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The Pursuit of Ignorance

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Last year, during the elections, the standard evasive Republican response to the question, "Do you believe that human beings are changing the climate?" was to assert that we needed more science before the question could be answered. Now, the party of Lincoln, who signed into law the land-grant college system; the party of Theodore Roosevelt, who led scientific expeditions down the Amazon; the party of Dwight Eisenhower, who demanded an effective national response to the Soviet challenge to American science that followed Sputnik -- that same political party has declared itself unwilling to let science find the truth.

In the continuing budget resolution passed last week, the Republicans did not manage to insert provisions preventing the EPA from acting to clean up the air. But they did manage to prohibit the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration from using funds appropriated to create a National Climate Service, so that NOAA could more effectively coordinate and leverage existing federal research on the weather.

Ironically, the idea for the National Climate Service originated with the Bush administration -- and the principle of pulling together the findings of federal research efforts ought to make sense to a party that wants to be a good steward of taxpayer funds. But in fact we know that for decades the Republicans have been advised that if they want to block national action on climate pollution, they need to "keep the science open." Apparently, House Republicans feared that, in fact, the science is no longer open, and that if NOAA were simply allowed to explain what we do and don't know, then the public would demand, not merely support, action.

But it's not just the Climate Service that was put on the chopping block. The compromise continuing resolution also means that the U.S. will lack vital weather-satellite coverage for 18 months -- our forecasters will be working blind.

This despicable attack on knowledge comes at an awkward time for the climate cynics and their allies in the Tea Party. Just this afternoon, Texas governor Rick Perry desperately asked President Obama for more federal help to fight unprecedented firestorms, saying that the state was unable to cope on its own. The wildfires in Texas are the result of an unprecedented drought. Even the State Climatologist, John Nielsen-Gammon, says, "We're pretty vulnerable right now... We need rain." Exactly a year ago, Governor Perry was suggesting that perhaps Texas would be better off if it seceded from the union. That would make federal assistance for these fires an example of foreign aid, another program that Perry and his allies in the Congress and the Tea Party loathe.

One would think that, faced with the loss of 1.6 million acres in a single month, Texas politicians might think that having a better understanding of the climate would be a pretty good deal, but every one of its Republican members in the House voted to prohibit the national government from gaining the knowledge that Texas, at the moment, so desperately needs.

Nor is Texas alone. This weekend North Carolina was hit by 60 tornadoes, dozens of them of an intensity that is almost unprecedented in the state. They left behind 45 deaths and an enormous swath of destruction. Governor Perdue declared a state of emergency -- and is getting ready to ask for federal assistance. She has been under vicious attack from the North Carolina Tea Party for vetoing legislation that would have repealed the federal health care law -- it will be interesting to see whether she gets an equally vigorous attack for accepting the federal aid that President Obama has made clear is on its way.

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