• David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

Déjà Vu at Senate Climate Hearing

1 August 2012 5:40 pm

U.S. Senate

Climate excitement. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) said today's highly partisan climate science hearing—the first for her committee in 3 years—was "kind of exciting."

Same as it ever was. After a 3-year hiatus, a key U.S. Senate committee today once again examined the science of climate change, sparking feisty and predictably partisan sparring over the reality of climate change and what, if anything, the United States should do about it.

"This is something we haven't done in a while. … It's kind of exciting," said Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), the chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and an ardent supporter of efforts to reduce U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

"I must say it feels like we're back to the good old days," agreed Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), the panel's senior Republican and an outspoken skeptic that global warming is occurring.

Boxer and the Senate's other senior Democrats—who control the body—have largely deemphasized the issue since 2010, when they abandoned a major effort to pass legislation aimed at curbing U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. And the environment committee, which plays a central role in writing climate and energy legislation, hasn't held a hearing on climate science since early 2009. But with much of the nation suffering from a fierce drought as well as record high temperatures, Boxer apparently decided the time was right to shine a spotlight on the issue.

The hearing attracted an overflow crowd, and the half-dozen senators who attended quickly made it clear that the partisan divide over the issue hadn't narrowed. Republicans either questioned whether global warming is actually occurring or whether curbing U.S. emissions would be worth the economic cost. Inhofe used his opening remarks to attack the Obama Administration's energy policies and the reliability of climate science. "What drove the collapse of the global warming movement was that the science of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] was finally exposed," said Inhofe, who has called climate change a hoax. "For years I had warned that the United Nations was a political body, not a scientific body."

Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) also questioned climate research, including computer models that forecast rising global temperatures over the next century. New data have "invalidated the computer models … that's fact, that's science," he said.

Boxer immediately challenged Sessions’s analysis. The vast majority of climate researchers disagreed with Sessions’s views, she noted, adding that there were also "probably 1% to 2% of scientists who don’t believe that lung cancer is associated with smoking." Sessions, clearly irate, responded that he wasn’t “talking about the scientists” but the quality of the data. Boxer responded: "You shouldn't be offended by that," she reassured him, since "the conclusion you are coming to is shared by 1% to 2% of scientists," drawing audible laughter from some onlookers in an overflow viewing room.

Later, Sessions clarified his position: "I would acknowledge that we may have some warming and it may be human-caused," he said. His concern, he added, was “how much we can spend to alter it.”

Democrats, in turn, bemoaned the continued debate over climate science among politicians. "I find it incredible we are still raising the question of whether global warming is real," said Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ). He compared his arrival at the hearing to walking "into this bonfire of reality. … Our friends on the other side of this issue are very likeable people, but they are wrong."

"We can't run away from this issue," argued Senator Bernard Sanders (D-VT), who also tried to systematically challenge Inhofe's doubts about climate science. His words continued an attack he started on the floor of the U.S. Senate yesterday.

The three scientists invited to testify before the panel also trod well-worn paths. Climate scientist Christopher Field, director of the Department of Global Ecology of the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, emphasized the scientific consensus that global temperatures are rising and that climate change is likely to contribute to extreme weather events. Ocean scientist James McCarthy of Harvard University discussed recent evidence from the oceans that climate change is occurring, including rising water temperatures. Both were invited by Democrats.

It was the researcher invited by panel Republicans, however, who got the most attention. Climatologist John Christy of the University of Alabama, Huntsville, emphasized that it was not scientifically defensible to tie the recent droughts or specific extreme weather events to climate change, and highlighted the limitations of historical temperature records. Recent headlines linking heat waves to climate change "were not based on science," he said. "It is more accurate to say this is what Mother Nature looks like, because even worse events have happened in the past. … The real truth is that we don't know enough about the climate to predict events like this."

Christy said his own studies suggest there is little that U.S. policymakers could realistically do to curb climate change, and he counseled against regulation that might increase energy costs. "I suspect there will be some negative economic consequences if energy costs rise," he said.

Boxer challenged the reliability of some of the research Christy cited in his remarks, prompting him to concede that one study he mentioned had not been published. And when Boxer asked whether he doubted the peer-reviewed papers cited by a recent study of climate change in California, the exchange got testy: "I bet they didn't include my peer-reviewed papers," Christy said, alluding to his views that some scientists have been marginalized by "establishment" climate scientists and IPCC.

What Christy didn't get to discuss was his proposed solution to that perceived problem, which he outlined in his written testimony. He calls on Congress to take 5% to 10% of the funds that the United States gives to IPCC (which have averaged about $3 million annually over the last decade) and dedicate it to "a group of well-credentialed scientists to produce an assessment that expresses legitimate, alternative hypotheses that have been (in their view) marginalized, misrepresented or ignored in previous IPCC reports (and thus EPA and National Climate Assessments). Such activities are often called 'Red Team' reports and are widely used in government and industry." Red teams, he writes, could provide "a parallel, scientifically-based assessment regarding the state of climate science which addresses issues which here-to-for [sic] have been un- or under-represented."

Given Congress's apparent gridlock on climate-related legislation, however, it seems unlikely that Christy will get his wish anytime soon. Boxer alluded to the stalemate near the end of the hearing: "We start off, unfortunately, where we left off," she said, noting that the two parties appeared to agree on little. Almost on cue, Sessions disagreed, noting that he and other Republicans had joined with Democrats to help curb greenhouse gas emissions by supporting efforts to improve auto mileage standards and improve energy efficiency. Fair point, Boxer said: "Let's keep talking."

CORRECTION: This item has been corrected on 2 August to clarify the quotes of Senators Sessions and Boxer, the sequence of their exchange, and the audience reaction to Senator Boxer's comments.

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