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The GOP’s New Front In Culture War Against Climate Science

Michael Mann, a distinguished scientist who has had a profound impact on how climate change is scientifically understood, was invited by Democrats to speak at a congressional hearing put together by Republican Lamar Smith. The hearing was convened by the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology to invoke the “scientific method,” promote innuendo and insinuations about climate scientists who don’t follow the “scientific method,” and undermine research proving climate change is a threat to humanity.

“The scientific method, we’ve heard this term quite a bit,” Mann said. “The chairman keeps using this term. I do not think it means what he thinks it means.”

Mann referred to an article from Science Magazine on Smith, who recently spoke at the Heartland Institute’s recent conference on climate change. “This is a climate change-denying, Koch Brothers-funded outlet that has a climate change-denying event each year.”

The characterization offended Smith, who interrupted Mann to scold him. “Dr. Mann, don’t mischaracterize that. No, they do not say they are deniers and they should not say that either,” and, “Be accurate in your description.”

Mann stood by his description and continued to challenge Smith. He noted that Science Magazine called attention to the fact that Smith sees the science committee as a “tool to advance his political agenda rather than a forum to examine important issues facing the U.S. research community.”

“As a scientist, I find that deeply disturbing,” Mann declared. Again, Smith was offended.

“Dr. Mann, who said that?” Smith asked. Mann replied, “This is according to Science Magazine, one of the most respected outlets when it comes…” Smith cut him off and added, “Who are they quoting?”

When Mann said he was reading what the journalist, Jeffrey Mervis, wrote, when characterizing what Smith said at the Heartland Institute conference, Smith lashed out. “That is not known as an objective writer or magazine.”

Science Magazine is a publication by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). It is a peer-reviewed academic journal and one of the top scientific publications. There is no credible record suggesting the work of the journal has ever been called into serious question, despite what Smith stated.

But this is an example of how Republicans plan to accelerate their agenda against climate scientists and in defense of fossil fuel energy interests while Donald Trump is president: claim climate deniers or “skeptics” are under attack, suggest scientists are “bullying” them for not “believing” the scientific consensus, and peevishly insist there is a debate when there is none at all.

Dana Rohrabacher, who once joked dinosaur flatulence might be responsible for global warming, professed, “Those who disagree with the mainstream are being brutalized into silence. This type of hearing is vital to hear the fundamental arguments.”

“Unfortunately, from get go, we have heard personal attack after personal attack after personal attack coming from those who are claiming to represent the mainstream of science, even to the point where our chairman is attacked with a non-quote with an analysis of somebody else’s interpretation of what he said.”

“That is ridiculous! People should be ashamed of yourselves for people who continue to attack other people because they disagree!” Rohrabacher exclaimed.

Rohrabacher and other Republicans play victim to make it seem like the vast majority of the scientific community is politicized, evil, and dominated by phony science. It is a classic strategy designed to fuel counter-accusations and deflect attention away from their actions, which are actually toxic to scientists.

There is overwhelming scientific consensus—97 percent of scientists have conducted research and stand by the evidence that climate change poses a threat. However, three scientists known for their dubious work spreading doubt about climate change were invited to speak at the hearing.

At the Heartland Institute climate change conference, Smith said, “The days of trust me science are over. In our modern information age, federal regulation should be based only on data that is available for every American to see and can be subjected to independent review. That’s the scientific method.”

Smith touted legislation, the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act, which would supposedly ensure that the Environmental Protection Agency is not able to push its “one-sided ideological agenda” on climate change. It fuels a perception that government scientists or bureaucrats are secretive in their research and want to hide what they do from citizens.

As Science Magazine acknowledged, Smith also “signaled that he plans to turn up the volume on his criticism of federally funded research that doesn’t fit his definition of ‘sound science.’ In particular, he expressed support for writing legislation that would punish scientific journals that publish research that doesn’t fit standards of peer review crafted by Smith and the committee (although he didn’t say how that would be accomplished).”

Celebrating people like EPA director Scott Pruitt, who has wasted no time fueling doubt about climate science, Smith insisted Trump “ushered a permanent change in the political climate.” There was no reason to think Trump would tolerate “politically correct science.”

The Heartland Institute receives funding from the Koch Family Foundations and is a part of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which develops model legislation to protect the interests of free market ideologues. It is committed to polluting political debates with climate-denying emissions that serve the interests of ExxonMobil, coal companies, and other energy interests.

With the ascendancy of Pruitt to head the EPA and ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to head the State Department, it effectively gives the Heartland Institute’s agenda a shot at highly influencing policy. It also makes it possible to control and suppress climate scientists.

“Going after scientists simply because you don’t like the implications of their research—not because their science is bad but because you find their science inconvenient to the special interests who fund your campaigns—I would hope we could all agree that is completely inappropriate. It’s a threat to science. It’s a threat to our prosperity as a nation, which relies on scientific research, unfettered, honest scientific research,” Mann asserted.

At one point in the hearing, Republican Representative Clay Higgins asked, “Are you affiliated or associated with an organization called the Union of Concerned Scientists?” Mann was vexed by the question and Higgins immediately added, “You’re not associated or affiliated with them?”

“Am I associated with them?” Mann asked, befuddled by the question.

Higgins asked, “Are you affiliated or associated with an organization called the Climate Accountability Institute?”  He then asked if these two organizations are connected with organized efforts to prosecute man-influenced climate skeptics via RICO statutes.

“The way you’ve phrased it, I would find it extremely surprising if what you said is true,” Mann replied.

Aside from the McCarthyist nature of Higgins’ questions about associations and affiliations, Higgins obviously believes climate change skeptics are under attack for their beliefs. This is what one Republican state lawmaker in Maine thinks, which is why he introduced legislation to bar discrimination against someone for their beliefs on climate change.

It may be laughable, but Republicans and the fossil fuel interests that own them—along with their theoconservative ideologies—have opened up a new front in a culture war that has not received much attention since President George W. Bush left office. They are emboldened more than ever and will cry wolf about persecution to manipulate Americans into vilifying scientists, particularly because social movements for the environment pose such an existential threat to major energy corporations.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."