James Inhofe proves "flat Earth" doesn't refer to Oklahoma
By Chris Mooney, The American Prospect, May 7, 2004
At a recent hearing of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, the Republican chairman, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, confronted Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Mike Leavitt with a serious complaint. Leavitt had come to the Hill to defend President Bush's 2005 budget, which proposes to slash the EPA's various science programs by nearly $100 million. A staunch conservative, Inhofe once famously dubbed the EPA a "Gestapo bureaucracy" -- but in this case, he stood up for the agency's research-and-development funding. "I'm an advocate of sound science," Inhofe proclaimed.
Inhofe has been stressing this theme ever since he took over the committee following the November 2002 elections. He's pledged that on his watch, the committee will "improve the way in which science is used." Last summer he even delivered a 12,000-word Senate floor speech titled "The Science of Climate Change," outlining conclusions he said he'd reached after several years of studying the issue.
The trouble is, Inhofe's views are way out of whack with the scientific mainstream. He argues that natural variability, rather than human influence, is the "overwhelming factor influencing climate." This contradicts both the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which have emphasized the central role of human activities in explaining recent global warming.
Asked in writing whether Inhofe agrees that he's at odds with the scientific mainstream, his committee staff retorted, "How do you define 'mainstream'? Scientists who accept the so-called 'consensus' about global warming? Galileo was not mainstream."
But Inhofe is hardly Galileo. In fact, his involvement in a lawsuit seeking to suppress a groundbreaking scientific report on possible effects of climate change in the United States -- such as biodiversity losses and threats to coastal areas due to higher sea levels -- arguably puts him more on the side of Galileo's oppressors.
If Inhofe is out of step with science, though, he's right in line with his conservative and pro-business constituency. Since 1999, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Inhofe has received almost $300,000 in campaign donations from oil and gas interests and nearly $180,000 from electric utilities. In the 2002 election cycle, he received more oil and gas contributions than any senator except Texas' John Cornyn.
Meanwhile, Inhofe's "sound science" mantra -- a watchword of the business community and favorite refrain of Bush himself -- appears several times in a recent Republican strategy memo providing talking points on the environment. On global warming, the memo, drafted by pollster Frank Luntz, cynically advises, "The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science." Challenging the science is precisely what Inhofe has done -- vigorously. (Inhofe's staff confirmed that he'd read the Luntz memo.)
In February, 20 U.S. Nobel laureates denounced the Bush administration's political manipulations of science. But if Bush is bad, Inhofe is a kind of scientific Attila the Hun -- and nowhere more than on the issue of climate. That he now controls the Senate's environment committee suggests that today's GOP, run by dyed-in-the-wool conservatives instead of moderates like John McCain, has developed a dangerous relationship with scientific knowledge itself.
Fealty to "Sound" Science
A former Tulsa mayor and small-business man, Inhofe has consistently received goose eggs on the environment from the League of Conservation Voters (though he recently improved his rating to 5 percent). He became Environment and Public Works chairman in January 2003, following the relatively brief tenure of Vermont Independent Jim Jeffords. As debate intensified last summer over legislation by Senators McCain and Joe Lieberman to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, Inhofe quickly opted for the Luntz strategy on climate. He presided over a fur-flying hearing pitting two climate-science contrarians against a lone representative of the global scientific consensus on the issue.
Inhofe opened the hearing by swearing fealty to "sound science." He then lavished praise on a highly controversial paper, authored by two scholars at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, that has been denounced by mainstream climate scientists. "In many important ways," Inhofe declared, the study "shifts the paradigm" away from the accepted view that the late 20th century saw unprecedented global temperature spikes.
