Senate Hearing Demonstrates Wide Disagreement About Climate Change

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Publication date: 
3 October 2005

Last week's hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee provided fresh evidence of the wide disagreement there is about whether the Earth's climate is changing, and the extent to which human activity is responsible for this change.

The committee's announcement about this hearing said only that it would "discuss the role of science in environmental policy making." No witness list was provided. Nevertheless, the large hearing room was filled to capacity with the public spilling out into the hallway. Although initial topics ranged as widely as the ban on DDT and the Endangered Species Act, the hearing quickly centered on global climate change.

Chairman James M. Inhofe's (R-OK) position on this topic is unambiguous, as he has previously described the threat of catastrophic global warming as the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." The hearing did not reveal any change in the chairman's thinking.

The lead witness, author Michael Crichton, attracted the most interest from the senators. Crichton's novel, "State of Fear," takes issue with the theory that human activity is causing global climate warming. Also testifying was Professor William Gray of Colorado State University, best known as a hurricane forecaster, who has serious doubts about the ability of scientists to forecast global climate change. Witnesses taking a different approach were Richard Benedick of the National Council for Science and the Environment and David Sandalow of The Brookings Institution. Testifying about the DDT ban and its effect on malaria outbreaks was Donald Roberts of the University of the Health Services.

Inhofe opened the hearing by saying of the witnesses that they were "a real heavy group." He criticized efforts that were "pushing people's political agenda," and spoke of the need to use "sound science" in policymaking decisions. Ranking Minority Member Jim Jeffords (I-VT) expressed his support for Chairman Inhofe, but then asked, "given the profound suffering and ecological damage along the Gulf Coast, why are we having a hearing that features a fiction writer as our key witness?" Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) charged that the hearing "will muddy the issues," noted Crichton's book was fiction, and his views not subjected to peer review. Senator Christopher Bond (R-MO) and Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) both discussed damage that had been done to their states' economies by what they termed faulty science underlying policy decisions. Bond criticized the "media hype" surrounding some issues.

Crichton called for the independent verification of scientific research, criticizing climate research for not being conducted as vigorously as medical testing. He said climate change should not be ignored, but that future research should have higher quality standards. Benedick, the Reagan Administration's chief negotiator on the Montreal CFC Protocol, explained that policymakers must act sometimes without complete scientific certainty.

Gray was emphatic in his remarks. Standing, unconventionally, to address the senators and the audience, he criticized the "hype" about climate change, saying he was "appalled at what has come forth." Gray charged members of association boards issuing statements warning of climate change "don't know much," and that researchers "have the basic physics wrong." Gray said it is impossible to model fully the atmosphere, making it impossible to project the earth's climate in ten to fifteen years.

Sandalow urged Congress to request a National Academy of Sciences' study on extreme weather events. He also wants the National Academy to examine the state of global climate change research.

Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) asked pointed questions. She charged that the work of many researchers had been maligned, taking direct issue with Grey's criticism. Under persistent questioning from Boxer, Grey admitted that only "some" of his papers had been published, and only a "couple" peer-reviewed. Boxer said that her staff had not been able to find any work by Gray on global warming that had been peer-reviewed. During later questioning, Gray said that his proposals had been rejected 13 times, pointing to "general brainwashing" in scientific journals and the media as the reason why his climate change research had not been funded. Regarding Crichton, Boxer said that his book was fiction, and cannot be used to make policy.

Perhaps the only person holding the middle ground was Senator Murkowski. In her opening remarks she had complained that faulty research had led to bad decisions affecting Alaska's fishing and minerals industries. But her later remarks had a different tone. While saying "prediction is not fact," and noting that various studies and reports are less than conclusive, she spoke of changes she has witnessed in Alaska and declared, "we are experiencing climate change."

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