Health & Science

Al Franken’s Devastating Strategy For Taking on Trump’s Team of Climate Science Deniers

Knowledge of climate science plus mastery of storytelling is a rare combination.

Al Franken’s Strategy For Taking on Trump’s Climate Deniers

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), pictured here during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Neil Gorsuch on March 21, 2017, takes on climate science deniers by knowing what he's talking about — and telling a good story. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

This post originally appeared at Think Progress.

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) has emerged as one of Congress’ most devastating questioners of the myriad climate science deniers who fill President Donald Trump’s Cabinet.

And it’s largely because the comedian-turned-senator combines two abilities rarely seen together — actual knowledge of climate science and genuine communications chops. Franken knows how to tell a good story, and as the best science communicators will tell you, the best messaging requires storytelling.

Just last week Franken dismantled Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in one hearing, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry in another. And by dismantled, I mean his doggedness drove Zinke to spout nonsense answers that a top climatologist called “stupid and ignorant,” while it drove Perry to simply lose his cool — a take-down that has since gone viral.

What Franken does is construct a narrative based on a series of connected points. First, he quotes Zinke’s (false) statements that the vanishing glaciers at Glacier National Park have undergone a “consistent melt” since the end of the last ice age. But, Franken explains, “scientists who work for you” have found the melting has “dramatically accelerated” in recent decades.

A viewer doesn’t have to know much about climate science to see who knows what they’re talking about and who is afraid of the truth.

Therefore, Franken says, “I’m concerned on whether you are clear about the magnitude of warming that is occurring.” This leads naturally to the one simple question he repeatedly tries to get Zinke to answer: “Can you tell me how much warming government scientists predict for the end of the century under a business-as-usual scenario?”

Zinke refuses to answer this question on the consequences of the Trump administration’s policies to kill domestic and global climate action. Indeed, he sputters out a series of mangled climate science denier talking points while continuing to dodge the question.

A viewer doesn’t have to know much about climate science to see who knows what they’re talking about and who is afraid of the truth.

Again, Franken constructs a narrative. First, he notes that during Perry’s confirmation hearing, Perry said the climate was changing. But then last Monday on CNBC, Perry denied the overwhelming scientific consensus that carbon dioxide is the primary driver of climate change.

Therefore, the natural question is: “So if the climate is changing and if you disagree that CO2 is the primary driver, what do you think is driving the change?

Fans of Randy Olson’s must-read book — Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story — will note that with both Zinke and Perry, Franken is using the “and-but-therefore” structure that scientist-turned-filmmaker Olson recommends for constructing a narrative.

In this case, Perry steps into Franken’s trap. He repeats most of his nonsense answer from the CNBC interview, and then says we should have a “red team” exercise where scientists argue back and forth with a “blue team” on the issue.

Franken springs the trap: The conservative petrochemical billionaires Charles and David Koch had already funded a “red team” of skeptical scientists, which concluded what the rest of the scientific community had already figured out, humans are essentially the entire cause of all the recent warming.

But Perry is so uninformed when it comes to the actual science he calls into question, he can’t even believe it when those findings are presented to him. So he loses his composure and angrily asserts it is “just indefensible.” And then the moment goes viral.

Yes, these are very modest victories in a world where the Trump administration is launching an all-out assault on the climate. But exposing the falsehoods and misinformation of the majority for all to see is one of the minority’s few levers of power in Congress. Few excel at it better than Al Franken.

Joe Romm

Dr. Joe Romm is the founding editor of Climate Progress.