has prompted a vast exodus from the state. “Everyone with the means to get up and go is getting up and going, and unlike their robotic governor, they won’t be back,” Monckton said — though he offered no evidence of a mass migration. (In reality, the state’s overall population continues to grow, even though the number of people moving out of California has slightly surpassed the number moving in.)

Monckton has a colorful history — journalist by training, advisor to Margaret Thatcher, business consultant, and developer of the high-selling Eternity puzzle — but no background in climate science. Nonetheless, he’s touted by climate deniers as an “expert” on the topic, and serves as chief policy adviser to the Science & Public Policy Institute, a climate-skeptic group. Republicans also trotted Monckton out as a witness at a Ways and Means Committee hearing on climate change in February, and he appeared at the climate skeptics summit sponsored by the conservative Heartland Institute in early March. (See George Monbiot, DeSmogBlog, and Deltoid for more on Monckton.)

“This was a serious hearing on a serious issue,” an aide to the Energy and Commerce Committee told Grist of the March 25 panel. “We gave the other side advance notice on the kinds of witnesses [Democratic leaders] were choosing. They chose to invite Monckton. … If this is the witness that they want to choose, even though he’s contradicted by U.S. government scientists, then we’re going to move forward.”

Will the GOP play ball or throw sand?

Climate legislation will be highly complex, with society-wide ramifications. So far this year, there have been 11 hearings on the topic in the Energy and Environment Subcommittee alone, and there will be a number of additional hearings over the coming weeks focusing specifically on the draft climate plan from Markey and Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). Markey has said they left many specifics out of their draft because they “want to hear from all affected parties” on, for instance, how to minimize impacts on citizens and help energy-intensive businesses adapt to a new regulatory scheme.

But instead of inviting witnesses who could speak to these critical concerns, the Republican committee members have thus far preferred to invite climate skeptics.

Asked about the prospects for meaningful Republican participation in crafting a climate bill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) acknowledged recently that there might not be much, if any. “We would hope to have Republican votes as we go forward on this,” she said. “Will I not put it forth unless I do? No. There’s an inevitability to this that everyone has to understand.”

The Energy and Commerce Committee will hold its first four hearings on the Waxman-Markey bill this week, starting on Tuesday. Democratic leaders aim to pass the legislation out of committee by Memorial Day, and out of the full House by July. If you want to know how seriously Republicans are taking the process, keep an eye on these hearings.