The Earth is not warming. The White Cliffs of Dover are tumbling into the sea and causing sea levels to rise. Global warming is helping grow the Antarctic ice sheet.
Those are some of the skeptical assertions echoed by Republicans on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee yesterday. The lawmakers at times embraced research that questions mainstream climate science during a hearing on how technology can be used to address global warming.
A leading climate scientist testifying before the panel spent much of the two hours correcting misstatements.
The purpose of the hearing was to focus on how technology could be deployed for climate change adaptation. But the hearing frequently turned to the basics of climate science. Many of the questions by Republicans and Democrats alike were directed to Philip Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts and former senior adviser to the U.S. Global Change Research Program.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) said he was bothered that established climate science has not been questioned more by the committee, which has accused federal climate scientists of fraudulently manipulating climate data and subpoenaed their records.
"I’m a little bit disturbed by, No. 1, over and over again, I hear, ‘Don’t ever talk about whether mankind is the main cause of the temperature changing and the climate changing,’" he said. "That’s a little disturbing to hear constantly beaten into our heads in a Science Committee meeting, when basically we should all be open to different points of view."
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the committee, entered into the record an opinion piece published in The Wall Street Journal yesterday that claimed sea levels are not rising because of climate change, a view that rejects thousands of scientific studies. The piece was written by Fred Singer, who is affiliated with the Heartland Institute, which promotes the rejection of mainstream climate science.
"To solve climate change challenges, we first need to acknowledge the uncertainties that exist," Smith said in his opening remarks. "Then we can have confidence that innovations and technology will enable us to mitigate any adverse consequences of climate change."
At one point, Smith showed a slide of two charts that he said demonstrated how the rate of sea-level rise does not equal the sharp spike in the consumption of fossil fuels. When Smith pointed out that rates of sea-level rise have only increased slightly compared with the rate of fossil fuel use, Duffy pointed out that his chart was from a single tide gauge station, near San Francisco, and that sea levels rise at different rates around the world. Smith did not show rising atmospheric CO2 levels or temperatures, both of which have climbed steadily in recent decades as emissions have increased.
"The rate of global sea-level rise has accelerated and is now four times faster than it was 100 years ago," Duffy told Smith in response to the charts.
"Is this chart inaccurate, then?" Smith asked.
"It’s accurate, but it doesn’t represent what’s happening globally; it represents what’s happening in San Francisco," Duffy said.
Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) questioned Duffy on the factors that contribute to sea-level rise, pointing out that land subsidence plays a role, as well as human activity.
Brooks then said that erosion plays a significant role in sea-level rise, which is not an idea embraced by mainstream climate researchers. He said the California coastline and the White Cliffs of Dover tumble into the sea every year, and that contributes to sea-level rise. He also said that silt washing into the ocean from the world’s major rivers, including the Mississippi, the Amazon and the Nile, is contributing to sea-level rise.
"Every time you have that soil or rock or whatever it is that is deposited into the seas, that forces the sea levels to rise, because now you have less space in those oceans, because the bottom is moving up," Brooks said.
Duffy responded: "I’m pretty sure that on human time scales, those are minuscule effects."
Brooks added that Antarctic ice is growing. That was true a few years ago, and scientists say it does not disprove the theory of global warming because different factors affect the Arctic and Antarctic rates of melting.
"We have satellite records clearly documenting a shrinkage of the Antarctic ice sheet and an acceleration of that shrinkage," Duffy said.
"I’m sorry, but I don’t know where you’re getting your information, but the data I have seen suggests — " Brooks said.
Duffy answered: "The National Snow and Ice Data Center and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration."
"Well, I’ve got a NASA base in my district, and apparently, they’re telling you one thing and me a different thing," Brooks said. "But there are plenty of studies that have come that show with respect to Antarctica that the total ice sheet, particularly that above land, is increasing, not decreasing. Now, you could make a different argument if you want to talk about Greenland or the Arctic."
Earlier this year, NASA researchers determined that Antarctica’s ice loss has accelerated in the last decade. More broadly, sea ice extent at both poles set a record low last year. Scientists are racing to better understand the changes occurring in Antarctica because much of its ice is land-based, meaning it could drive sea-level rise around the world as it melts.
Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.) said scientists said in the 1970s that the Earth was cooling, a popular talking point of climate skeptics and the subject of a fake Time magazine cover that has become a meme. Duffy corrected him and said that was essentially an outlier position at the time and that scientists long ago determined that humans were warming the planet.
Posey also asked how carbon dioxide could be captured in permafrost in the periods before humans existed. Duffy told him that it was from non-decayed organic matter. Human activity is now causing the Arctic to warm and thaw the ground, releasing the carbon into the atmosphere, Duffy said.
Posey then asked about theories related to warming being beneficial for habitats and to people.
"What do you say to people who theorize that the Earth as it continues to warm is returning to its normal temperature?" Posey asked.
"Look, if you want to characterize a temperature above today’s temperature as normal, you’re free to do that, but that doesn’t mean that’s a planet we want to live on," Duffy said.
"I don’t want to get philosophical; I’m trying to stay on science here," Posey said.
"I’m not getting philosophical; I’m getting extremely practical," Duffy said. "I’m being extremely practical — if we let the planet warm 2 or 3 degrees, we will have tens of meters of sea-level rise, and the community where I live will essentially cease to exist."
Posey responded: "I don’t think anybody disputes that the Earth is getting warmer; I think what’s not clear is the exact amount of who caused what, and getting to that is, I think, where we’re trying to go with this committee."
Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, which claimed climate change is not the cause of sea-level rise.