The House Science Committee Has Held More Hearings on Aliens Than on Climate Change

Young supporters hold inflatable alien dolls with 'Joe' stickers on them, as Republican presidential candidate John McCain addresses a campaign rally at the airport in Roswell, New Mexico on November 3, 2008.
National Journal
Emma Roller
May 21, 2014, 11:02 a.m.

Con­gress is fas­cin­ated by the search for in­tel­li­gent life on oth­er plan­ets. Ap­par­ently, they’ve giv­en up the search at home.

In this ses­sion of Con­gress, House com­mit­tees tasked with cov­er­ing U.S. en­ergy and sci­ence have held a total of sev­en hear­ings to dis­cuss cli­mate change. By con­trast, the two cham­bers have held a com­bined 19 hear­ings about space ex­plor­a­tion in that same time peri­od.

The House Sci­ence, Space, and Tech­no­logy Com­mit­tee — led by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, since 2013 — has held 15 hear­ings on space ex­plor­a­tion alone, at least three of which have in­volved the search for ex­tra­ter­restri­al life. By com­par­is­on, Smith’s com­mit­tee has held just two hear­ings de­voted to cli­mate change.

The Demo­crat-con­trolled Sen­ate doesn’t have a much bet­ter re­cord. The Sen­ate En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works Com­mit­tee has held three hear­ings this ses­sion on cli­mate change, while the Sen­ate En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee has not had a hear­ing de­voted to the top­ic since 2012. The Sen­ate Com­merce Sci­ence and Space Sub­com­mit­tee has had one hear­ing about cli­mate change and four about space.

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On the House side, the House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee hos­ted one sol­it­ary hear­ing about cli­mate change, and the House Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee has not had a hear­ing on cli­mate change in the 113th Con­gress.

In a House Sci­ence Com­mit­tee hear­ing Wed­nes­day, Seth Shos­tak, an Amer­ic­an as­tro­nomer, de­fen­ded the no­tion that the search for ali­en life is worth­while. He poin­ted out that NASA’s Kepler mis­sion has found there are tril­lion of plan­ets in our galaxy, in­clud­ing many plan­ets that could hy­po­thet­ic­ally sup­port life.

“It’s very easy to make fun of this,” Shos­tak said. “On the oth­er hand, it would have been very easy to make fun of Ferdin­and Magel­lan’s idea to sail around the earth, or Cap­tain Cook to map the South Pa­cific.”

And make fun of it the com­mit­tee mem­bers did. Rep. Bill John­son, R-Ohio, joked that ex­tra­ter­restri­al so­ci­et­ies may be act­ively avoid­ing con­tact with earth­lings. “Maybe they’ve got their caller ID turned on or something,” John­son said.

Rep. Chris Collins, R-New York, joined the fun. “I’m go­ing to ask what every­one in the room wants to ask. Have you watched An­cient Ali­ens, and what do you think of that series?” he asked. “I think I’ve been on that pro­gram,” Shos­tak replied.

But com­mit­tee Chair­man Lamar Smith took the is­sue very ser­i­ously, press­ing the pan­el­ists on how likely it is that there’s in­tel­li­gent life on oth­er plan­ets. He was pleased with their re­sponse: nearly 100 per­cent.

While Smith may sup­port the search for ex­tra­ter­restri­al life, he’s much less sym­path­et­ic about the cause of cli­mate change on this plan­et. Last year, Smith wrote a column in The Wash­ing­ton Post cast­ing doubt on the idea that glob­al warm­ing is caused by hu­man en­ergy use.

“Cli­mate change is an is­sue that needs to be dis­cussed thought­fully and ob­ject­ively,” Smith wrote. “Con­trary to the claims of those who want to strictly reg­u­late car­bon di­ox­ide emis­sions and in­crease the cost of en­ergy for all Amer­ic­ans, there is a great amount of un­cer­tainty as­so­ci­ated with cli­mate sci­ence.”

But, judging by the ac­tions of the com­mit­tee Smith chairs, a reasoned de­bate about Earth’s at­mo­sphere isn’t nearly as ap­peal­ing as spec­u­lat­ing on the at­mo­spheres of oth­er plan­ets.

You could ar­gue that it makes sense for the House Sci­ence Com­mit­tee to rig­or­ously dis­cuss out­er space — after all, it’s right there in the com­mit­tee’s name. But you could also ar­gue that when the com­mit­tee you chair has the word “sci­ence” in its name, you may want to dis­cuss the premi­er sci­entif­ic de­bate that’s go­ing on.

The House Sci­ence Com­mit­tee has dis­cussed cli­mate change in re­la­tion to oth­er pro­jects, such as the Key­stone XL pipeline. But its main fo­cus, along with oth­er House com­mit­tees deal­ing with en­ergy and the en­vir­on­ment, has been to rep­rim­and the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency for its reg­u­la­tions.

At Wed­nes­day’s hear­ing, Dan Werthi­mer of the Search for Ex­tra­ter­restri­al In­tel­li­gence In­sti­tute, or SETI, made the point that a search for in­tel­li­gent life could prove fu­tile. “If we dis­cov­er that we are alone, we’d bet­ter take really good care of life on this plan­et,” he told the com­mit­tee.

The truth may be out there, but so are some un­com­fort­able truths we’ll even­tu­ally have to deal with, right here.

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