Congressional hearings have never been known for their focus on the facts.
In theory, hearings are meant to bring experts before Congress to help educate members on how issues of the day impact their constituents. In practice, however, these sessions serve more as a bully pulpit or bullhorn used by political partisans to advance their talking points or churn out made-for-television soundbites.
Rather than offer perspective that helps inform good policy, “expert” witnesses who are focused on advancing an activist agenda move us backward and make it harder for lawmakers to legislate from a sound intellectual foundation.
A hearing held last week by the House Oversight Committee’s Subcommittee on Environment serves as a good example of this dynamic.
Convened ostensibly to examine the historic scientific consensus surrounding climate change, the hearing sought to draw attention to the perceived role activists — in this case, from within the fossil fuel industry — played in delaying mainstream acceptance of climate science.
Ironically, in its effort to bemoan the influence of activists and advocates in the climate debate, this hearing deployed a panel of experts consisting almost entirely of climate activists — activists who have played politics from deep within the environmentalist community for decades.
Take Michael Oppenheimer. His Princeton affiliation suggests a life of unbiased academic research, but the 20 years he spent embedded within the Environmental Defense Fund suggest otherwise, as does his founding of the European Climate Action Network.
How about Jeffrey Sachs? Again, while he’s a Columbia University economist on paper, his focus on activism — climate and otherwise — over the course of his career show that he’s not the objective academic one would turn to for clarity on important policy issues.
The reality is that, despite their impressive resumes, lawmakers and the general public alike know exactly what they’re going to get from witnesses like Sachs and Oppenheimer: aggressive climate activism, with a heavy dose of anti-energy rhetoric thrown in for good measure.
Both Sachs an Oppenheimer have made a living out of pillorying the energy industry. Both have engaged extensively in the New York Attorney General’s suit against ExxonMobil — a suit widely considered to be motivated more by politics than by science. Both have worked with noted anti-oil activist Naomi Oreskes to advance a narrative rooted in the assumption that fossil fuel companies misled the public about climate change. And they have used platforms like Twitter and newspaper opinion pages to tout their research and cite the (often discredited) research of their peers.
Some advocacy tactics, though, have veered off the beaten path and well beyond the boundaries of garden variety climate activism.
Not long ago, Sachs was called out by progressive publication The Nation for advocating positions that amounted, in practice, to population control. In a series of lectures, Sachs pointed to “overwhelming evidence” that it is “possible and necessary to have a rapid demographic transition on a voluntary basis to greatly reduce fertility rates in poor countries.” He doubled down on this point in a later opinion piece, asking how it was possible to enjoy sustainable development on a “crowded planet.”
In short, Sachs seems to prioritize “environmental needs” over human lives — especially in poor nations.
More recently, Sachs quit Twitter in the face of blowback stemming from a piece he wrote in defense of Chinese tech giant Huawei after its chief financial officer was arrested in early 2019. According to Bloomberg, the article prompted Asia Society senior fellow Isaac Stone Fish to ask whether Sachs had been paid by Huawei to write the piece given the fact that he had previously authored a foreword for a Huawei position paper — and whether that payment should have been disclosed prior to opining on the CFO’s arrest in opposition to U.S. authorities.
Oppenheimer and Sachs may be experts in their fields, but lawmakers should recognize that part of their skill is playing politics by fear mongering and name-calling, with little regard for facts.
Congressional hearings have value. At their best, they yield better government and stronger policy that helps our country prosper. That’s difficult to achieve when activists drive the discussion.
Drew Johnson Drew Johnson is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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