Wednesday had to have been a frustrating day for White House Science Advisor Dr. John P. Holdren.
Holdren, a lauded theoretical physicist, appeared before the Republican-led House Committee on Science, Space and Technology on Wednesday to testify about the Obama administration’s plan to fight climate change. But, as is true for all House Science committee hearings on climate change, much of the questioning focused not the content of the plan itself, but whether global warming is even real.
Additional lines of questioning included whether carbon dioxide actually harms human health, and whether the climate plan would lower global temperatures on its own — two questions with complicated answers that have been very thoroughly explained since the plan was introduced. One Congressmen accused Holdren of breaking the law by sending work e-mails from his personal account in 2013, while another said climate scientists shouldn’t be trusted because of their dependence on the existence of climate change to make a living.
Fortunately, Holdren is a confident speaker who was able to succinctly explain the science to his climate denying questioners despite constant interruption. Here are a few of the best times he did just that.
Rep. Stockman’s Questions On “Global Wobbling”
After expressing his distaste for Obama’s Climate Action Plan, Rep. Steve Stockman (R-TX) spoke about a recent trip to Maryland, where he apparently asked a NASA scientist what ended the last Ice Age. The scientist, Stockman said, credited “global wobbling,” or slight changes in the earth’s tilt and orbit that happen over tens of thousands of years.
What Stockman then wanted to know is, why isn’t “global wobbling” included in climate modelings?
“How can you take an element which you give to the credit for the collapse of global freezing and into global warming but leave it out of your models?” Stockman asked. “I’m a little puzzled because we still don’t have metrics of how to determine global wobbling.”
In the video, Holdren explains that global wobbling happens so slowly — on timescales of 22,000 years, 44,000 years, and 100,000 years — that it doesn’t impact the comparatively fast impacts of climate change. In fact, Holdren says because of previous wobbling, we should be in a cooling period as we speak. “But the warming inflicted by human activities has overwhelmed the effect of global wobbling,” he said.
Stockman also said he “can’t get answers” to how long it would take for the sea level to rise two feet. “Think about it, if your ice cube melts in your glass, it doesn’t overflow. It’s displacement. This is some of the things that they’re talking about that mathematically and scientifically don’t make sense.”
Holdren wasn’t given a chance to answer this question, but the answer is pretty simple. Stockman seems to be forgetting that not all melting ice is already in the sea. Melting land ice — glaciers, ice sheets, ice caps, and permafrost — are the major contributors to global sea-level rise as their water flows into the ocean. And even though melting sea ice doesn’t directly contribute to sea level rise, it does cause ocean temperatures to rise. This causes the ocean to expand and rise — a big component of sea level rise — and the added heat can ultimately cause more land ice to melt.
The exchange ends with an awkward silence over the length of ice ages, and Stockman eventually getting interrupted by the committee’s sitting chair to move on with the hearing.
Rep. Rohrabacher’s Questions On The Health Impacts Of CO2
The reason the Environmental Protection Agency is able to regulate carbon dioxide is because it is considered a threat to human health. In 2009, the EPA issued an endangerment finding which confirmed that carbon indirectly harms human health by contributing to climate change, which causes heat waves and increases in ground-level ozone pollution.
Still, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher — not shy at all about his climate denial — tried very hard on Wednesday to back both Holdren and EPA Office of Air and Radiation Assistant Administrator Janet McCabe into a corner by asking repeatedly about the direct health impacts of carbon dioxide. “At what level does carbon dioxide concentration become harmful to human health?”
Holdren answered in the way we could only hope one would: “Vice Chairman Rorhabacher, I always enjoy my interactions with you. I have to say, with respect, that’s a red herring. We are not interested in carbon dioxide concentrations because of their direct effect on human health, we are interested in them because of their effect on the world’s climate, and climate change has effects on human health.”
Rep. Bucshon’s Questions On How Climate Policy Works
Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-IN) easily had the climate denial comment of the day when he said he “won’t believe” scientific literature on climate change because the scientists who write it need global warming to exist in order to get paid.
That comment is in the video below, but so is Bucshon’s other attempt to derail the conversation on climate policy by asking: “Is it true that this rule will have no affect on global temperature change?”
It’s long been stated that if policies to tackle climate change are going to work, the biggest emitters from around the world are going to have to do their part (see term: “global” warming). No policy from any one country is going to do anything on its own; the point is, someone needs to start. As the second-largest emitter of carbon, and the country that has altogether emitted the largest amount of greenhouse gases, many think that the United States should be the one to take that step.
Holdren explains as much. “The limitation of carbon emissions in the United states is a very important first step for us to take on a longer trajectory to meet the President’s goals of a 17 percent reduction from 2005 by 2020, and ultimately an 80 percent reduction by 2050,” he said. “If the United States does not take that sort of action, it is unlikely that other major emitters in the world — China, India, Russia, Europe, Japan — will do so either. And the fact is, all of us need to reduce our carbon emissions if we are to avoid unmanageable degrees of climate change.”
Bucshon’s response: “Okay, fair enough.”