Climate Wars Heat Up In Washington

12:18 minutes

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A green wave is sweeping through Washington, and it’s picking up Republicans who are eager to share their ideas on clean energy and climate change.

Tennessee senator Lamar Alexander has talked about launching a “Manhattan Project for Clean Energy.

Oklahoma representative Frank Lucas, ranking member of the House Science Committee, has said, “we know the climate is changing and that global industrial activity has played a role in this phenomenon,” and says it’s “critical” that the United States lead the way on developing new clean energy technologies.

Florida representative Matt Gaetz has saidHistory will judge harshly my Republican colleagues who deny the science of climate change,” and Louisiana representative Garret Graves is the top Republican on a new House climate change committee.

But even as Republican lawmakers turn to shaping climate policy, the White House is doubling down on climate denial, forming a “climate review panel” to vet and discredit the already peer-reviewed science on climate change. The panel’s leader is William Happer, a 79-year-old physicist who once went so far as to say, “the demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler.”

So where will climate science end up?

Ira’s joined by marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and climate scientist Michael Mann for a round table conversation about climate politics, policy, and science activism.

Further Reading

  • Read about the the Trump Administration’s roll back on climate science in the New York Times.
  • Find out more about climate policies on Capitol Hill in E&E News.

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Segment Guests

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is the founder of Urban Ocean Lab in New York, and co-editor of the book All We Can Save: Truth Courage and Solutions of the Climate Crisis.

Michael Mann

Dr. Michael Mann is the author of Our Fragile Moment: How Lessons from Earth’s Past Can Help Us Survive the Climate Crisis, a professor of Earth & Environmental Science, and the Director of the Penn Center for Science, Sustainability and the Media at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, we’ll talk to John Urschel who went from pro footballer to MIT math PhD student. We’ll talk about his passion for math. But first, a green wave is sweeping through Washington, and it’s picking up lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who are eager to share their ideas on clean energy and climate change. 

FRANK LUCAS: We know the climate is changing and the global industrial activity has played a role in this phenomenon. 

LAMAR ALEXANDER: So I proposed a new Manhattan Project for clean energy to clean up our air, to raise family incomes, and to deal with climate change. 

MATT GAETZ: Our military does not have the luxury of an academic debate about climate change. They must respond to the reality that we face today and so should the United States Congress. 

IRA FLATOW: Think those are all Democrats? You’d be wrong– all three of them Republicans. That was Oklahoma representative Frank Lucas followed by Tennessee senator Lamar Alexander, and finally, Florida representative Matt Gaetz– all Republicans, all talking about climate change. 

But even as Republican lawmakers present their ideas and get involved in climate policy, the White House is doubling down on climate denial, forming a climate review panel, as they call it, to vet and discredit the already peer-reviewed science on climate change. 

The panel’s leader is William Happer, a physicist who has said that carbon dioxide has been unfairly demonized, comparing it to the Holocaust. Quote, “the demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler.” Some comparison. 

Happer declined an invitation to join us today, but here with me now are Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist and founder and CEO of the consulting firm Ocean Collectiv. She’s also founder of the nonprofit Urban Ocean Lab, a think tank for coastal cities. Welcome to Science Friday. 

AYANA ELIZABETH JOHNSON: Thanks for having me. 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, thank you, Dr. Johnson. Climate scientist Dr. Michael Mann is the author of The Madhouse Effect and a distinguished professor at Penn State. He’s also director of the Earth System Science Center there. Welcome back, Dr. Mann. 

MICHAEL MANN: Thanks, Ira. Great to be with you both. 

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you back. Dr. Johnson, the head of the US Geological Survey, James Reilly, has ordered that scientists at that agency not use climate models that project beyond the year 2040. 


IRA FLATOW: Unpack that for us. Why do we need to go any further than 2040? 

AYANA ELIZABETH JOHNSON: Turns out, many humans will be alive past 2040, and the climate will continue to change. And so not using these really robust scientific models to understand how we should plan for our safety and security is really just foolish. For example, sea level rise is projected to increase by three to nine feet over the next few decades. And so if we stop in 2040, and we start building more infrastructure and houses along the coast in flood zones, that would be ridiculous to ignore that science and proceed willy-nilly. 

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Mann, is there something special about that date at 2040, that the president’s advisors know about? 

MICHAEL MANN: Well, I mean, it’s only two decades out. It’s very close at this point. And I would use the analogy it’s sort of like being told that you have to plan out your entire retirement based on the amount of money in your 401(k) after working for three years. Well, that’s not the way it works. It’s cumulative, right? The savings, the money that you build up is cumulative over the course of your career. 

And the same thing is true with carbon emissions. The more carbon we burn, the more damage we do. And conversely, the less carbon we burn, the less damage we do. And so by keeping the frame that scientists are allowed to use to assess climate change impacts to only the next two decades, what they’re doing is hiding the true impacts of continuing to burn fossil fuels and generate carbon pollution. They’re cumulative in nature. 

And as Ayana pointed out, there are certain key tipping points when we melt enough of the ice, the major ice sheets, we lock in potentially tens of feet of sea level rise. And that may not play out for decades to come, but we lock it in if we don’t stop burning carbon in the near-term. 

IRA FLATOW: What is the role of this climate panel, Michael, that the White House is assembling? Hasn’t the science already been peer reviewed? What do they want to do with the science here? 

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, there’s as robust a consensus now among the world’s scientists about climate change as there is about the theory of gravity. Scientists aren’t debating the basic facts. Climate change is real. It’s caused by human activity– fossil fuel burning– it’s already doing great damage. 

And what we have is sort of a rearguard effort by a small contingent within the Trump administration. This is mostly coming from the EPA. And the EPA transition team was run by a number of affiliates of the Koch brothers and fossil fuel interests. And what they’ve tried to do is to prevent the administration from moving in the direction of doing something about climate change. 

But as you already alluded to, the problem is there’s this sort of perfect storm right now that is moving us in the direction of action. The fact that people can see with their own two eyes– the impacts of climate change have become so obvious that you can’t deny it anymore. 

There is this international youth movement that’s raised awareness and concern about climate action. 


MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, no absolutely. And then in our politics with AOC and the prospect of a Green New Deal, that’s forcing Republicans to the table because they’re going to get a heavy-handed, regulatory government solution to this problem if they don’t come to the table with their own solutions. And some of them, I think, have made that decision. 

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Johnson, you’ve written about how scientists at the National Park Service and the EPA have been asked to remove the words “climate change” from their reports. Other government scientists have been blocked from going to conferences. Many crucial scientific jobs remain unfilled. Is there a single issue that you find most troubling here? 

AYANA ELIZABETH JOHNSON: What I find most troubling is the disregard of science as the basis for decision making. I mean, we have this elegant scientific method where we can learn things and collect data and test hypotheses, and the thought that that wouldn’t be used to undergird decisions about how to protect the American people? 

I mean, this science is being done with taxpayer dollars, so the fact that we’ve had 90 major attacks on science under the Trump administration as cataloged by the Union of Concerned Scientists– as you mentioned, this censorship or halting or editing studies or politicizing how scientific funding is distributed and 43 top science positions remain unfilled in the government. So we’re just completely missing an opportunity to make good decisions that are based on facts. 

IRA FLATOW: And Michael, Florida Representative Matt Gaetz has pitched an alternative to the Green New Deal called the Green Real Deal. Why are Republicans like him breaking the ranks and saying, we need to act on climate change? 

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, you know, it’s pretty remarkable because Gaetz is a true conservative, a Republican. He is one of Donald Trump’s most ardent and consistent supporters. And yet, he is in a state which is literally on the front lines of dealing with the impacts of climate change– sea level rise, ever more devastating hurricanes. They don’t have time to deny the science because they’re dealing with it firsthand. 

And he made a remarkable comment recently that history will judge us on this issue. Did we act on the greatest threat that human civilization faces? Did we choose to act or did we choose to deny? He wants to be on the right side of history. He wants his party to be on the right side of history. And, you know, I think that there is a growing movement among Republicans who don’t want to be seen as having been on the wrong side of history when it comes to the greatest challenge we have faced as a civilization. 