Harvard astrophysicist Willie Soon, one of the paper's authors, then spoke, claiming his work showed that 20th-century temperatures were not, in fact, anomalous. He didn't note, however, that his research had been partly funded by the American Petroleum Institute. Soon -- who did not respond to written questions submitted for this article -- was backed by David Legates of the University of Delaware, another contrarian and co-author of a later version of the paper. Both scientists have collaborated in the past with the George C. Marshall Institute, an organization skeptical of much climate-change science that received $90,000 from ExxonMobil in 2002, the last year for which records are currently available. Until recently, Soon was a senior scientist with the institute and received a small stipend for his work, according to President William O'Keefe, and Legates has written a paper and book chapter for the group. O'Keefe himself has previously chaired the (anti-Kyoto Protocol) Global Climate Coalition and served as chief operating officer of the American Petroleum Institute. In addition, he's a registered lobbyist for ExxonMobil, though he comments, "I keep my Exxon work and my Marshall work separate."
Inhofe and others question whether fossil-fuel connections bias climate science. "It's not the politics of the scientists that counts or who funds them," says O'Keefe. "It's the immersion of the hypothesis in the acid bath of truth." But, in fact, there's ample reason to pay close attention to the connections between energy interests and those taking contrarian stances on climate. In 1998, The New York Times reported on an American Petroleum Institute memo outlining a strategy to invest millions to "maximize the impact of scientific views consistent with ours with Congress, the media and other key audiences." According to the memo, a representative of the Marshall Institute helped develop the plan. O'Keefe says the agenda outlined in the memo was never pursued, but its very existence justifies close scrutiny of industry ties to individual climate-science contrarians.
Moreover, since its publication in 2003, the work of Soon and Legates has been embroiled in controversy over its scientific legitimacy. After Soon's original paper -- co-authored with fellow Harvard-Smithsonian astrophysicist Sallie Baliunas, who did not return calls for this article -- appeared in a small journal called Climate Research, several editors, including Editor in Chief Hans von Storch, resigned to protest deficiencies in the review process leading up to the paper's publication. In a subsequent statement, journal founder Otto Kinne agreed with critics that Soon and company's published conclusions "cannot be concluded convincingly from the evidence provided in the paper" -- hardly an auspicious start for Inhofe's "paradigm shift."
Inhofe's hearing pitted Soon and Legates against a single representative of the consensus view among climate scientists, the University of Virginia's Michael Mann. Using "proxies" such as tree rings, ice cores, and corals, Mann and other scientists have reconstructed climate records showing that recent temperatures represent an anomaly in the context of the past 1,000 years. This conclusion has been embodied in an iconic "hockey stick" graph showing relatively moderate oscillations until temperatures spiked upward at the end of the 20th century. Though multiple studies confirm the basic thrust of his work, Mann's association with the hockey stick has made him a target of various climate-science skeptics.
At Inhofe's hearing, Mann defended the conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN body whose rigorously peer-reviewed work -- a kind of gold standard of climate science -- relies on the contributions of some 2,000 global scientists. But for those keeping count, the scientific scoreboard in the Senate that day showed a margin of 2 to 1, not a handful versus 2,000. Asked whether the hearing was truly "balanced," Inhofe's committee staff responded that the question "assumes that every scientist that contributed to the IPCC agrees with the theory of catastrophic global warming." They then cited a single IPCC contributor -- the well-known contrarian Richard Lindzen, an MIT professor and hero of global-warming skeptics -- who has challenged the panel's conclusions.
But even if the work of Soon, Baliunas, and Legates has a dim scientific future, Inhofe's decision to highlight it feeds into a clear political strategy: Challenge the science at all costs. Inhofe isn't the only one pursuing this approach. Not long before his hearing last year, according to an exposé in The New York Times, the White House pressured EPA scientists to delete a hockey-stick diagram and instead include a reference to the Soon and Baliunas work in a forthcoming EPA report. The EPA ultimately opted to cut the section on climate almost entirely rather than misrepresent the scientific consensus.
"The Greatest Hoax"
Inhofe has made a virtual hobby out of using questionable science to support his agenda on climate change. Last December in Milan, Italy, at an annual UN meeting of parties to the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change, Inhofe distributed a brochure titled "The Facts and Science of Climate Change," which plugged the Soon and Baliunas study. Inhofe's document largely rehashed a July 2003 Senate floor speech he delivered, which concluded with a stunning line. "With all of the hysteria, all of the fear, all of the phony science," Inhofe said, "could it be that man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people? It sure sounds like it."
