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Why is an MIT alum in Congress pretending he doesn’t know climate change is real?

Republicans really want to deny climate change — even when they should (and probably do) know better.

Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

“Are you serious?” former Secretary of State John Kerry asked Rep. Thomas Massie during a congressional hearing on Wednesday in which the Kentucky Republican seemingly tried to catch Kerry in a sort of “gotcha” moment about scientific credentials and climate change.

Whether or not Massie, who holds two engineering degrees from MIT, was serious is actually a good question.

To back up: Massie, who represents Kentucky’s Fourth Congressional District, made an attempt to discredit Kerry by getting him to admit that he had a bachelor’s degree in political science from Yale. The point he was trying to make, at least as far as anyone can tell, was that political science is not really a science, so Kerry shouldn’t be able to talk about climate change. To be sure, Kerry was never claiming to be a scientist, but here we are.

Massie quoted part of Kerry’s testimony in which he criticized President Donald Trump for convening what the former secretary called a “kangaroo court” to advise him on the threat climate change poses to national security.

“It sounds like you’re questioning the credentials of the president’s advisers currently,” Massie said. But rather than defend Trump’s advisers, he instead decided he wanted to question Kerry’s credentials. Here’s the exchange that followed:

Massie: Isn’t it true that you have a science degree from Yale?

Kerry: A bachelor of arts degree.

Massie: Is it a political science degree?

Kerry: Yes, political science.

Massie: So how do you get a bachelor of arts in a science?

Kerry: Well, it’s a liberal arts education and degree, it’s a bachelor.

Massie: Okay, so it’s not really science. So I think it’s somewhat appropriate that someone with a pseudoscience degree is here pushing pseudoscience in front of our committee today.

Kerry: Are you serious? I mean, this is really a serious happening here?

Massie: You know what? It is serious, you’re calling the president’s Cabinet a kangaroo court, is that serious?

Kerry: I’m not calling his Cabinet a kangaroo court, I’m calling this committee he’s putting together a kangaroo committee.

Massie: Are you saying he doesn’t have educated adults there now?

Kerry: I don’t know who it has yet, because it’s secret.

Later in the exchange, the two went on to debate scientific fact. Kerry pointed out that during the last 800,000 years, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have never been as high as they are today.

“The reason you chose 800,000 years ago is because for 200 million years before that, it was greater than it is today,” Massie said.

“Yeah, but there weren’t human beings. That was a different world, folks,” Kerry said.

After some back-and-forth, Massie asked Kerry whether geology stopped “when we got on the planet.”

“This is just not a serious conversation,” Kerry retorted, to laughter in the chamber.

The exchange quickly went viral. A tweet from former South Carolina state representative and political commentator Bakari Sellers calling it “the dumbest line of questioning in committee this year” picked up steam on the left.

“Is this the dumbest moment in congressional history?” Rolling Stone asked. Even Kerry got in a jab.

Massie has tried to claim victory. He claimed in a tweet on Thursday that Kerry “admitted he doesn’t have a science degree, even though his degree says ‘science.’”

He continued to argue about the issue with others on Twitter later in the day.

Here’s the thing: This is all very silly. Political science is a field of study, just like history or literature, and if Massie has a bone to pick with the name of the field, he should take it up with … academia? Kerry’s not claiming to be a climate scientist with his bachelor’s degree. He’s not claiming to be a scientist at all. But Kerry, a former senator from Massachusetts and secretary of state, is a longtime advocate of combating climate change. He signed the Paris climate agreement, from which Trump has now withdrawn the US.

But here’s the other thing: Massie probably knows that. He’s just acting like he doesn’t and has awkwardly dug himself into a hole.

Massie is an engineer who brags about designing energy sources for his house

Maybe there could be some benefit of the doubt for Massie if he had never come into contact with science. But he definitely has.

Massie, 48, holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. According to the biography on his congressional website, he “invented a technology that enabled people to interact with computers using their sense of touch” and out of that launched a company called SensAble Technologies, which he later sold. He has obtained two dozen patents.

On the “issues” page of his website, Massie claims that he is “keenly aware of the practical issues involved in energy production.” He says that he designed and built his own house, which “generates all of its own power using a combination of solar, geothermal, propane, and wood.

So as to Kerry’s baffled question in the midst of Wednesday’s hearing of whether or not Massie was “serious,” it’s hard to tell. On the one hand, the Kentucky Republican is, presumably, a very smart and well-educated guy, particularly in engineering and energy. On the other hand, he is a Tea Party conservative, and whatever he thinks about climate change — or the name of the political science field — it’s politically expedient to ignore it.

In a different scenario, it might make sense for someone like Massie, an engineer, to claim they know more than someone with a political science degree in a related field. But that’s not the point Massie was trying to make — he appears not to follow the science himself and instead was looking, in whatever confused way, to score political points.

But Massie hasn’t always acted this way.

In a 2012 interview with Science Magazine, just after he was first elected to the House of Representatives, Massie expressed some legitimate concern for the environment. He said he doesn’t like “pollution” because “the libertarian in me says that it’s a violation of property and privacy rights” and talked about the solar panels on his roof.

“Most of the public is still debating whether the earth is heating up,” he said. “But I think the real question is by how much? I’m still looking for an answer I can hold onto.”

Massie didn’t come down squarely on the side of climate change believers — he said the “jury is still out on the contribution of our activities to the change in the earth’s climate.” But he also said he was making an effort not to make things worse.

“To be on the safe side, I’ve got a thousand acres of trees on my property and I’m not going to cut them, even if that would be the profit-maximizing thing to do. And I don’t intend to cut them in my lifetime,” Massie said. “And I see a lot of people who outwardly seem more concerned with the environment but aren’t doing anything about it.”

Republicans don’t want to believe in climate change

Massie’s exchange with Kerry is, of course, a viral moment, but it’s also a teachable one: Climate change, according to the vast majority of scientists, is a very real problem, and one that should urgently be addressed. Humans are contributing. And yet many Republicans insist on ignoring it or deny it’s happening altogether.

Vox’s Dave Roberts last year dove into the various ways the GOP has denied and ignored climate change for years and the motivations behind it. His takeaway:

All the denialist talking points — nefarious scientists, sunspots, natural cycles — have their true believers in the base, among the chumps who drink the Kool-Aid and fill up the comment sections.

But the motive force is not any assessment of science. It’s the tight alliance between the cultural politics of white resentment and the power of fossil fuel and related industries. To acknowledge anthropogenic climate change is to empower liberals, open the door to additional taxes and regulations, and threaten the power of the fossil fuel industry.

The Republican Party as currently constituted will simply never do those things. Ever. The arguments are secondary.

So that’s how you end up with a guy like Massie, an MIT engineer, trying to undermine a serious conversation about climate change with a bad talking point on a random academic field. It doesn’t matter whether or not Massie knows better, because he’ll never say it either way.

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