Censoring Science

Last Thursday, the Senate voted 53-47 to block the passage of Senate Joint Resolution 26, which read as follows: “A joint resolution disapproving a rule submitted by the Environmental Protection Agency relating to the endangerment finding and the cause or contribute findings for greenhouse gases under section 202(a) of the Clean Air Act.”

This resolution was meant to overturn the EPA’s endangerment finding of December 7, 2009, which found that “the current and projected concentrations of the six key well-mixed greenhouse gases–carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6)–in the atmosphere threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations.” This finding was a response to the 2007 Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, in which the Court had ruled that greenhouse gases are air pollutants covered by the Clean Air Act.

The bill introduced by Senator Murkowski (R-AK) sought to bar the EPA from regulating the emission of greenhouse gases on the argument that the Clean Air Act was never meant to regulate “carbon” (by which they mean greenhouse gases). To me, this would seem to run counter to the Supreme Court’s decision in 2007, but that’s not the issue I wish to address here.

The Clean Air Act is clear: the EPA can set emissions standards for “air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.” At question is whether greenhouse gases are pollutants and, if so, whether they are a danger to the public’s health or welfare. The answer to both questions is clearly yes.
That should have been the end of the matter; scientists had found clear evidence that greenhouse gases are pollutants and pose a risk both to the health of American citizens and, through climate change, a threat to the economic wellbeing of the country. This is not a controversial position in the scientific community; it is the broadly accepted consensus. Yet 47 members of the Senate (including Senator Brown) sought to overturn it.

In other words, 47 Senators sought to censor scientific findings.

This is something I find to be very troubling. The United States Senate is not a scientific body. It is not comprised of scientists. It is not an institution for peer reviewing research. Voting to censor a scientific finding is simply unacceptable. During the floor debate, Senator Lautenberg (D-NJ) perhaps said it best: “I say leave the science to the scientists, not the politicians.”

It is a good thing that this resolution did not pass. Not only would it have been a major setback in confronting climate change, its passage would have also set a dangerous precedent for allowing the government to censor politically inconvenient scientific findings. And that is a road we do not want to take.

One Response to Censoring Science

  1. C R Krieger says:

    I think I disagree to some degree.  The question of risks from air pollution vs risks from economic problems is a supremely political decision.  I worry about politicians taking fine scientific findings and making major political decisions based upon those findings.  For example, was the banning of DDT a move in the right direction or a move in the wrong direction?  I expect neither side believes the other side has anything worth saying.

    Regards  —  Cliff