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House Science Committee Tweets Story Skeptical of Climate Change

The House Science Committee is getting its climate change "facts" from Breitbart News.

by Sarah Emerson
Dec 1 2016, 11:40pm

El Niño, November 2015. Image: NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory

This afternoon, the US Committee on Science, Space and Technology—aka the House Science Committee, the body of Congress that oversees NASA, the Energy Department, and many of the other leading US scientific agencies—tweeted a brutally unscientific message of climate change denialism out to the world.

A tweet sent out by the Committee's official Twitter account linked to the following Breitbart News story, a story so erroneous that one should question the inclusion of "science" in the committee's name:

The Breitbart News story aggregates a Daily Mail article that insinuates global warming is a byproduct of El Niño. (It's not.)

"Big El Ninos always have an immense impact on world weather, triggering higher than normal temperatures over huge swathes of the world… It has now been replaced by a La Nina event—when the water in the same Pacific region turns colder than normal. This also has worldwide impacts, driving temperatures down rather than up," David Rose wrote for Daily Mail.

There's nothing new about Breitbart News, the noted conservative website lately associated with the neo-white nationalist "alt-right" movement and President-elect Donald Trump, calling global warming a "scare" or "propaganda," and using testimonies from biased experts to support their narrative. (The author quoted David Whitehouse, science editor of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which according to SourceWatch is the United Kingdom's "most high-profile climate denier group.") This is, after all, the same website that once labeled climate change as "the greatest-ever conspiracy against the taxpayer."

On the other hand, the House Science Committee's tacit endorsement of such baseless, factually deficient opinions is genuinely disturbing to anyone who values science. A Committee spokesperson forwarded my request for comment to another spokesperson, who had not responded at the time of publishing.

Earlier this year, NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies reported that 2016 was set to become the hottest year on record. While it's true that this year's El Niño was one of the strongest ever, causing droughts, flooding, and hurricanes around the globe, it's false to attribute rising temperatures—fanned by man-made emissions—solely to the climatic changes brought about by the atmospheric phenomenon.

"With the demise of El Niño, those temperature departures have dropped slightly, but are still at record-high levels," wrote Scientific American about NASA's data in July.

But the House Science Committee seems at ease with sowing distrust of government climate scientists. At the very least, it's content with legitimizing the agenda of anti-science advocates.

El Niño and La Niña are two atmospheric phenomenons that climate change deniers love to misrepresent. The degrees to which El Niño and La Niña have been cherry-picked can explain why, in the face of science, global warming is often falsely described as a cyclical weather event.

Breitbart and Daily Mail based their stories on a statistically incomplete infographic that appears to have been created by the latter publication. It cites climate data from 1998 to 2016 without proper context, and for a specific reason.

"This is the portion that people usually show if they want to avoid showing the large increase in temperature over the forty previous years. If you look at the longer temperature record, there's a clear upward trend," Daniel Walton, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles' Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and the Center for Climate Science, told me.

"Both 2015 and early 2016 were very warm periods. Often El Niños are followed by La Niñas, which could bring cold anomalies. Just because one year has especially high or low temperatures doesn't contradict idea of a long-term trend because we expect there to be considerable interannual variability," he added.

Global land temperature anomalies since 1880. Image: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association

What's especially important here, however, is that this isn't the first time the House Science Committee has betrayed its core mission to oversee the advancement of science and technology. As I've covered before, the Committee's leader, Republican Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas, has routinely abused his authority to suffocate scientific freedom.

Most recently, Smith used his subpoena power to defend ExxonMobil against an investigation into its holdings by the Securities and Exchange Commission. He's targeted scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, and accused them of altering climate data. Smith has also come down on environmental groups, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, for their role in challenging ExxonMobil's awareness of climate change.

While a tweet isn't the end of the world (although climate change might be), the House Science Committee's agenda under Smith and a newly-cemented Republican majority Congress, with a noted climate-change skeptical President in charge, is concerning. If our elected officials continue to get their science facts from sources like Breitbart News, our future is looking very dire, indeed.