Climate Science, D.C. Style: 'Some Say Yes, and Some Say No'

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

In an item ScienceInsider ran yesterday, freshman Representative Mo Brooks (R-AL), the newly named chair of the House of Representatives science panel's basic research and education subcommittee, was asked by Jeffrey Mervis if human activity was causing global warming. His response:

That's a difficult question to answer because I've talked to scientists on both sides of the fence, especially at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. Some say yes, and some say no…So I'm approaching the issue with a healthy degree of skepticism. If the evidence is there to prove it, then so be it.

With influential lawmakers exhibiting that sort of view, one had to wonder how a letter like the one sent on 28 January to Congress by 18 prominent climate scientists might fare. It begins:

As you begin your deliberations in the new 112th Congress, we urge you to take a fresh look at climate change. Climate change is not just an environmental threat but, as we describe below, also poses challenges to the U.S. economy, national security and public health. …We want to assure you that the science is strong and that there is nothing abstract about the risks facing our Nation.

It was no surprise when more than 70 skeptics hastily penned a response, sent to lawmakers yesterday and publicized by the industry-supported Heartland Institute.

The skeptics wrote:

On 28 January 2011, eighteen scientists sent a letter to members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate urging them to "take a fresh look at climate change." Their intent, apparently, was to disparage the views of scientists who disagree with their contention that continued business-as-usual increases in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions produced from the burning of coal, gas, and oil will lead to a host of cataclysmic climate-related problems.

We, the undersigned, totally disagree with them and would like to take this opportunity to briefly state our side of the story. … It is the eighteen climate alarmists who appear to be unaware of "what is happening to our planet's climate," as well as the vast amount of research that has produced that knowledge.

As infuriating as it might be to the scientists who would agree with the first letter, the second one is likely to be an effective tool for those who prefer inaction, based on a view of the science as equally balanced between two sides. (In the mid-2000s, the media had a real problem with ping-pong reporting of climate stories; the phenomenon has subsided somewhat since then but crops up increasingly on right-leaning media outlets.)

ScienceInsider has asked Brooks for a response to the two letters.

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