White House science nominee ducks chance to refute climate skeptic at Senate confirmation hearing

Kelvin Droegemeier

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Kelvin Droegemeier got exactly one hardball question at today’s Senate hearing on his nomination to be director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). It came from Senator Ted Cruz (R–TX), who believes the planet is not warming and that climate change has been fabricated by those “who want to expand government control over the economy.”

“Are you familiar with the empirical data from satellite measurements that show no statistically significant warming over the past 18 years?” Cruz asked. And Droegemeier, a professor of meteorology at The University of Oklahoma in Norman and an expert on severe storm prediction, chose to sidestep the question.

“I’m familiar with some of those studies,” he replied. “But I don’t study climate.”

Conventional wisdom says Droegemeier’s decision not to offer any substantive response may be a good strategy for winning confirmation. But some climate scientists are disappointed Droegemeier didn’t defend the vast body of science that contradicts Cruz’s position on climate change. They also worry that his tepid answer signals that Droegemeier has decided to remain mum on an issue that pits most of the scientific community against President Donald Trump and his administration.

“It’s only one political data point, but it’s unfortunate,” says meteorologist David Titley, who rebutted an identical claim by Cruz when he testified at a December 2015 hearing Cruz chaired on “promoting open inquiry” on the topic. “Only time will tell how Kelvin will be on climate change,” says Titley, a professor at Pennsylvania State University in State College and the director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk there.

Cruz’s question to Droegemeier relates to the controversy surrounding a 2015 Science paper by U.S. government scientists that refutes claims of a “pause” in global warming for a 16-year period beginning in 1998. Climate contrarians say atmospheric data from satellites back up their position.

“Cruz was trying to imply that there is no warming,” says Andy Dressler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M University in College Station. “That’s not true, of course.”

Titley says Cruz has “cherry-picked” the data by starting with 1998, when global temperatures were at a peak following a powerful El Niño season, and by suggesting those satellite measures are the only indicators of global warming. “The satellite data can be hard to interpret,” he acknowledges. “But the running trend from 30 to 40 years of satellite data is clear, and along with all the other indicators, the evidence [for warming temperatures] is overwhelming.”

At the same time, Titley says he would understand if Droegemeier chose to “not pick a fight with Cruz” by giving a bland nonanswer. “The purpose of a confirmation hearing is to say as little as is humanly possible and still get confirmed,” he says. “And that’s what Kelvin did.”

Dressler says no one should be surprised at how Droegemeier handled the question. “This administration was never going to pick someone like John Holdren [former President Barack Obama’s head of OSTP and science adviser] to be the president’s science adviser. They want someone who is going to toe the line” on climate policy. (Holdren, now at Harvard University, was and still is outspoken about the need for the U.S. government to take action to address climate change.)

As it happens, Holdren had addressed the same issue of a supposed “hiatus” in 2014 testimony before the House of Representatives science committee, whose chairman, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), sides with Cruz on the issue. Here’s some of what Holdren said—and what Dressler and Titley would have liked to hear from Droegemeier.

“A number of climate change contrarians have been propagating the claim that there has been no global warming since 1998. This is not correct,” Holdren said at the 17 September 2014 hearing. “The 2000s were warmer than the 1990s, and the 2010s so far have been warmer than the 2000s.”

“Although the rate of increase in the globally and annually averaged temperature of the atmosphere near the surface has slowed since around 2000 compared to the rate of increase over the preceding three decades,” Holdren continued, “near-surface warming of the atmosphere has indeed continued. During the recent period in which the rate of increase of the average surface air temperature has slowed, moreover, other indicators of a warming planet … have been proceeding at or above the rates that characterized the preceding decades.”

Droegemeier also fielded questions about climate change from Democratic senators. But they asked what he thought were the most pressing problems researchers need to address, not whether Droegemeier thought climate change was real.

Members from both parties said they thought Droegemeier was the right man for the job. His fellow Oklahoman, Senator James Inhofe (R–OK), another climate contrarian, called Droegemeier “famous and fun” and asserted: “There is no one who is better qualified for this job.”

The committee chairman, Senator John Thune (R–SD), said the panel could act on the nomination as early as next week. Judging from today’s hearing, the vote to send his nomination to the full Senate could be unanimous.