The news: We don't expect all politicians to hold Ph.D.s in astronomy — but at the minimum, in a debate about climate change, we expect them to be able to tell Earth and Mars apart.
Such is not the case for state Sen. Brandon Smith, a Republican majority whip for the Kentucky legislature. During a Natural Resources and Environment Committee meeting on Thursday, Smith — who happens to be the owner of a mining company — launched into a bizarre argument against President Barack Obama's introduction of carbon emission regulations. See if you can make sense of this quote:
"As you [Energy & Environment Cabinet official] sit there in your chair with your data, we sit up here in ours with our data and our constituents and stuff behind us. I won't get into the debate about climate change but I'll simply point out that I think in academia we all agree that the temperature on Mars is exactly as it is here. Nobody will dispute that. Yet there are no coal mines on Mars. There's no factories on Mars that I'm aware of."
... What? As a matter of fact, academia would very much dispute Smith's assertion: according to NASA, Earth's average temperature is 57 degrees Fahrenheit, while the Red Planet is decidedly cooler at -81 degrees Fahrenheit.
On Twitter, Smith asserted that his comment was taken out of context. What he meant to say was that the increase in temperature on Earth is comparable to that of other planets: according to his logic, if Mars doesn't have carbon emissions but is still getting warmer, that means carbon emissions on Earth don't have any effect at all.
That argument might be more convincing if there were evidence of planet-wide rising temperatures on Mars,.But so far, there is no indication that climate change is affecting other planets in the solar system — largely because very little historical data of other planets' climates exist. Scientists only have Mars temperature records starting from the 1970s, making it nearly impossible to theorize about its long term climate patterns.
This is why we need science education. While Smith's line of argument may be bizarre, many of his colleagues at the same meeting expressed beliefs that seemed similarly divorced from scientific consensus. One Republican legislator alleged that "there hasn't been global warming in 15 or 20 years," while another used the extinction of dinosaurs as evidence that man-made climate change is not real. "To say that this is what's going to cause detriment to people, I just don't think it's out there," said state Rep. Kevin Sinnette.
Though overwhelming scientific evidence does indicate that climate change has natural causes, the process is also being exacerbated and accelerated by man-made factors. The fact that lawmakers cannot make this distinction does not bode well for the climate change debate in Kentucky, whose legislature may need an educational visit from Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson.