House Science Chairman Boehlert on Climate Change Legislative Outook

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Publication date: 
6 October 2006

"Scientists have to engage."So said House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) at the recent Climate Institute's Washington Summit on Climate Stabilization. Boehlert, who will be retiring at the end of this session of Congress, has long been known for his straight talk on a variety of subjects. His speech offered an unusually clear review of the political outlook in Washington and the states, and the role that scientists should play. Selections of his address follow; paragraphs have been combined in the interest of space.


"I know that yesterday you heard from some of the world's leading scientists about the frightening possibility that the earth's climate may change more quickly and abruptly than expected, and whether there's anything that can be done to avoid that. . . . Instead, I'm going to talk about the frightening possibility that Washington's political climate may not change more quickly and abruptly than expected, and whether there's anything that can be done to avoid that.

"Certainly, without abrupt political climate change, it's going to be next to impossible to do anything about global climate change. Let me hasten to add that by calling for ‘political climate change,' I'm not covertly advocating a change in political party control. There are segments of both parties that support action to address climate change, and segments in both parties that don't.

"But right now, those of us who seek action are confronted by ideology, by fear, by a reluctance to lead, by apathy, by comfort with the status quo. All of that has to change, and I think it is beginning to change."


". . . all of us who want to see some action on climate change have our work cut out for us. In the House, many, perhaps even most Members, still question whether climate change is a genuine phenomenon. The scientific consensus has simply not pierced through the ideological barriers. And there are briefings almost weekly sponsored by groups that argue that climate change science is some kind of environmental conspiracy, and they bring seemingly credentialed people forward to make their claims. We've even had to confront the situation where Members of Congress have tried to investigate scientists whose views made them uncomfortable." (See .)


"I should say that the White House position has been far more nuanced than that of most House Members. The President has stayed within the bounds laid out in the 2001 National Academy of Sciences report on climate change that he requested (see .) The emphasis of the White House view changes a little depending on who is speaking, but the White House has not been in the camp of those who deny climate change, although it has shied away from mandatory action to combat climate change - unfortunately, in my view. Now, we're seeing rumors in the media that the White House may be planning a major climate announcement in the next few weeks. I have no idea if that is true.

"I'm more concerned about how the Administration is implementing its existing climate plans and programs. Our Science Committee's Energy Subcommittee has a hearing later today, for example, on the Administration's strategic plan for the Climate Change Technology Program, or CCTP." (To be reviewed in future FYI.)

"But I am not a big fan of the strategic plan, which is more of an inventory of existing programs and a wish list of possible future ones, than a planning document with clear priorities. Moreover, as is often the case with this Administration, the plan is silent on what policies might be necessary to actually get new or improved technologies into the marketplace." "But the good news is that the Administration understands that we need new technologies to address climate change, and that the government has a role in developing them."


" . . . the Senate, though it pains me to say it, has been the leader on climate change policy, albeit with minimal results. Legislation that is explicitly designed to address climate change has at least come up for a vote in the Senate - something that is almost inconceivable in the House. And bills like the McCain-Lieberman cap-and-trade proposal have done respectably, although they have not been passed. One of the most hopeful events in Washington related to climate change all year was the all-day session that Senator Domenici and Senator Bingaman held back in April to have serious discussions about how greenhouse gas emissions might be regulated. At that session, not only the senators, but also key business leaders, expressed openness to finding ways to control emissions."


"And an even more hopeful sign is what's been happening in the states. California and the northeastern states are trying to take concrete action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And many other states and localities have expressed interest in reducing their emissions. Given the way states compete for jobs and the fact that the impacts of greenhouse gases are felt internationally, not locally, this state interest is not what one would expect. But it's a sign that the public is beginning to sense that this is a problem that must be addressed."

[On September 26, 104 Democratic and Republican representatives sent a letter to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson requesting that EPA allow states to establish new automobile pollution standards to reduce emissions contributing to global warming. A copy of this letter can be viewed (copy and paste URL) at:]


" . . .the key to creating abrupt political change will be to further engage, educate and inspire the public. Politicians are responsive to public opinion, even in this day and age of political manipulation and multinational corporations. In fact, in this era of the Internet and constant polling, politicians may be, if anything, too responsive to momentary shifts in public opinion.

"So what's needed is for scientists and politicians and concerned business leaders to redouble our efforts to reach out to the public through as many different forums as possible. Complacent satisfaction with our own right beliefs won't carry the day.

"The abolitionist Wendell Phillips famously said, ‘One man on the side of God is a majority.' But while that no doubt got Phillips through some lonely times, the anti-slavery advocates didn't gain political influence until they won more converts.

"So scientists have to engage. And what scientists say needs to be clear and accurate and modulated and persuasive. Hyperbolic claims will only diminish scientific credibility over time. Scientists have to be clear about what we know, and about what we don't. They need to be ‘up front' about uncertainties - and about the potential costs of waiting until all uncertainties are resolved. (I always quote former Governor Tom Kean's line about acid rain. He said that if all we do is continue to study acid rain, ‘we'll have the best documented environmental disaster in history.') We need to lay out an argument for action, but we won't win by mimicking the opposition's tendencies toward rhetorical excess."


"And we need to keep in mind that if we win - if the political environment changes so that a desire for action takes root - then our hardest tasks will be ahead of us. We may end up longing for the days of debate over whether climate change is real - because the intellectual and political decisions we will have to make to confront climate change - whether through mitigation or adaptation or, more likely, both - are going to make today's debates seem like child's play.

"I don't think there's anything about the European experience post-Kyoto, for example, that should make us think that this is going to be easy. So, like abrupt climate change, abrupt political change will present us with a different and problematic world with new and uncomfortable choices. But unlike abrupt climate change, a changed Washington should give us reason for hope, despite all its attendant difficulties.

"Climate change discussions can be consumed by gloom. They can remind me of the opening of Woody Allen's classic essay, ‘My Address to the Graduates.' It starts: ‘Today, we are at a crossroad. One road leads to hopelessness and despair; the other to total extinction. Let us pray we choose wisely.' I think our choices are a little better than that, and if they're not, we'll never win over the wider public.

"We have had successes in the recent past in winning over skeptics and taking action. We have controlled the CFCs that created the ozone hole. The Bush Administration has imposed strict new regulations to control fine particles - the health effects of which were still the subject of angry debate not so long ago. These problems were easier to tackle than climate change, but they didn't seem very easy at the time. The public and policy makers had to be convinced of the science so that difficult concrete steps could be taken.

"So I look forward to working with all of you, to continuing to learn with all of you, so that we can create a political climate in which action is possible on climate change."

"That's going to take a lot of tough and honest discussion. But it can be done. If we break through the current apathy and cynicism, we can revive American politics, and our environment will be the beneficiary."

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