Inhofe's Milan appearance triggered considerable controversy, as well as some fun at the senator's expense. The National Environmental Trust (NET) whipped up posters showing Inhofe's picture and his famous quotation, displaying them for the delegates present. "The reaction in the halls was -- well, they just believed it was lampoonable," notes one Democratic Senate staffer. Inhofe apparently loved the poster, though. "He had a sense of humor about it," says NET's Mark Wenzler, adding that Inhofe "actually signed a copy of the poster for us."
If Inhofe's rhetoric has been over the top, he's also used some questionable strategies to back it up. In his Senate speech on climate change, and on a poster board displayed in Milan, Inhofe listed a slew of authorities -- including a number of mainstream scientists -- who supposedly back his view of climate science. But some of these scientists have protested that they were misrepresented. In response to questions from the Prospect, Inhofe's committee staff insisted that Inhofe would not
apologize because his representations of the scientists' work were accurate. But few of the defenses from the senator's staff withstand scrutiny.
For instance, in his Senate speech, Inhofe described the distinguished Stanford climatologist Stephen Schneider as a critic of the IPCC, claiming that calculations published by Schneider in the journal Nature "cast serious doubt" on the IPCC's upper-end projection of 5.8 degrees (Celsius) of warming by 2100. In a lengthy rebuttal submitted in response to questions from Senator McCain, however, Schneider wrote, "It is misrepresenting my views to characterize them as even implying that IPCC has exaggerated or failed to describe the state of the science fairly." McCain quoted this line to Inhofe on the Senate floor on October 29, 2003. Yet in response to the Prospect, Inhofe's staff made no mention of Schneider's thorough critique.
Inhofe also cited the work of Tom Wigley, a distinguished meteorologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, in arguing that the Kyoto Protocol would only have a small temperature-reduction effect by 2050. But in a letter to Senators Tom Daschle and Bill Frist, Wigley protested that the whole point of the paper in question was to show that the protocol would only be "the first step in a long and complex process of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels." In response to the Prospect, Inhofe's staff maintained that the senator had "quoted Wigley correctly." Yet that misses the point: Inhofe used Wigley to suggest that the Kyoto Protocol would have a miniscule long-term impact, but as Wigley puts it, "there's no possibility of doing Kyoto and then doing nothing else" because the treaty would set in motion other mitigation policies.
The most striking thing about Inhofe's climate-science speech, however, is not the scientists it misrepresents but the science it ignores. Nowhere does Inhofe even mention a high-profile 2001 report by the National Academy of Sciences, commissioned by the Bush administration, which confirmed the reliability of the IPCC's work. In its opening sentences, that report stated point-blank, "Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth's atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise. Temperatures are, in fact, rising." Inhofe's staff complains that this passage has been "tirelessly paraded by climate alarmists," but if so, there's good reason: It succinctly presents the current scientific consensus.
In ducking this statement by the United States' leading scientific body, Inhofe isn't alone. Even though the Bush administration commissioned the NAS report, it, too, has run away from it. White House edits to the aforementioned EPA report, for example, sought to remove references to the academy's findings. Inhofe may be more abrasive than the president, and he may make the White House's policy on climate change -- focused on "more research" to reduce remaining uncertainties rather than action -- seem moderate by comparison. But, practically speaking, the two aren't so far
Who's Afraid of a Little Mercury?
Climate change isn't the only issue on which Inhofe has highlighted scientific outliers in order to make the case for lax regulation. Consider the issue of mercury pollution. A heavy metal released into the air largely by electric utilities, and especially coal-fired power plants, mercury falls to the earth in rain and makes its way into bodies of water. There, bacteria change it into methylmercury, which can cause brain damage and developmental problems in fetuses and children. Methylmercury filters up the aquatic food chain, reaching its highest concentrations in large fish like tuna, which when eaten by humans can cause serious problems, especially for pregnant women. According to the EPA, 630,000 newborn children in the United States had dangerous blood mercury levels in 1999-2000.
