WASHINGTON — A lone Republican witness hijacked a congressional hearing Tuesday about the public health effects of global warming, cutting off serious debate by drawing attention to his own controversial, disputed views.
Deploying sharply opinionated witnesses to scuttle any Democratic legislative agenda appears to be an increasingly common tactic Republicans have used in recent hearings, including on white nationalism and transgender rights. In this case, the hearing was in front of the environment subcommittee of the House Oversight Committee, which includes some of the most well-known Democratic freshmen of the 116th Congress, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Rep. Katie Hill of California.
Earlier this year, Ocasio-Cortez introduced the Green New Deal, which would radically excise fossil fuels from every facet of American public and private life. The plan is anathema to Republicans but has been embraced by some of the Democrats now running for president.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Caleb Rossiter of the CO2 Coalition, an organization whose mission is to highlight the “important contribution made by carbon dioxide to our lives and the economy,” played the role of spoiler. The group was co-founded by William Happer, a physicist who is now leading the Presidential Committee on Climate Security, a newly formed panel that many believe will be used to undermine established science on global warming. The CO2 Coalition is largely funded by conservative foundations, including those of the billionaire Koch and Mercer families.
Rossiter was the last of the afternoon’s witnesses, and followed public health experts and medical doctors who described how global warming was not just an ecological disaster but approached epidemic levels in its human costs. Speaking in urgent, distressed tones, they described elevated levels of asthma and obesity, respiratory disease and food poisoning.
One of the witnesses, Aaron Bernstein of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard University, described holding infants whose brains had been damaged by the Zika virus, an epidemic made worse by climate change. He spoke of encountering children who “no longer had a will to live” after losing their homes to flooding, which has also become more catastrophic as the planet warms. Bernstein deemed fossil fuels “debilitating” and called for Congress to reject the inordinate influence the oil and gas lobbies have traditionally wielded over legislation.
Rossiter, adorned in a bow tie, had an altogether different message. Calling himself a “climate statistician,” he depicted his group as a lone truth-teller in a field otherwise besotted with alarmist predictions. “We save the people of the planet from people who think they are saving the planet,” Rossiter said in his opening statement. He then proceeded to tout the benefits of carbon dioxide, which is emitted when carbon is burned and traps heat in the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.
“So far, CO2 emissions have had a positive and modest impact on Americans’ health,” Rossiter said. He said “weather mortality” has fallen because most weather-related deaths come during cold spells, which presumably become more rare as the planet warms.
Rossiter proceeded to show a slide of what he said was “a typical rural African dwelling.” The following slide showed a woman in traditional garb (Rossiter did not say which African country the images came from) cooking a meal over an open fire. He argued that fossil fuel-generated electricity was modernizing Africa and leading to better health outcomes.
“Being wealthy saves lives,” he said. He did not say why similar outcomes could not be achieved with solar energy, which has become increasingly popular on the continent.
Rep. James Comer, who is the committee’s ranking member and represents coal-rich western Kentucky, mused about “the role that coal would play in helping more Americans escape poverty and maintain a higher state of health and well-being.” There are, in fact, only 76,000 people across the United States working in coal extraction, in large part because the free market has made renewables a more attractive investment.
Democrats, meanwhile, took repeated offense at Rossiter’s opening remarks, which had the effect of making him the protagonist of the hearing.
Hill asked Rossiter about former board members of the CO2 Coalition who were associated with the oil and gas industry. When she said his work was being funded by that industry, Rossiter denied the charge, calling it an “ad hominem attack.” Hill laughed in response.
Ocasio-Cortez, who said she did not want to spend her allotted time to question witnesses solely to fact-check Rossiter, did do some of that. “Let’s get it back to the actual subject of this hearing,” she urged, “which is the impact of climate change on human health. We’re not debating whether climate change is real, and we’re not debating any of those attendant effects.”
The 29-year-old legislator, who has spent less than six months in Washington, seemed to recognize that Rossiter’s presence, and incendiary claims, had become central to a hearing that was not supposed to be about coal, or its role in the 21st century economy.
Even the other witnesses were diverted. At one point, instead of answering a question, Harvard expert Bernstein used his time to rebut Rossiter’s assertion, listing the various errors Rossiter purportedly made. “What you heard does not reflect the full truth as regards to what the science understands,” he said.
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