• Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

Climate Science on Sidelines as EPA Bill Proceeds

8 March 2011 6:22 pm

A panel of the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee held an odd hearing today, which was liveblogged by ScienceInsider. The topic was climate science, but the reason for the hearing was a legislative proposal, called House Resolution 910. It would remove the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) authority to regulate greenhouse gases while systematically rolling back a series of steps that EPA has already taken to do so.

The 3-hour hearing was reminiscent of those held repeatedly by Democrats during the previous Congress, when they were in the majority. Top climate scientists (including Chris Field of the Carnegie Institution for Science and Richard Somerville of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego) laid out the basic tenets of climate science while scientists who disagreed with that consensus challenged them. Few of the points raised or questions asked were surprising or revealed any new information.

The hearing barely touched on the underlying issue, namely, is it appropriate for Congress to involve itself so deeply into the working of a regulatory agency? Are there precedents? And what are the legal and governance implications of curtailing an agency's authority in this way?

Instead of tackling those issues, members engaged in what Roger Pielke Jr. had predicted would be "a show hearing using climate scientists as props." Apart from some dubious statements on the science by witnesses and lawmakers that were exposed by participants in the liveblog, the only real news to come out of it was that Representative Ed Whitfield (R–KY), chair of the energy and power subcommittee, plans to mark up the bill on Thursday.

Climate policy watchers thought it odd that the Republicans had agreed to the hearing and gave Democrats a chance to invite a number of witnesses. Whitfield said in his opening statement that "the minority wanted" the hearing and that it didn't hurt to acquiesce, though "24 such hearings" in the previous Congress had explored the science of warming. The chief proponent, Representative Henry Waxman (D–CA), had also wanted to delay the markup on HR 910, but Whitfield politely said no as the hearing drew to a close. "That was a bridge too far," said Waxman.

Although the majority threw a small bone to Democrats by holding the hearing, the event was also an indication of how strongly Republicans doubt climate science. Apparently, they don't mind allowing multiple witnesses to lay out the supposed dangers of greenhouse gas emissions even as they try to legislate to stop controls on those emissions. If the skeptics had expected to suffer any political consequences from opposing the science, this strange hearing would never have happened.

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