Mercury from power plants has never been regulated in the United States, but the Clinton administration took steps toward issuing tough new rules requiring that power plants use the "maximum achievable technology" to cut pollution. In late 2003, however, Bush's EPA proposed far weaker regulations: a 70-percent reduction of mercury emissions from power plants by 2018, achieved through a market-based "cap and trade" system.
Scientifically, the lax approach -- which has opened up the administration to a barrage of criticism -- takes part of its justification from the testimony provided before Inhofe's committee last July. Not unlike the climate-change hearing, the event selectively highlighted the only epidemiological study suggesting that chronic exposure of pregnant mothers to mercury doesn't pose risks to fetuses -- even though two other major studies, and a comprehensive assessment of the existing literature by the National Academy of Sciences, say it does.
Inhofe's hearing once again presented the testimony of three scientists. The first, from the industry-sponsored Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), argued that much of the mercury deposited in the United States comes from overseas and that emissions reductions would thus have little effect. No counterpoint was offered on this controversial question. The rest of the hearing then pitted Dr. Deborah Rice, a former EPA toxicologist defending the mainstream view of mercury's health risks, against Dr. Gary Myers of the University of Rochester, lead author of the only significant study that does not find harmful effects from fish consumption (conducted in the Seychelles Islands off the coast of Africa, where the population consumes large amounts of fish).
Calling the Seychelles work "anomalous," Rice explained that "at least eight studies based on populations around the globe" -- two of them large epidemiological studies -- supported the conclusion that mercury exposure is dangerous to fetuses. The NAS panel therefore considered the weight of the existing evidence and concluded that it could hardly rely upon the one study, from the Seychelles, that reached a different conclusion than all the others. Myers, however, implicitly disparaged all the other studies, as well as the NAS, in his testimony. "We do not believe that there is presently good scientific evidence that moderate fish consumption is harmful to the fetus," he said.
No one at the hearing mentioned that, through the Food and Drug Administration and University of Maryland's Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the EPRI contributed $486,000 to a
Seychelles-related research project involving Myers' group. In an interview, Myers said the funding did not support "the main study in the Seychelles," but rather "some related studies." Yet others contend that that funding is relevant for assessing all of the Seychelles work. "Think about what your mother might say," says Rena Steinzor, director of the environmental-law clinic at the University of Maryland and a board member at the Center for Progressive Regulation. "Would she want to know that some doctor who told her mercury in fish was safe had been given money by the industry most affected by proposals to cut this pollution?"
As on the climate issue, Inhofe leaned toward the industry-friendly outlier position. His questioning emphasized that fish are part of a healthy diet, and appeared to challenge the prominent Faroe Islands mercury study, which did show damaging effects on child development and was relied upon by the NAS. Once again, Inhofe's staff insisted that the panel was balanced. Myers' work, they wrote, is "the most comprehensive study to date."
Ironically, the mercury issue links back to climate change in a surprising way. In December 2003, the Center for Science and Public Policy at the conservative Frontiers of Freedom Institute came out with a report saying that the EPA's initial push to regulate mercury stringently -- since watered down -- was "not justified by science." Like Inhofe's staff, the report treated the Seychelles work of Gary Myers as definitive. One of the report's two authors was none other than Dr. Willie Soon, listed as "science director" of the Center for Science and Public Policy. Frontiers of Freedom received $232,000 from ExxonMobil in 2002.
But perhaps the most anti-scientific part of Inhofe's agenda has been his involvement in a legal push, led by the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute (which received $405,000 from ExxonMobil in 2002), to suppress a trailblazing Clinton-era report focusing on potential impacts of climate change on different U.S. regions -- the so-called National Assessment. Perhaps because the National Assessment makes the consequences of climate change very clear in an almost visceral way, it has been ferociously attacked by those hoping to stop preventive action. "It says exactly what will happen in people's backyards, so it's very powerful," says Princeton University climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer.
