The Abdication of Oversight

by William Yeatman on November 7, 2005

in Politics, Science

Last summer we took issue with Congressman Joe Barton (R-TX) when he sought to gain political advantage by taking on some climate scientists. I’d bet that the loud reaction to his “investigation” was one factor in Rep. Barton’s apparent decision not to follow up as yet. Such external oversight of science and politics can play a positive role in limiting the politicization of science and its negative effects on policy making. Now we have a case of Democrats playing politics through climate science, and a similarly loud reaction would seem to be appropriate from informed observers. Will we see a similar reaction?

Providing ample evidence that the politicization of science by politicians is a bipartisan pastime, Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and 150 fellow Democrats have introduced a rarely used “resolution of inquiry” to explore whether the Bush Administration has been hiding evidence that the current hurricane season has been caused by global warming. Kucinich said in press release last week:

“”The American public deserve to know what the President knew about the effects climate change would have, and will continue to have, on our coasts. This Administration, and Congress, can no longer afford to overlook the overwhelming evidence of the devastating effect of global climate change. It is essential for our preparedness that we understand global climate change and take serious and immediate actions to slow its effects.”

According to an news story, which Rep. Kucinich introduced to the Congressional Record (PDF), the “Resolution of Inquiry” is part of a strategy to try to divide moderate Congressional Republicans from the party. According to,

“A novel effort by 150 House Democrats to require that the White House turn over documents showing what it knows about climate change effects on U.S. coastal regions may force key Republican moderates to choose party loyalty over their environmental records, or risk leaving themselves open to attacks from conservative opponents in upcoming primaries, sources say… Kucinich’s resolution does not specifically mention hurricanes, but congressional staffers familiar with the effort say Congress is growing more concerned that climate change may have increased hurricane severity in light of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. ”This has been a brutal hurricane season and many think climate change will be the defining problem of our generation. We want to know what [President Bush] knew,” according to one staffer.” describes the Democrats strategy as one that seeks to place a few congressional Republicans in a tight spot,

“Observers say the ROI will present House Science Committee Chairman SHERWOOD BOEHLERT (R-NY), Rep. VERNON EHLERS (R-MI) and Rep. WAYNE GILCHREST (R-MD) with a critical choice between siding with their party in deflecting attention from the president’s climate policies and their environmental records, which have won them praise and endorsements from environmental groups. Their decisions on the matter may prove crucial during their 2006 primaries, where at least one is expected to face a tough fight against a more conservative GOP candidate.”

The article goes into some details about why it is that Congressmen Boehlert, Ehlers and Gilchrest are ripe for a squeeze.

What to make of this? Congressional Democrats are playing politics, trying to gain some advantage in the upcoming congressional election, which is what they are supposed to do. With respect to the climate issue, because the Democrats are the minority party they don’t have the power to call hearings or otherwise set the agenda, so it might be appropriate to use the “Resolution of Inquiry” to access information. (For details on the congressional “Resolution of Inquiry” see this report (PDF) from the Congressional Research Service at the Federation of American Scientists website.)

No matter where one comes out on the climate issue, it is obvious that the Democrats are playing their politics through science. The tone of his inquiry smacks of black helicopters and the trilateral commission. As a close observer of the hurricane research community in NSF, Navy, and NOAA over the past 10 years, I know that there is no hidden smoking gun waiting to be discovered in the bureaucracy that shows that the Bush Administration had forewarning that this year’s hurricane season would be particularly bad, and kept that information under wraps to appease their oil and gas friends. Perhaps the Bush Administration would do such a thing, but in this case it did not, for the simple reason that such information does not exist. It doesn’t.

The playing of partisan politics by Democrats through the science of climate change and hurricanes may come at a price in policy effectiveness. As we have stated here many times, there is simply no evidence to suggest that policy makers can modulate hurricane behavior, much less their impacts for the foreseeable future through energy policies. Representative Kucinich and his 150 colleagues risk focusing attention on bad hurricane policies and, as a consequence, overlooking good ones.

This would be a good time for leaders in the scientific community to discuss the policy issues associated with hurricanes and climate change. Is there a smoking gun on the science of hurricanes in the bureaucracy? Can energy policies be an effective tool of disaster mitigation? This would also be a good time for the “war on science” crowd to burnish their alleged bipartisan credentials. Call me a jaded cynic, but my guess is that both groups will be stony silent, reflecting their own committed partisanship. If so, then you will be seeing a very real consequence of the politicization of science – the abdication of oversight.

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