Congress has once again taken up the issue of climate change. Three hearings were held on the subject during the week ending 27 February 2009.

The House’s Ways and Means Committee held a hearing entitled “Scientific Objectives of Climate Change Legislation” on 25 February. The hearing was chaired by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), and featured testimony from Dr. James Hansen, Adjunct Professor at The Earth Institute at Columbia University, Dr. Brenda Ekwurzel, a geochemist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, and John Christy, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. The panel concentrated on assessing the costs and benefits associated with regulating greenhouse gas emissions; many of the questions posed by the Representatives were focused on whether cap and trade or dividend taxes would be better for regulating emissions.

The House Science and Technology Committee, Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, chaired by Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA), received testimony on 24 February on monitoring and verifying greenhouse gas emissions. Witnesses from government, non-profit, and industry agreed that the technology exists today to accurately monitor and report carbon dioxide emissions, but that too much scientific uncertainty exists for the emissions of other greenhouse gases, especially methane. John Stephenson of the Government Accountability Office urged policy makers to start with verifying carbon dioxide emissions and to deal with the other greenhouse gases later as technology advances.

In the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Chairman Barbara Boxer of California heard updates on climate change science on 25 February. Dr. R.K. Pachauri, Chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was a witness. Dr. Pachauri warned that we only have about six years left to act to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions before the consequences will be irreversible. Several Senators used the hearing as an opportunity to attempt to debunk climate change. One witness, Dr. William Happer, a professor of physics at Princeton University and a well known climate change skeptic, likened the current concern over rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to Prohibition in the 20th century. Back then, “[d]eeply sincere people thought they were saving humanity from the evils of alcohol, just as many people now sincerely think they are saving humanity from the evils of CO2,” said Dr. Happer.

While the flurry of committee activity is promising, at this point it is unclear which chamber will take the lead on formulating legislation to address climate change. In the House, the chairmen of the Ways and Means Committee and the Energy and Commerce Committee have both indicated that they will try to move climate legislation by Memorial Day. In the Senate, Senator Boxer has expressed her intent to move a climate bill through her committee again this Congress. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said that he will try to bring a climate bill to the Senate floor by the end of the summer. To date, only one climate change bill has been debated on the floor of the Senate. The House has yet to have a floor vote on the issue.


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