AYANA ELIZABETH JOHNSON: One of those quotes you played at the beginning about military readiness being an issue I’m hoping is one of these bridge topics, right? So Navy bases on the coast, they can’t just ignore the fact that sea level is rising. It’s a national security issue. So this administration just refusing to deal with the fact that things are changing is putting us all at risk. 

IRA FLATOW: And as people, these politicians speak out– and let me just do an open invitation to the Republican congresspeople that we’ve talked to, and we’ve actually phoned their offices, and we’re asking them to come on and talk. 


IRA FLATOW: Hope they will agree with us. Should scientists like Michael and you, should they begin to speak out more about the issues? 

AYANA ELIZABETH JOHNSON: Well, clearly we are. And I think government scientists need to be afforded the opportunity to talk about their research. So there is something called the Scientific Integrity Act that was introduced by Senator Brian Schatz and Representative Paul Tonko. It’s with the House Science Committee which is led by Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson. 

And we really need to pass that because that’s the opportunity to protect federal scientists, to enable them to talk about their research and prevent them from being censored. And we deserve to know what science our government is supporting and how that information can and should be used. 

IRA FLATOW: Michael, two years ago– well, now three years ago almost– hardly a word was spoken about climate change in the presidential elections and the debates. It looks like that there’s been a huge sea change, if I might put it that way. Do you read that also? 

MICHAEL MANN: I do. And as I alluded to before, there is this sort of perfect storm of circumstances that have come together– the international youth movement on climate is just– because these kids speak with a true moral authority. And I think it’s very difficult for any but the most jaded of adults to not recognize that this is about our children, grandchildren, and their legacy and the fact that the impacts of climate change are no longer theoretical. We’re seeing them play out in real time on our television screens and our newspaper headlines. 

And so now as I understand it, it’s the top issue right now among Democrats in the Democratic primary. And that’s never been true for either party before. Obviously, it’s a lower-priority issue in the Republican Party, but at least for one of the two major parties, this is now the principal issue. It’s the issue of our time. 

AYANA ELIZABETH JOHNSON: The youth climate strike movement is actually having a petition for a climate debate. So I really hope that happens so we can get a really nuanced understanding of where these presidential candidates stand. 

MICHAEL MANN: Absolutely. 

IRA FLATOW: Do you think the candidates should be asked now about what their positions are? 

AYANA ELIZABETH JOHNSON: Yes! The sooner the better. 

IRA FLATOW: And as part of any debates that come up at this point. 


IRA FLATOW: The first debates are coming up soon. 

AYANA ELIZABETH JOHNSON: Yeah, the last presidential debate cycle we didn’t have a single question on climate change. And there’s no way you can get away with that this time around. 

IRA FLATOW: Michael, you be [INAUDIBLE]. 

MICHAEL MANN: Well, I don’t think we’ll see it. I think we will see climate as a major issue in the democratic debates. 

IRA FLATOW: And it’s interesting because the young people, as you say, Ayana, the young people are leading the way. That’s interesting to see. 

I want to thank you both for taking time to be with us today. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, marine biologist and founder and CEO of Ocean Collectiv. She’s also founder of the nonprofit Urban Ocean Lab, and it’s a think tank for coastal cities. 

And climate scientist Michael Mann, author of The Madhouse Effect and distinguished professor at Penn State University. He’s also director of the Earth Systems Science Center there. Thank you both for taking time to be with us today. 

AYANA ELIZABETH JOHNSON: Thank you so much. 

MICHAEL MANN: Thank you, Ira. 

IRA FLATOW: And if you’ve been following our own Degrees of Change series on climate change, we’re going to be back with a new chapter. Our next chapter will be on urban heat islands in just a few weeks. Get involved at ScienceFriday.com/DegreesofChange. Tell us what you see in your local communities about this topic– heat islands. That’s ScienceFriday.com/DegreesofChange.

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About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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