Conservatives first brought a lawsuit over the National Assessment in late 2000, not long before Bill Clinton left office. Filed by the CEI with Inhofe as a co-plaintiff, the suit alleged various procedural deficiencies in the report's preparation. It then stunningly demanded a block on the report's production or utilization -- in other words, a court's withholding of scientific information. Co-plaintiff Jo Ann Emerson, a Republican representative from Missouri, charged, "The administration is rushing to release a junk science report in violation of current law to try to lend support to its flawed Kyoto Protocol negotiations."
But leading scientists think differently and have said so. An entire section of the 2001 NAS report was devoted to discussing the National Assessment, which it said "provides a basis for summarizing the potential consequences of climate change." And another NAS panel tasked with reviewing the Bush administration's 10-year climate-change research plan recently observed that the National Assessment made "important contributions to understanding the possible consequences of climate
variability and change," calling the report's review process "exemplary."
After Clinton left the White House, the Bush administration settled the CEI lawsuit with an admission that the National Assessment was merely a government report and didn't represent official policy. But in the meantime, Emerson had attached a brief rider to an appropriations bill that would soon become known as the Data Quality Act. The law creates a new means for parties to submit complaints, and ultimately lawsuits, over the scientific quality of government information. Though his staff says he doesn't support making major legislative changes by appropriations rider
"as a general rule," Inhofe has embraced the act.
In August of 2003, the CEI launched the very first lawsuit under the act, demanding a halt to the report's dissemination by the government. Inhofe wasn't involved in the second suit directly, but as The Washington Post reported, his committee invited a CEI attorney involved in both cases to attend a meeting between UN representatives and congressional staff in early 2003. This outraged many Democrats present, who claimed the appearance was "highly unusual and a breach of congressional protocol." The meeting concerned a series of climate-change reports that the United States is required to submit to the United Nations under the Framework Convention. The lawyer, the CEI's Christopher Horner, says he was "not there in pursuit of information relating to any pending lawsuits."
In any case, the suits have clearly had a chilling effect. After the White House settled with the CEI a second time, the government Web site displaying the National Assessment was amended to include a prominent disclaimer saying that the report had not been subject to Data Quality Act guidelines. Yet the Data Quality Act wasn't even in effect when the report was prepared. Meanwhile, the administration's strategic plan on climate research omits any presentation of the National Assessment's key findings and results -- something for which it was twice taken to task by the National Academy of Sciences panel that reviewed the plan. "All the way through the climate-change science plan, [the administration] clearly had distanced [itself], in a not very shy way, from the U.S. National Assessment," says Jerry Mahlman, former director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, who sat on the panel.
For atmospheric physicist Michael MacCracken, who successively directed the offices of the U.S. Global Change Research Program and the National Assessment during the Clinton years, the result has been depressing. "Information is normally of value," he muses. But Inhofe doesn't seem to take that view. The Prospect asked the senator's staff the following question: Even if the National Assessment has flaws (as most studies do), is that grounds for bringing a lawsuit over research that could inform Americans about future risks and how to prepare themselves? The committee
basically deflected the question. "In other words," it responded, "should major decisions, affecting the country's economic well-being, be based on flawed scientific research? Clearly not."
So you might say that Inhofe has put ideology over even the availability of scientific information. There's some historical precedent for this. In the late 1920s and early '30s, a "scientist" named Trofim Lysenko largely took control of Soviet biological and agricultural research for several decades.
During that time, he institutionalized the pseudoscientific notion that the theory of genetics constituted an affront to socialism -- the party line. The damage done to Soviet science was immeasurable, and the term "Lysenkoism" has since become synonymous with suppressing or refusing to acknowledge science for ideological reasons.
Inhofe's actions have already had serious consequences: His 2003 battle against the science of climate clearly helped prevent passage of the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act. Unlike in the former Soviet Union, though, we still have dissent in the United States, including from moderates in Inhofe's own party like McCain and Connecticut's Chris Shays. "When we learn the seriousness of this problem," says Shays of climate change, "Senator Inhofe and I and others probably won't be in office, and they'll never be held accountable."
But at the very least, Inhofe's claim that global warming is a "hoax" seems sure to be remembered in years hence -- although not, perhaps, in quite the way that he might like.
Copyright © 2004 by The American Prospect, Inc.