Shift in Senate Thinking on Climate Change

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Publication date: 
26 July 2005

Climate change has long been a staple of congressional hearings, with the discussion following generally well-established lines. A Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing last week indicates that a new approach may be forming, with some key senators not arguing about whether the Earth is warming, but rather seeking effective and affordable solutions to global climate change. The significance of this hearing is better understood when viewed with earlier debate on the Senate floor about what action the United States should take on global climate change.

It has been just over a month since the Senate rejected by a vote of 38 yes - 60 no an amendment offered by John McCain (R-AZ) and Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) to establish a system of tradeable allowances to reduce greenhouse gases. The vote on the 132-page McCain-Lieberman amendment occurred during consideration of the much-debated, much-stalled Energy Policy Act. Senators did agree to an amendment offered by Chuck Hagel (R-NE) to promote the adoption of technologies to reduce greenhouse gases, an approach criticized by some since reductions were not mandated. The roll call vote on the McCain-Lieberman amendment may be viewed at

The following day, the Senate approved by unanimous consent a two-page amendment offered by Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) that attracted less attention, but which may signal movement in the Senate. When introducing his amendment, Bingaman asked his Senate colleagues, "Can we at least get agreement that we have to put in place some type of system, some type of mandatory limits that will, in fact, begin to slow the rate of emissions, eventually stop the rate of emissions, and bring emissions down?" Bingaman continued, "This resolution is nothing but a sense-of-the-Senate resolution. But it is important that we pass it. In my opinion, it is important that we pass it because the Senate is on record in 1997 as voting unanimously against going forward with the Kyoto treaty. I was one of those who voted not to proceed with signing on to the Kyoto treaty. That does not mean we should not take this step. This step would be the responsible thing to do. It would say this Senate is resolved to move ahead and try to enact legislation that will deal with this serious problem. And we recognize that doing so will require some mandatory limits on emissions. I know that is something some Members in the Senate do not agree with. It is my hope that a majority of the Senate does agree with that, and it is my hope that a majority of the House of Representatives will agree with it, and that eventually we can persuade the administration to agree with this point of view as well. We need to move ahead with this issue – the sooner the better. This is a responsible way to do so. I very much appreciate the good faith with which my colleague, Senator Domenici, worked with me to see if there was something that could be jointly proposed to deal with this issue as part of the Energy bill. It was his conclusion - which is certainly understandable - that there was too much complexity involved at this point and too many unanswered questions for us to proceed with an amendment to solve the problem as part of the Energy bill. But I am very pleased that he is willing to cosponsor this sense-of-the-Senate resolution, indicating that even though we are not able to do it as an amendment to the Energy bill, we can in fact plan to go ahead."

The modified text of Senator Bingaman's amendment is as follows:


(a) Findings.-Congress finds that-

(1) greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere are causing average temperatures to rise at a rate outside the range of natural variability and are posing a substantial risk of rising sea-levels, altered patterns of atmospheric and oceanic circulation, and increased frequency and severity of floods and droughts;
(2) there is a growing scientific consensus that human activity is a substantial cause of greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere; and
(3) mandatory steps will be required to slow or stop the growth of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.

(b) Sense of the Senate.-It is the sense of the Senate that Congress should enact a comprehensive and effective national program of mandatory, market-based limits and incentives on emissions of greenhouse gases that slow, stop, and reverse the growth of such emissions at a rate and in a manner that-
(1) will not significantly harm the United States economy; and
(2) will encourage comparable action by other nations that are major trading partners and key contributors to global emissions."

Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) was not persuaded, stating, "Everybody here knows if you establish a position on a bill that is very meaningful, such as the bill that was defeated - the McCain-Lieberman bill - you can turn around and vote for a sense of the Senate and play both sides. Essentially, I think that is what happened here. Very clearly, a sense of the Senate doesn't do anything except offer cover."

Inhofe outlined his objections to the Bingaman amendment, citing the now much-in-the-news research by Mann and colleagues (see as follows: "I don't know how many times we have to say that, since 1999, the science that was assumed to be true, based on the 1998 revelation of Michael Mann on the very famous ‘hockey stick' theory, has been refuted over and over again. We have the energy and environment report that came out in 2003 that says the original Mann papers contain collation errors, unjustifiable truncations of extrapolation of source data, obsolete data, geographical location errors, incorrect calculations of the principal components, and other quality control defects. It goes on to say that while studying Mann's calculation methods, McIntyre and McKitrick found that Mann's component calculation used only one series in a certain part of the calculation said to be serious. They discovered that this unusual method nearly always produces a hockey stick shape, regardless of what information is put into it. We had the charts out less than an hour ago. It is very clear that if you plot the temperature, as he did over the period of the last hundred years, it shows a fairly level line, until it comes to the 20th century, and it goes up. That is the blade on the hockey stick. That shows that temperatures start increasing after the turn of the century. What he failed to put on the chart was the medieval warming period, which was from about 1000 A.D. to 1350 A.D. During that time, nobody refutes the fact that temperatures were higher then than they are in this century."

Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM) spoke after Inhofe, and explained his sponsorship of the Bingaman amendment as follows, first citing a speech by President George Bush: "the President said that we should proceed to reduce carbon greenhouse gases by 18 percent through 2012 on a voluntary basis, and thereafter we should use incentives and other ways to accomplish further reduction. First, I think that means the President of the United States is saying we should reduce carbon greenhouse gases. In fact, he, in a sense, is saying that is a good thing. In fact, he said recently we are doing it. ‘We are going to meet the goal,' said the President. When I was trying to put together a [energy policy bill] package, I was recognizing everything the President said, and I was recognizing that voluntary is the best way. Then I was saying: What if we do not get there when the voluntary time arrives? So anybody who suggests there is nobody around who thinks this is a problem, why is the President saying we ought to reduce them if there is no problem? Are we just doing it because it is the flavor of the times? I don't think so. I think the President is saying we ought to get on with doing it. He thinks there is a way to do it, and he thinks voluntary is doing it, and I do not argue with him." Domenici continued, "As a matter of fact, I think anybody who tries to start capping in any way one chooses to call capping early is mistaken because the United States of America is doing many things with many dollars on many fronts to reduce greenhouse gases. The question is, Do we do anything if we are unsuccessful in achieving some goal? As I read what I have agreed to help Senator Bingaman with, it says there is a problem. It says we ought to do something to reduce the problem, and it is says precisely that ‘it is the sense of the Senate that Congress' - it does not even say when - ‘that Congress,' not next year, ‘that Congress should enact a comprehensive and effective national program of mandatory, market-based limits.' Then it says, ‘and incentives on emissions of greenhouse gases,' that do what? ‘. . . that slow, stop, and reverse the growth of such emissions,' and then it says - these are the goals, the concerns - that it will not significantly harm the economy." In Domenici's conclusion he stated, " Likewise, I am on this [Bingaman] amendment because it is making a statement with reference to this issue. I, frankly, believe the time has come for some of us to make a statement regarding this issue, and I choose this one."

Inhofe tried to prevent the Senate from considering the Bingaman's amendment by seeking to have it tabled. That effort failed, with 44 senators voting "yea" to table the amendment, and 53 senators voting "nay" to proceed with its consideration. The amendment then passed. The roll call vote on the motion to table the Bingaman amendment can be viewed at:
Note that senators who were in support of the amendment voted "nay" against the motion to table.

The July 21 full hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee was held in one of the largest hearing rooms on Capitol Hill, and it was standing-room-only. Two panels of witnesses were scheduled, but the interplay between the senators and the witnesses was so extensive that Chairman Domenici asked the second panel if they could be rescheduled. Domenici called this hearing "very significant," and then in words that were also significant, said that he had "come to accept, something is happening." While acknowledging that other senators disagreed, Domenici stated "prudence warrants we consider this issue." This hearing, he said, would be the first of a series of committee actions "to get into the middle of this issue," saying that questions to be answered in the future will revolve around "what, how, who, and when." In his introductory remarks, Bingaman commented that he hoped this first hearing will be the beginning of deliberative action on climate change.

The committee heard from four prominent witnesses: Ralph Cicerone, President, National Academy of Sciences; Mario Molina of the University of California; Jim Hurrell of the National Center for Atmospheric Research; and Sir John Houghton who had a major role in writing of the last report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. All of the witnesses agreed that while uncertainties exist, the Earth is warming, with human activity a significant cause of this warming.
(The testimony may be read at )

The lively question-and-answer session that followed the witnesses' testimony demonstrates the range of senatorial opinion about climate change. Senator Larry Craig (R-ID) said that he had "grown to believe that there is a substantial human effect on the environment," added that it was very important for scientists "to get it right," and asked the witnesses if they were prepared to support a wide expansion of nuclear energy. Two of the witnesses replied that there was no one solution, and that every option should be considered. Craig Thomas (R-WY) asked the witnesses about the "hockey stick"research. Houghton replied that while there is always scientific debate about any finding, that there was "no question" there had been warming since 1860 when temperature records are studied, and that proxy data from various sources since the year 1000 revealed warming, saying the finding was "not an issue." Thomas pointed to the high level of U.S. spending for research on climate science as an indication that the federal government was responding to concerns about climate change.

Lamar Alexander (R-TN) spoke of a goal to solve the climate change problem in a generation, and chided scientists for their wide-ranging views on how to achieve this. There is no way to do so, the senator told the witnesses, without an aggressive strategy on energy conservation and nuclear power. Scientists would be much more persuasive, he said, if they could get behind a single approach. Alexander is a very strong supporter of nuclear energy.

Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) told the witnesses, "I don't need to be converted . . . I see it in my own state" of Alaska. She praised scientific models on climate change.

Chairman Domenici wrapped up the hearing. He began by saying that Alexander was on the right track on nuclear energy, predicting that a nuclear plant would be ordered within three years. The question, he said, was how do we solve this problem? It will not be easy, he said, and called for "calm expertise." "We live on energy . . . I am not going to join the crowd that says it is simple" to solve, the chairman declared. Domenici stated that a Kyoto approach would not work. In his responses, one of the witnesses predicted that nuclear energy could be a significant part of the solution. In his answer Sir John Houghton told Domenici that the world was looking to the United States to provide leadership on global climate change.

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