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Climate-change play funded by feds heats up the skeptics

WASHINGTON – A new play about climate change opened Thursday in New York that’s part thriller, part musical, part educational and all controversial.

It’s backed by Uncle Sam.

The National Science Foundation, a federal agency, usually funds research projects. But in a rare move, it gave a nearly $700,000 grant for the play “The Great Immensity,” a mystery with music and songs that’s playing at New York’s Public Theater in Manhattan. The Brooklyn-based theater company that developed the play, The Civilians, also received two federal grants from the National Endowment for the Arts that totaled $65,000.

But the science agency grant, made in 2010, is really bugging Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

“I support NSF research that can lead to discoveries that change our world, expand our horizons and save lives,” said Smith. “But spending taxpayer dollars to fund a climate change musical called ‘The Great Immensity’ sounds more like an immense waste of taxpayer dollars, money that could have funded higher-priority research.”

Smith highlighted the $697,177 grant for the play at a congressional hearing this month as one of several questionable NSF grants, and he’s now pushing legislation that would require greater financial accountability from the agency.

Climate change is a term used to describe the weather shifts in the last 50 years attributed to higher levels of carbon dioxide from the use of fossil fuels. The tension between Smith, who questions the extent of climate change, and the play’s proponents underscores the political divide over global warming.

The play, designed to entertain as well as educate theater-goers, is “a continent-hopping thriller,” according to “The Great Immensity” website, that follows a woman who’s searching for her husband after he disappears from a tropical island while working for a nature program.

There’s more intrigue as she discovers a plot that may upend an international climate conference in Paris. The play covers a lot of ground, from the Panama Canal to the Arctic Circle.

Written and directed by Steve Cosson with songs by Michael Friedman, it’s described in a Public Theater release as “a highly theatrical look into one of the most vital questions of our time: How can we change ourselves and our society in time to solve the enormous environmental challenges that confront us?”

Smith doesn’t see it that way.

While the Texan is protesting the NSF grant because he thinks the money should be spent on science research, he’s also skeptical about climate change.