Hearing All Sides
Senators Quiz Climate Activists, Skeptics
The first legislative hearing we ever heard of on the subject of global warming was held on a blistering Washington, D.C., summer day in 1988, when then-Colorado Congressman Tim Wirth later admitted opening the hearing-room windows the night before so the air conditioning would be overwhelmed and the audience would swelter.
No such stage-management took place at the most recent hearing, before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works July 18. But against the backdrop of a new Obama administration initiative to regulate Earth’s climate through the Environmental protection Agency (EPA), it didn’t lack for interest.
Evident in this latest installment of the federal government’s multi-act climate drama was the fact that there are more than two sides to the global warming issue. Based on the testimony, we identified at least three.
Coming In From the Bench
The Senate and House of Representatives don’t figure in the climate plans announced by President Obama in a Georgetown University speech June 25. The speech itself was short on specifics, though on earlier occasions the president has advocated reducing carbon dioxide emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.
More substantive comments on the administration’s plans appeared in a New York Times preview story the morning of the speech. Harvard Geochemist and White House adviser Daniel Schrag was quoted saying, “The one thing the president really needs to do now is to begin the process of shutting down the conventional coal plants. Politically, the White House is hesitant to say they’re having a war on coal. On the other hand, a war on coal is exactly what’s needed.”
Having seen a carbon dioxide cap-and-trade proposal die without coming to a vote in the Democrat-controlled Senate four years ago and with little momentum for a carbon tax in either house, the administration’s announced intention is to bypass Congress and enact its policies through EPA regulation.
Nevertheless, in mid-July, Senate Environment and Public Works Chair Barbara Boxer (D–CA) gaveled her committee to order and took testimony from a range of witnesses, all energetic advocates for one or another view of the state of Earth’s climate.
Introducing the hearing—titled “Climate Change: It’s Happening Now,” Boxer pulled no punches. The predicted impacts of climate change “are coming true before our eyes,” she said, and this “puts our environment and public health at risk, and the long-term risks are enormous.” Moreover, she said, “Human activities are the primary cause. That is what I believe.”
Majority Democrats and minority Republicans spoke in turn. Ranking Minority Member David Vitter (R–LA) complained that there would be no administration witnesses to testify about what he called their “sweeping climate action plan, which will undoubtedly tighten the federal government’s grip on our economy.”
Vitter said it would have been “useful to hear the exact, measurable benefits that the United States can expect from these [regulatory] actions,” and quoted former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson telling the same committee four years ago that action by the U.S. alone would have no effect on the climate.
Arguably the star witness for those favoring the administration’s plan was Dr. Heidi Cullen, chief climatologist at Climate Central and a former Weather Channel presenter who several years ago said meteorologists who question human-induced global warming should have their American Meteorological Society credentials revoked.
Cullen cited events including heat waves, droughts, heavy rain, and wildfires as consequences of human-induced carbon dioxide emissions warming the atmosphere, adding, “Climate models predict an alarming increase in Western wildfires in the coming years.”
Questioned by Vitter, who cited the decade-plus stall in global warming reported mainly by British media including the BBC and The Economist, Cullen responded, “The rise in global mean surface temperature has been slower over the past 15 years” but contended that instead of affecting the atmosphere, “the warming continues to penetrate into other components of our climate system,” notably the deep ocean below 2,300 feet.
Vitter began producing a series of graphs showing no recognizable trends in severe weather events, but Cullen argued that it would be a mistake to look to nationwide averages for signs of global warming, saying they would be more visible in regional trends.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R–AL) displayed a graph depicting the average of temperature trajectories predicted by 44 computerized climate models in current use, compared with actual, observed global temperature averages. The observational record shows temperatures since the late 1990s essentially flatlining within a range of 0.2 degrees, Celsius. The models had predicted they would continue rising through more than three times that range.
Cullen replied, “While we’ve seen this slowdown in warming in the past 15 years, the warming increases; it’s still increasing, and it’s going into other parts of our climate system.”
Research Professor Jennifer Francis of the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University backed up Cullen, acknowledging the 15-year slowdown but pointing to “natural fluctuations in the ocean circulation that modulate this increase in temperature over time. Things like El Niño, we know, tends to increase the global average temperature, whereas La Niña has the opposite effect.”
Dr. Roger Pielke, Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder, testified that his work with extreme weather and climate began at the nearby National Center for Atmospheric Research 20 years ago. Pielke said he would give the senators seven “take-home points.” All seven, he said, are “consistent with what’s been reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” (IPCC) yet they collide head-on with conventional wisdom.
Pielke said it is “misleading and just plain incorrect” to say hurricane, tornado, flood, or drought damage have increased “on climate time scales either in the United States or globally.” Globally, he said, weather-related losses have actually declined about 25 percent as a proportion of GDP since 1990. “Hurricanes have not increased in the U.S. in frequency or intensity or normalized damage since at least 1900, Pielke said, adding that the same is true of tropical cyclones globally since 1970, the period of reference limited by the availability of good data. Floods, he said, “have not increased in the United States in frequency or intensity since at least 1950,” and “tornadoes have not increased in frequency, intensity, or normalized damage since at least 1950 and there’s some evidence to suggest they’ve actually declined.” Drought, Pielke said, quoting the IPCC, has “for the most part become shorter, less frequent, and covered a smaller portion of the U.S. over the last century.” Quoting Nature, Pielke said that globally, “there has been little change in drought over the past 60 years.” And finally, he said, “It is nonetheless a fact that the absolute cost of disasters will increase significantly in coming years no matter what you think about climate change or a human role in it, simply due to greater wealth and populations exposed in locations that are prone to extremes.”
Then the kicker: Calling global warming an “intensely politicized” issue, Pielke asked that his remarks “not be misconstrued” and said, “Humans influence the climate in profound ways, including through carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel combustion.” On the other hand, he said, “Some activists, politicians, journalists, corporate and government agency representatives, and even scientists who should know better have made claims that are just unsupportable based on evidence and research.”
Those “false claims,” he said, could “lead to bad decision-making.”
Something for Everyone
Irrespective of individual views on global warming, anyone could have heard plenty that they wanted to hear—and plenty that they didn’t want to hear—over the course of nearly four hours’ testimony and questioning from senators firmly dug in on their respective sides of the issue.
Wyoming Republican John Barrasso said 40 percent of the nation’s electricity supply will be affected by EPA rules due out next year to regulate existing power plants, compliance costs will reach $130 billion, and there will be indirect job losses due to rising energy costs. Barrasso quoted then-candidate Barack Obama telling the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board in 2008: “Under my plan of a cap-and-trade system, electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket.”
But Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse said, “Climate change is happening now, the consequences are real, and we here in Congress should be working to slow the known cause of that change, the incessant dumping of carbon pollution into our atmosphere and oceans.”
Meanwhile, Vitter had entered into the committee record what he said was an e-mail from Ken Berlin of the White House energy and environmental team, listing things that shouldn’t be discussed when promoting the administration’s plan. Among subjects not to be talked about, Vitter said—adding that he was quoting directly from the e-mail—were “straight economic arguments,” “regulations to control greenhouse gas emissions from power plants,” “the validity or consensus of the science that is already settled,” “the need to regulate industry and shut down power plants,” “the increase in electricity rates,” and the admonition to not “overpromise on impacts taking action will have.”
Evidently, the discussions won’t take long.—Dave Hoopman, director of regulatory affairs, Electric Division, Cooperative Network