Rohrabacher Challenges Implications of Global Warming

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Publication date: 
21 November 1995

In his second hearing on "Scientific Integrity and Public Trust,"
(see FYI #132 for a summary of the first hearing), House Science
Energy and Environment Chairman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) questioned
the accuracy of computer models of global warming and projections
of potential impacts.  Remarking on continuous revisions to
estimates of warming, he asked, "are we so certain...that we should
take actions that would change the lives of millions of our
citizens at a cost of untold millions of dollars?" 

Declaring that "this subcommittee has a duty to continue to present
balanced panels," Rohrabacher had invited witnesses with differing
opinions.  He also invited Vice President Gore to testify,
particularly to charges that the Administration stifled opposing
views on the issue, but Gore declined.  Rohrabacher and Rep. Lynn
Rivers (D-MI) clashed over this issue, as Rivers pointed out that
a witness who had made such an assertion in the previous hearing
was unwilling to follow up on her claim.

All seven witnesses on the two panels, regardless of their views on
global warming, agreed that continued research was vital.  No one
argued that climate change would not occur; instead, they disagreed
over the estimated amounts and effects, and the policy
implications.  Peter Guerrero of the General Accounting Office
explained that lack of knowledge about environmental processes like
cloud formation, and insufficient computing power, limited the
accuracy of computer models.  But he supported the scientific
consensus that continued unrestricted growth of greenhouse gas
emissions would lead to global warming.  The limitations of the
computer models, he said, "do not change the likelihood that the
climate will change."

Jerry Mahlman of NOAA agreed that "none of the uncertainties...can
make current concerns...go away.  The problem is very real, and
will be with us for a very long time."  However, Mahlman said that
society's responses to the threat were "value judgments" that were
beyond the realm of science.  Patrick Michaels of the University of
Virginia cast doubt on the models by pointing out that estimates of
potential warming had decreased over the years, but he called this
"a classic example of the normal tension" between theory and data.
Michaels felt the models did not yet account for all factors, and
concluded that "reports of grave ecological consequences" could not
be trusted. 

When asked by Rohrabacher whether they supported continued study,
all the witnesses agreed.  Michaels stressed the importance of
continuing to monitor the climate, and said he believed the
computer models and reality "were converging."  Mahlman concurred,
saying, "the simple truth is that no matter what opinions are, the
check for the theories is in the data."  He reported that the
ability to collect data had decreased in the most recent federal
budget.  While the cost of taking preventive actions might be very,
very high, he said, the cost of doing nothing might be prodigious.
He warned lawmakers, "there's no soft landing spot."  Rohrabacher
expressed skepticism of the projected impacts, saying that "mankind
has a way of developing new technologies that I believe...may well
solve the problem without huge government intervention."

Robert Watson, OSTP Associate Director of Environment, summarized
some major conclusions of the upcoming report by the International
Panel on Climate Change: the Earth's surface temperature has
increased approximately one-half degree centigrade over the past
century, and greenhouse gas concentrations, which tend to warm the
atmosphere, have increased due to human activities.  Concentrations
of sulfate aerosols, which tend to cool the atmosphere, have also
increased, possibly offsetting some greenhouse effects.  The
computer models simulate these effects quite well, Watson reported.
He noted that both the magnitude and rate of human-induced warming
would put new, additional stresses on ecological and socio-economic
systems, and argued that the problem could be addressed in a
cost-effective way.

William Nierenberg of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography
stated "there is no question in my mind that the current
anthropogenic growth of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is bound
to influence climate.  The question is not whether but when, how
much, and the nature and magnitude."  Nierenberg explained that as
more recent calculations implied a shorter lifetime for carbon
dioxide in the atmosphere (thus leading to a quicker response to
any remediation), he had changed his opinion to believe that "one
can now safely wait...before taking action."  Thomas Moore, an
economist at Stanford's Hoover Institution, drew a correlation
between past periods of warming and instances of increased
population growth and human development.  He concluded that global
warming would be generally beneficial to the human race.  Rivers
inquired, "if the equation is simply that warmer equals better,"
why are most equatorial nations third-world countries?  Moore
replied that due to technological innovation, climate has less
influence on human development today than in the past.  Rivers
asked whether he could be certain that temperature increases due to
carbon dioxide emissions would produce the same results as past
periods of warming.  Moore could not be sure, but said that carbon
dioxide levels had been higher millions of years ago.  "When there
were no people," Rivers added.  Moore answered, "Yes, but the Earth
didn't burn up."

Rep. John Olver (D-MA) responded to Moore's thesis by citing
examples of warming adversely affecting climates.  Watson warned
that health experts believe warming would cause malaria to
flourish, and noted that the Earth was already experiencing an
increase in droughts and floods.  Nierenberg chided the scientific
community for not taking into account human inventiveness, saying,
"I believe we will come up with some cure for malaria in the next
100 years." 

Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) admitted that "prevention is far cheaper
and generally far better than anything we can do" afterwards.
Nierenberg agreed that, in the short term, society should curtain
emissions, "even if it costs a little bit."  Ehlers also expressed
concern over the charge that the Administration only supported
"politically-correct science."  Watson responded that they were
"trying very, very hard to get a wide range of peer-review" to make
that concern "a non-issue."  He added that "science only progresses
when you get a wide range of views."

Rohrabacher ended the session by stating that he was "more
skeptical now than before the hearing....  I find it impossible to
understand that it's as significant as you say it is."

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