Teaching Congress…

One potentially unpleasant result of the shift in power in the Senate is the prospect of Senator Inhofe  of Oklahoma chairing the Committee on the Environment.   Sen. Inhofe has made many declarations at odds with scientific understanding, which have been refuted many times over.  We face the prospect of more hearings like the one the House ran a few months ago.

Just to reiterate, the simplest line of explanation is this: global CO2 is rising (Mauna Loa record), we know that is because of burning of fossil fuels (isotopes of CO2 in the atmosphere), we know that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and, from the geologic record, we know there are not sufficient negative feedbacks to eliminate its role in increasing global temperatures.  Note that none of this logic relies on global circulation models.

Anyways, the point here is more, what should an engaged politician do?

First, the question of “is the earth warming” is not a topic for a Senate resolution. The role of political leaders is to identify problems and devise solutions.  Yes, doesn’t sound much like what’s gone on for many years now, but that’s the goal.

So what should a Senator or Representative be doing? Presumably getting expert advice on what could be a problem and some sense of the impacts if that problem emerges.

The problem is that politicians are, generally, very bad at understanding science; most are lawyers, who have a particularly black and white view of things.  They are used to the idea of finding folks who will buttress your case, so if you walk into the room with your position, you find folks to listen to who echo your position.

A good scientist will want the opposite: they will want to hear what the objections are to their theory and try to devise ways of testing the validity of those objections.

Obviously we don’t expect Congress to become a major scientific enterprise, but they can ask questions that might help illuminate the differences between sides.  Instead we often see statements like “there are disagreements in the scientific community about this.” Well, how many issues before Congress lack disagreements?

Uncertainty is part of life.  We buy home insurance, life insurance, car insurance not because we are expecting to have a house fire or step in front of a bus, but because we know there is a risk of bad things happening and risking everything on it not happening is unwise. The same logic applies to having fire departments, emergency rooms, and the military. At the present, we know there are risks of global warming: ocean acidification and sea level rise are certainties. Droughts and floods are likely outcomes.  Increased extent of tropical diseases is a highly likely outcome. Why not buy insurance?

Look, we should be having a spirited discussion on what we should be doing, which is the role of Congress and not the scientific community. Carbon tax? Invest in mitigation? Cap and trade? Outright regulation? Geoengineering?

Instead we have posturing and all-too-frequent deliberate obfuscation.  We have an electorate that seems to think that their politicians should simply carry their biases forward instead of representing their interests. (Huh?, you say.  The point of a representative government is to have people who spend a lot more time studying issues than you can so they can make intelligent decisions.  Instead we seem to have reached the point where a lot of politicians spend all their spare time getting money to continue to not study the policy decisions they need to make).

So we need a boot camp for members of Congress where they learn how to separate self-indulgent twaddle from well-supported fact.  We need them to learn how to ask questions that would allow them to change their minds. GG tries to keep this in mind when teaching non-major classes: you never know if there is a future Senator in the crowd. It might be the last science they ever learn….

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