You may remember that the Senatorial GOP gave the Democrats a significant trouncing in last year’s Midterm Elections, putting the EPA on notice, as well as the President’s healthcare reform and regulation in general. As part of the political shakeup, several Republicans ascended to new positions that would seem hilariously out-of-step with their qualifications if our government adhered to any kind of logic-based system.
Chief among the Republicans’ brood of atavists is Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK), a serial science-denier who literally wrote the book on why global warming is a hoax (his reason: it contradicts the Bible) and recently threw a snowball onto the Senate floor to prove it. In January, Inhofe was appointed the chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Environment and Public Works.
Just to hit that point home, one of the most vocal climate change deniers in federal government is now heading up its Environment Committee. Even President Obama has called that “disturbing.”
In a recent interview with Vice, the President was quite frank about why such appointments occur. Hint: there’s a lot of money involved. “In some cases,” said Obama, “you have elected officials who are shills for the oil companies or the fossil fuel industry…. Typically in Congress the committees of jurisdiction, like the energy committees, are populated by folks from places that pump a lot of oil and pump a lot of gas.”
In case you were curious, two of Inhofe’s top three campaign contributors were Devon Energy, one of the largest independent natural gas and oil producers in America, and Murray Energy, the largest independent coal producer in America.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) would probably argue Obama’s point – because Republicans don’t earn their merit badges unless they contradict every sound bite out of the President’s mouth – by saying something to the effect that environmental regulations cost hardworking Americans jobs or their patriotism. That’s why, days after he won his reelection, he promised “to do whatever I can to get the EPA reined in.”
Surely it has nothing to do with the fact that McConnell’s state of Kentucky generates 93 percent of its electricity from burning coal, or that the oil & gas industry donated over $1 million to his campaign fund.
But I’m not here to talk about Senators Inhofe or McConnell. I’m here to talk about Ted Cruz.
The Right Honorable But Unreliable Theodore Cruz
Ostensibly, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) is an intelligent man. He was a high school valedictorian, he went to Princeton, he edited the Harvard Law Review and, in 2012, he made seven-figures working for the law firm of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. However, his grasp of environmental science is not so great.
In early 2014, Cruz told CNN that, where global warming is concerned, “data are not supporting what the advocates are arguing.”
Not that this ever seems to satisfy the skeptics, but even a cursory glance at the record shows that over 97 percent of the scientific community agrees that man has a notable influence on climate change (that consensus was calculated by studying over 11,000 peer-reviewed articles written between 1991 and 2011). Those scientists that belong to the 2.9 percent have been frequently quoted by climate change deniers, though this has recently backfired in a big way.
It was recently revealed that Dr. Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon, who has been arguing for years that the sun is responsible for climate change and that carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases have little effect on the planet, was paid about $1.25 million by the fossil fuel industry for his scientific papers – or, as he called them, “deliverables.”
But I digress. What else did Sen. Cruz tell CNN last February? That in “[t]he last 15 years, there has been no recorded warming. Contrary to all the theories that…they are expounding, there should have been warming over the last 15 years. It hasn’t happened.”
Well, once again, I’m going to have to call shenanigans on Mr. Cruz. The ten warmest years on record have all occurred in the 21st century, last year was officially proclaimed by NASA, NOAA and the JMA as the hottest year on record and this year is on track to be even hotter.
Climate skeptics like to conjure up this 15-years-of-no-warming-B.S., and, to their credit, the last 15 years have not seen the kind of atmospheric warming scientists expected. Of course, scientists being scientists, they figured out why. Some 90 percent of the planet’s global warming heat is absorbed by the oceans, which is why they’re currently “breaking scientists’ charts.” Relative to the oceans, the atmosphere has only slowly gotten warmer, but according to Planet Expert Michael Mann, Penn State’s Distinguished Professor of Meteorology, that will likely change before this decade is through.
The Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a 15- to 30-year weather pattern, is set to flip its phase in the next five years, which will make it harder for the ocean to absorb heat and send a chunk of it back into the atmosphere. As Dr. Mann says, the global warming “faux pause” will soon be over.
But maybe Sen. Cruz doesn’t read one of the most prominent climate scientists of our time. Heck, I do this for a living and even I can’t get through one of the man’s papers without breaking into a fit of angry weeping and throwing myself into the nearest parking lot to pull the engines out of cars. I’ve been ticketed three times now. Imagine how embarrassing that would be if I were an elected official.
The point is, Sen. Cruz may be a fine man, but he’s a bit unreliable when it comes to science. Thankfully, however…
He’s a Rocketman
In January, Sen. Cruz was made the head of the subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness, which oversees NASA. And Cruz thinks NASA could be doing its job better.
In a recent subcommittee hearing, Cruz invited NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to explain what his agency does. To Cruz, the answer is obvious: “Almost any American would agree that the core function of NASA is to explore space,” he said. “That’s what inspires little boys and little girls across this country.”
Cruz’s concern, he added, was that the agency “has lost its full focus on that core mission.”
Bolden, however, disagreed. In his opinion, “Our core mission from the very beginning has been to investigate, explore space and the Earth environment, and to help us make this place a better place.”
That makes some sense, you must agree. NASA has satellites and, arguably, some of the finest minds working today; surely pointing them at the Earth has been helpful in assessing some of its cloudier problems. The agency is, after all, one of the planet’s four most trusted authorities on weather measurements.
But Sen. Cruz, doing what he allegedly believes is in the country’s best interest, produced a chart that showed NASA’s funding for exploration and space operations has declined by 7.6 percent since 2009, whereas its funding for Earth sciences has increased 41 percent. Cruz wants a NASA that focuses on space, not on Earth.
“I am deeply concerned that the Obama administration has undervalued space exploration, has diverted NASA from its core priorities,” he said. “We need to get back to the central mission of NASA.”
Bolden, meanwhile, explained that the decrease in space funding was “somewhat intentional,” as it is now contracting with private companies to send parts and people to space, saving on its defunct shuttles by scuttling them and allocating resources elsewhere. By focusing on the Earth, Bolden said the agency has “enabled us to understand our planet far better than we ever did before.”
He also added that it’s in NASA’s best interest to do this, as the Kennedy Space Center, located on Florida’s Cape Canaveral, is currently threatened by climate change. Almost 100 feet of beach next to the Apollo launch pads has been reclaimed by the ocean since 2003, forcing NASA to spend nearly $3 million to build a mile-long dune to protect the site.
“We can’t go anywhere if the Kennedy Space Center goes underwater and we don’t know it,” Bolden told Cruz, “and that’s understanding our environment. It is absolutely critical that we understand Earth environment because this is the only place that we have to live.”
So What Can Ted Cruz Do?
Well, he can make a lot of noise. Bolden, as a representative of NASA, has implicitly made climate change a top priority for the agency, which, as we’ve discussed, Cruz doesn’t even believe in. And though Cruz oversees NASA as part of the Space Committee, he can’t cut their funding (much as he might like to).
When Cruz was appointed chairman of the committee, this was the fear, but according to Louis Friedman, a former staffer on the subcommittee and who subsequently co-founded the Planetary Society with Carl Sagan, “It’s not like he will control the NASA budget.”
Nor can he significantly change its policy all by his lonesome. According to space policy expert Marcia Smith, who wrote an excellent article on this very subject,
“[Cruz] has authority over policy and theoretically could write a NASA authorization bill that restricts what climate science research NASA could do or even abolishes NASA’s entire earth science program. Such a bill, however, would have to get through the full committee, the Senate, the House and be signed into law by the President before becoming law. While one should ‘never say never,’ the chances of that happening are extremely small.”
Smith goes on to say that Cruz, as the head of his subcommittee, can provide oversight, set policy and recommend funding levels, but that the actual funding is provided by the appropriations committee, which is headed up by Senators Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), both of whom are NASA advocates. Smith singles out Mikulski for being “particularly supportive of NASA earth science programs and NOAA’s weather satellites.”
NOAA, by the by, is currently being overseen by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), the chairman of the Senate subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard. And before you ask, yes, Rubio is also an avowed climate change denier.
But Smith doubts a Senate appropriations bill that includes disproportionate cuts to either NOAA or NASA would make it past Mikulski, despite her minority position.
So are these essential climate agencies safe? Slate’s Phil Plait isn’t so sure. “While Cruz may not be able to directly impact NASA’s budget,” he wrote Monday, “he can certainly make things difficult on the agency and pressure others to change NASA’s emphasis.”
His evidence? As he explained in an earlier article, “What little legislation the Republicans in Congress haven’t obstructed over the past few years has hardly been a compromise in the dictionary sense; the Democrats and White House have caved on quite a bit. Since the NASA budget is part of the overall federal budget, I’m not 100 percent sure they won’t try to excise what they don’t like.”
Unfortunately, Plait is right about that, which speaks to the larger issue of what exactly Democrats stand for these days. We know Republicans are about big business, deregulation and conventional fuels. (The second-biggest contributor to Ted Cruz’s campaign? The oil & gas industry, at $946,568.) But what do Democrats want? Who are they protecting, or helping, or valuing?
Let’s face it, when it comes to coming together, forming a singular front – no matter how horrifying – the Republicans have got their shit together. And while not every Republican may deny anthropogenic climate change, the ones who bark up that tree the loudest are the ones who are currently chewing on the milk bones of our scientific integrity.