On 1 August 2012, Senators discussed and debated the evidence underlying anthropogenic climate change at an Environment and Public Works Committee hearing titled “Update on the Latest Climate Change Science and Local Adaptation Measures.” Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) repeatedly challenged each other’s positions, as well as the witnesses invited to testify.
Boxer opened the hearing by affirming that climate change is real, is caused by human activities, and threatens humans and other organisms. “I believe that to declare otherwise is putting the American people in direct danger,” she stated. Inhofe used his opening statement to attack the global warming “alarmist” movement, climate scientists, and President Barack Obama. Instead of investing further in the green energy “disaster,” he encouraged “embrac[ing] the United States energy boom…[as a way to] turn the economy around, [and] become totally energy independent.”
Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) acknowledged “profound disagreements” between Inhofe’s climate change positions and his own, and called Inhofe’s beliefs “extreme” and “dead wrong.” Sanders then invoked the moral and economic responsibility the United States has to “lead the world in cutting greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions and transforming our energy system to energy efficiency and sustainable energy.”
Although Boxer and Sanders acknowledged the strong scientific evidence of and consensus on anthropogenic climate change, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) avowed that “empirical data…has validated Senator Inhofe’s skepticism and has demonstrated the incorrectness of the computer modeling” used to predict the effects of GHG emissions. He then asked that the Congress not burden working families to fix a global warming problem that is not materializing.
Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) noted the many recent, extreme weather events that are harbingers of a bleak future, including wildfires, droughts, coastal erosion, and flooding. Cardin referenced the high cost of extreme weather and the concomitant rise in food prices, and asked the Senate to be mindful of public health and safety when debating climate change effects.
Dr. John Christy of the University of Alabama-Huntsville, who was invited to testify by the committee’s Republican members, opened his testimony by dismissing the notion of recent extreme weather events as indicative of anthropogenic climate change. He then described some recent, as-of-yet unpublished data showing that the reported temperature increases over the past decade are due to urbanization changes and not to GHG emissions. However, the other two witnesses, Dr. Christopher Field of Stanford University and Dr. James McCarthy of Harvard University, asserted that anthropogenic climate change is real, and that its effects can be observed presently in altered precipitation patterns and ocean temperatures.
Inhofe opened the question and answer session by denigrating the work of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and by recalling “Climategate,” when emails stolen from University of East Anglia scientists were released to the public. Later, McCarthy stated that the numerous investigations which resulted from the scandal confirmed there was not “any reason to question the science” underlying climate change conclusions.
Senator John Boozman (R-AR) seemed to chastise the scientists for arrogance, saying that it is “dangerous to say: ‘it’s this way, period,’ and I’m hearing that from some of you.” He then went on to ask, “If this is manmade…how do we respond to that?… If it were true that we were in a global warming situation due to CO2 [carbon dioxide], what could possibly be done to counter that, especially with places like China, India…not going along?” Christy stated that any mitigation involving decreasing domestic GHG emissions would not have any effect on the climate; the result of such action would be “undetectable, unpredictable, unattributable.”
A second panel of witnesses commenced with Secretary John Griffin of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources describing the effects his state has witnessed due to climate change and severe weather. Dr. Jonathan Fielding, Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Health, then discussed threats to public health he is anticipating due to climate change. Lastly, Dr. Margo Thorning of the American Council for Capital Formation highlighted the challenges to businesses as they try to prepare for climate change.
Thorning was the focus of most of the questions. Since businesses plan at most fifteen years into the future, they have started adopting “no regrets” strategies as pertaining to long-term climate uncertainty, meaning that “changes made in the normal course of doing business…[are taking climate change] into account…[so that] whether it shifts sharply or not, you would still be better off. [A no regrets strategy will] enable them to sustain business and potentially be ready for what may come in terms of climate.” Boxer called this “a breakthrough moment” and a philosophy the Congress should adopt.
The hearing ended with dispute over the effects of a carbon tax or cap and trade on energy prices and the economic recovery. Democrats argued that cap and trade would result in job creation, affect households positively, and only increase energy prices minimally; Republicans argued that cap and trade would increase energy prices prohibitively, result in job loss, and affect households negatively. Although there was much debate, every Senator’s belief was entrenched and intransigent—a fitting conclusion to a hearing where both sides professed to have science supporting their positions.
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