House Subcommittee Debates Merits of Climate Science

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Publication date: 
11 March 2011

The House Subcommittee on Energy and Power delved into the science and politics of climate change in a March 8 hearing entitled “Climate Science and EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Regulations.” The hearing served as a microcosm of the debate on climate change in the U.S. House of Representatives, highlighting the sharp differences in views between the new Republican majority and the Democratic minority.

Several Republican members of the subcommittee argued that climate science is not settled. However, in a delicate political balance, they repeatedly sought to shift the focus to their assertion that, even if there was complete consensus on climate science, the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed greenhouse gas regulations would be the wrong approach to addressing climate change. They argued that the regulatory regime that would be imposed by the EPA would unduly burden business, raise energy prices, and have only a negligible impact on ultimately curbing climate change.

Democrats countered by accusing the Republicans of ignoring sound science and jeopardizing public health, national security, the environment, and long-term economic prosperity. They argued that the consequences of failing to address climate change and attempting to strip the EPA of its power to regulate greenhouse gases are far worse than the potential economic impacts of the regulations.

Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-KY) set the tone for the majority side in his opening statement, remarking that “[s]cience  serves to inform us about the nature of a problem, and I look forward to listening to the presentations that follow. But whether one thinks the science tells us that global warming is a serious problem, a minor problem, or hardly a problem at all, the real question before this committee is whether EPAs regulations under the Clean Air Act are a wise solution to that problem. Clearly they are not.

Subcommittee Ranking Member Bobby Rush (D-IL) countered in his opening statement, saying that “I represent Illinois, which is one the largest coal states in the country, and I recognize that any policy regulating greenhouse gases will have real consequences on jobs and the economy in my state. But I sincerely believe, because the science tells me so, that these gases must be regulated because they have a serious and costly impact on public health, in my state and around the country.

Likewise, Ranking Member of the full Energy and Commerce Committee Henry Waxman (D-CA) characterized the Republican response to climate change by making an analogy to a patient seeking medical care: “If my doctor told me I had cancer, I wouldnt scour the country to find someone to tell me that I dont need to worry about it. Just because I didnt feel gravely ill yet, I wouldnt assume that my doctor was falsifying the data. And if my doctor said he didnt know how long I had to live, I wouldnt say, well, if hes uncertain about that, hes probably wrong about the whole thing.”

There were seven witnesses, four invited by the Democratic minority to bolster the scientific consensus on climate change and discuss the impacts already occurring. The Republican majority invited three witnesses, two who cast doubt that anthropogenic sources of greenhouse gases are the primary drivers of global warming, and one who suggested that the public health effects of climate change have been overblown.

The witnesses invited by the minority were: Christopher Field, Director of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution of Washington; Knute Nadelhoffer, Director of the University of Michigan Biological Station; Richard Somerville, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography; and Francis W. Zwiers, Director of the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium at the University of Victoria. The witnesses invited by the majority were: John R. Christy, Director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama in Huntsville; Roger Pielke, Sr., Senior Research Scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder; and Donald Roberts, Professor Emeritus at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.

Congressmen from both sides used their question time to make political points. Rep. Burgess (R-TX), for instance, led Somerville through a series of questions designed to criticize the Waxman-Markey climate bill passed by the House in 2009. This questioning culminated with Burgess asking, “And do you understand why the revulsion that the country had after that legislation was passed late at night on the floor of the United States House of Representatives just prior to the Fourth of July recess in 2009 -- can you understand how Members of Congress went home to their districts and were actually reviled by their constituents for having done such an activity?

On the other side was Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA), who had beside him a stack of books that towered above his head to represent the sizeable body of science supporting the view that climate change is caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gases. Inslee opened his question time by saying “I have to express some degree of embarrassment that a nation that went to the moon, mapped the human genome, established the best software companies in the world, now [has] one of its great parties adopt a chronic anti-science syndrome. . . an allergy to consensus science, instead of respect for science and scientists.

Later in the hearing, Rep. Cory Gardner (R-CO), a climate skeptic, joked that he would buy a Kindle to Inslee’s stack of books. Inslee responded, saying “Would you like to read some? I think it might be helpful.”

Gardner replied, “Only if you read some of mine.”

“I’d be happy. It’s a lot shorter list,” Inslee quipped in response.

During his question time, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) painted the scientists testifying in favor of the consensus view of climate change as “elitist” and “arrogant” and charged that they were advocating a political viewpoint while ignoring the evidence offered by the climate skeptics.

The hearing concluded with few minds seemingly changed. On Thursday, over the objections of the minority, the Subcommittee held a markup on the Energy Tax Prevention Act, H.R. 910, which would overturn the EPA’s finding that greenhouse gases are a danger to public health and prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases. The Subcommittee reported the bill to the full Committee favorably along party lines.

Full written statements of the witnesses and an archived webcast of the hearing may be found here.

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