A Russian loomed over the House of Representatives Wednesday. And it wasn’t Putin. Instead, the figure who came up in two different discussions among House members was Trofim Lysenko, a Soviet agronomist who manipulated data in ways that fit perfectly with the political agenda of Joseph Stalin. Lysenko’s theories, which rejected the now accepted ideas of genes and genetic inheritance, were so appealing to the Soviet dictator they became the only ones taught in the country in the 1940s as Soviet scientists were forbidden from contradicting his teachings. Yet the actual research behind Lysenko’s conclusions was so off base that the decision to exempt him from the standard scientific process ultimately helped lead to a famine.
The story of the man who imperiled his country with pseudoscience designed to please a politician seemed particularly relevant during a day filled with Republican efforts to provide scientific cover for a range of unscientific policies. The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology began the day with a hearing called Climate Science: Assumptions, Policy Implications, and the Scientific Method. Held just two days after a Trump executive order killed federal efforts to address climate change, the hearing included testimony from three experts far out of the scientific mainstream whose careers have been boosted by promoting theories that benefit Republicans and the fossil fuel industry.
Expert witnesses Judith Curry, John Christy, and Roger Pielke Jr., who are frequently called on to present the Republican case for inaction on climate in Congress, all underscored the point that whatever is happening with the climate has been exaggerated and doesn’t warrant serious action, a message that may be particularly welcome to administration officials who have already decided to take just that path.
Christy, a climatologist at the University of Alabama who insists that extreme weather events are not related to climate change, asserted that while the earth may be warming, it’s not due to human activity. “Mother nature can cause such temperature changes on her own,” he said. Pielke, a science policy writer at the University of Colorado, said that he believes in climate change and suggested that a carbon tax might be a good idea, but stuck by his idea that there is no evidence to suggest that hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, or droughts are increasing. And Judith Curry, a former professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, insisted that humans might be responsible for less than 50 percent of climate change, a possibility that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has given a less than one in 10,000 chance of being true.
The focus on the convenient untruths of Curry, Pielke, and Christy was an after-the-fact attempt to justify the about-face by turning scientific reality on its head. Although 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists agree that climate warming trends are “extremely likely due to human activity,” only one of four witnesses represented that point of view.
Michael Mann, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, pointed to a study he published earlier this week linking climate change to droughts, heat waves, and floods, and noted that the fires that recently devastated the Midwest are evidence of the need to respond to the phenomenon. Mann has been widely attacked for such mainstream views before. His email has been hacked. He’s received hate mail, death threats, and has been the subject of hostile congressional hearings. At Wednesday’s hearing, he invoked Lysenko to explain the current enthusiasm for climate denial and then withstood condemnation from Republicans who chastised him for referring to the other panelists as deniers. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher told him he should be “ashamed.”
In the upside-down world of the House science committee, Mann is the aggressor and those who have attacked his widely supported views are the aggrieved ones. “As a result of my analyses, I have been called a serial climate disinformer,” said Curry. “There is enormous pressure for climate scientists to confirm to the so-called consensus.”
Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who chairs the committee, similarly flipped the script. Rather than admitting that the hearing had anything to do with protecting the fossil fuel industry, which has made more contributions to his campaigns than any other sector, he insisted the bitter back and forth between Mann and climate skeptics was meant as an investigation of scientific principles. “Far too often, alarmist theories on climate science originate with scientists who operate outside of principles of the scientific method,” said Smith. “Before we impose costly government regulations, we should evaluate uncertainties.”
Since he was named chair of the House science committee in 2013, a position in which he has at least partial jurisdiction over the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and the U.S. Geological Survey, among other federal agencies, Smith’s scientific interests seem focused on attacking researchers whose work demonstrates the need to restrict the fossil fuel industry. Smith has particularly singled out scientists who have studied the dangers of air pollution and the contribution of fossil fuel burning to climate change and has tweeted out a Breitbart story about a nonexistent plunge in global temperatures.
After the science committee hearing ended, Smith moved on to another effort to roll back environmental regulations. After a brief discussion, the House passed a bill called the “Secret Science Reform Act” when it was first introduced in 2014 that has since been renamed the HONESTY Act. According to Smith, the bill, which would limit the EPA to using only data that can be replicated or made available for independent analysis, is an effort to make the EPA more transparent. “Why would anyone want to hide this information from the American people?” the chairman asked.
The dozens of health and environmental organizations that oppose the bill, including the American Public Health Association, the American Lung Association, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, have an answer: Many studies are based on confidential health information, and the legislation would unreasonably limit the studies the EPA can use — and thus its ability to regulate. According to an analysis by the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative, had it been in place, the law would have prevented drinking water regulations, the identification of dangerous lead levels, risk management programs under the Clean Air Act, and the setting of certain air and water quality standards among other life-saving public protections.
Before the day was done, the House was involved in yet another effort to swap out independent environmental science with something more to industry’s liking. The EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act, which was introduced on Tuesday night and was passed by the House this morning, would limit the number of independent scientists who can serve on that body and allow people who have financial ties to the matters being discussed to serve on the board as long as they disclose their conflicts of interest.
The proposal got Democratic Rep. Gerald Connolly thinking once again about Lysenko in Soviet Russia: “The last time a great power decided to deny science-based policy and to actually dictate politically what was science and what wasn’t was Stalin’s Soviet Russia. Famous scientist named Lysenko, who turned out to be a fraud and a con artist. But for 30 years, his thinking dominated Soviet science.” That folly led to millions of deaths, said Connolly, who predicted that the U.S. government’s departure from established science would not end well.