This climate change denier was given a platform by a Kansas senator. We must do better.

February 16, 2022 3:33 am

Robert Bryce presents to the Kansas Senate Utilities Committee on Jan. 19. (Kansas Reflector screen capture of Kansas Legislature YouTube channel)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Joel Campbell is a second-year engineering student at the University of Kansas and has been a member of the Sunrise Movement for more than a year. Noah Hookstra is an undergraduate student at KU pursuing degrees in secondary education and history.

On Jan. 19, Robert Bryce gave a presentation to the Kansas Senate Utilities Committee. Bryce is a known climate change denier. He’s spent much of his professional career writing and speaking on how he believes renewable energy will never be viable, and he now has a regular podcast describing this issue. Bryce was also a part of a fossil-fuel funded think tank called the Manhattan Institute for nearly a decade.

On his own, Bryce is concerning. People paid by corporations to spread misinformation seem to be more and more common each day.  

But he isn’t doing this by himself. The chairman of the Kansas Senate Utilities Committee, Mike Thompson, invited Bryce to speak to the committee about renewable energy. A man who peddles misinformation for personal gain should not be presenting in front of a Senate committee. So why is he?

In short: we’ve elected the wrong people. The science on climate change has been clear for decades, and it’s only becoming easier to believe as we see increasingly powerful natural disasters. Fossil fuel corporations — the ones really at fault — have a stake in making sure that not many people understand this, and so pay those like Bryce to mislead. This means that every politician against climate change action has either been lied to or bribed by the fossil fuel industry, because the facts are in plain sight. 

The chairman of the Utilities Committee, Thompson, is a climate change denier like Bryce. This is rather shocking, given he was a meteorologist for nearly 40 years. But it doesn’t stop there. He has stated that the COVID-19 vaccine is “introducing basically an autoimmune disease into your body” (which is false), as well as that people who are vaccinated “shouldn’t worry” about who else is vaccinated (subsequently ignoring further questioning about children and immunocompromised people who cannot get the vaccine). 

Kansas Sen. Mike Thompson, seen at the Statehouse on Jan. 26, is chairman of the Senate Utilities Committee. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

This paints him as a man fully disconnected from scientific reality.

Kansans have elected this man, who now leads the Senate Utilities Committee, which presides over bills relating to renewable energy. It’s no surprise, then, that Thompson would invite someone like Bryce to speak.

The speech itself was full of misleading information. There are too many small problems to get into in such a short space, but the main point of Bryce’s argument seems to be that renewable energy fails too often and is too expensive to be worth it. He cites the much larger cost of renewable electricity for customers compared with fossil fuels, as well as the Texas power grid’s near failure during the winter storm in 2021. While both of these things are true, the conclusions he draws are incredibly simplistic and miss the real root of these issues.

First, the higher cost of renewable electricity doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with renewable energy itself. In fact, as interest in renewables grows and technological advancements are made, sustainable energy generation has become much cheaper. Nevertheless, the cost of such electricity remains much higher than that generated by fossil fuels.

There’s a simple reason for this. As it turns out, only 44% of the cost of electricity from renewable sources comes from generation itself. The rest of these costs come from our outdated electrical grid. Renewable sources such as solar and wind generate more energy at different times, requiring new kinds of distribution and transmission stations. Lack of battery storage for energy means these variable-intensity energy sources may cause fluctuations in the grid, meaning energy might need to be generated or purchased elsewhere.

Bryce seems to ignore this, instead concluding that renewables are just too unreliable. Clearly, though, modernizing our grid — something that already needs to happen with our ever-increasing energy consumption — is the way to solve these problems.

However, Bryce asks, what about Texas? The state’s grid nearly failed due to an unprecedented winter storm (ironically caused by climate change, the very thing Bryce and Thompson deny exists), and there were tons of wind turbines that froze over and solar panels covered in snow.

He’s only partially right. Wind and solar did fail in significant ways — but so did fossil fuels. According to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (under the “Generation Capacity Fuel Type” heading), natural gas failed much more than any other source of generation.

The problem with the storm was that every source failed. That’s why it was so devastating. This could have also been completely prevented by implementing basic regulations, which Texas actively refused to do. The state’s grid is deliberately disconnected from larger grids in the United States to avoid federal regulation, and the statewide regulations are relatively lax. Unsurprisingly, a lack of infrastructure weatherization led to failures in last February’s conditions. Once again, Bryce has missed the actual point in favor of promoting his own agenda.

As Bryce wraps up his talk, he mentioned that Thompson encouraged him to advertise his podcast and books, and then takes the opportunity to point us to an affiliate link that makes him more money if we use it. This behavior, both from Thompson and from Bryce, is inexcusable. Thompson gave a climate denier the chance to make money off of a Kansas Senate meeting and Bryce eagerly took advantage of it.

As Bryce wraps up his talk, he mentioned that Thompson encouraged him to advertise his podcast and books, and then takes the opportunity to point us to an affiliate link that makes him more money if we use it. This behavior, both from Thompson and from Bryce, is inexcusable.

– Joel Campbell and Noah Hookstra

Thankfully, not every senator is like Thompson. Ethan Corson, a Democrat from Prairie Village, voiced his concern that Bryce had a history of being funded by the fossil fuel industry. Bryce’s entire demeanor switched immediately, and he became flustered and defensive. While people like Corson may be outnumbered by people like Thompson in the Kansas Legislature, they definitely have power and support.

Youth activism has only increased in the Legislature, and we’re proud to be among their ranks. We’re members of the Sunrise Movement — a youth-led political action group dedicated to stopping climate change by enacting the Green New Deal. Our organization is of the community and for the community, and we’ve proven this by pushing for climate action on a local scale. We advocated for Lawrence to adopt the five principles of the Green New Deal, have held multiple rallies for climate change and are in contact with Lawrence’s local government about policies on climate justice.

This movement isn’t exclusive to Sunrise — far from it. In fact, Sunrise and several other organizations have formed the Kansas Youth Power Coalition to make youth voices heard at the state level. We’re making an effort to read each bill that comes from the Legislature, pressure those who would ignore our points of view, and fight for our futures. Groups including Sunrise Lawrence, Loud Light URGE, and other members of the Kansas Youth Power Coalition have had enough of the Mike Thompsons of the world. Serving as a new “arsenal of democracy,” our young voices will reach the ears of lawmakers.

Our coalition is hosting a Youth Advocacy Summit from Feb. 28 to March 4. Each of our organizations will be hosting its own meetings and meetings covering a wide variety of issues. A livable, decent future for all isn’t too much to ask.

We’re defending our future: Will you join us?

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Joel Campbell
Joel Campbell

Joel Campbell is a second-year engineering student at the University of Kansas and has been a member of the Sunrise Movement for more than a year. He also enjoys playing music and sewing in his free time.

Noah Hookstra
Noah Hookstra

Noah Hookstra is an undergraduate student at the University of Kansas pursuing degrees in secondary education and history. He is an active member of the community and is involved in Sunrise LFK, the Dole Institute of Public Policy and is a resident assistant at KU.