Commentary: What Lamar Smith is doing about climate change

Riding the success of President Trump’s campaign slogan, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space & Technology, and the committee’s Republican majority recently held the first full committee hearing of this Congress. It was the “Make EPA Great Again” hearing aimed to “examine how the EPA evaluates and uses science in the regulatory process.”

The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, is the federal agency tasked with protecting environmental and human health through its rulemaking and regulatory powers.

As chairman to the House committee with jurisdiction over the EPA, Smith looks to diminish the agency’s authority with help from the newly controlled Republican Congress and presidency. He will likely do so by asserting an old conservative fear tactic — declaiming that regulatory measures taken by the EPA undercut American industry, the economy and individual liberties — while understating the EPA’s role in safeguarding environmental and public health.

The committee’s hearing, however, employed a different strategy.

Smith lambasted the EPA’s use of “questionable science” and sought to illuminate “accountability and transparency” issues within the EPA. Smith invited an industry-centric panel of witnesses, including an air quality lawyer for the fossil fuel industry, a chemical industry representative and an industry consultant. Additionally, the committee majority cited a widely contested journal article on climate change authored by federal climate scientists and criticized the “unbalanced” representation of industry on EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board.

The committee minority invited witness Rush Holt, a renowned physicist and the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, who quickly dispensed Smith’s arguments against EPA.

Holt debunked the Republican charge of data manipulation by federal climate scientists in the 2015 paper, “Possible Artifacts of Data Biases in the Recent Global Surface Warming Hiatus,” showing that the article reflects an internal dispute over data handling and in no form discredits climate change evidence.

To the allegation of one-sided representation on EPA’s primary group responsible for reviewing “the quality and relevance of scientific information used by EPA” to make regulatory decisions, Holt said “science is not a political construct” and any attempt at compromising the scientific process “will hurt our government’s functioning, harm [the] economy and human welfare.”

Ultimately, the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board should remain that: scientists holding esteem for veracity in scientific data for the benefit of sound policymaking, not another industry shadow group committed to advancing industry concerns over protecting the public well-being.

Smith’s misguided decision to bring forth this hearing echoes deeper concerns about the congressman’s inability to protect both the environment and the health of his constituents here in Central Texas. Now is the time for federal agencies to act with the capacity to mitigate the inexcusable damage to our climate system done by fossil fuels and misguided policy decisions benefiting big polluters.

The 2014 U.S. National Climate Assessment forecasts a climate system very much like that experienced during the most recent drought, including an increased demand for water — especially in Central Texas’ large metropolitan centers like Austin and San Antonio — a severe constraint on development and natural resources, and an increase in competition for water among “agriculture, energy production, and ecological needs.”

Those most likely impacted by climate change are low-income individuals. Not surprisingly, Smith is elected by Texas’ most gerrymandered congressional district, encompassing most of Austin and San Antonio’s upper-income neighborhoods.

Central Texans must reject Smith’s attempts at weakening the federal agencies tasked with protecting the environment and public health — or face the dangers of an increasingly unstable climate system.

Ward is a civil engineering graduate student at the University of Texas.

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