A fleeting peace broke out yesterday on Capitol Hill over the contentious issue of climate change.
For a few minutes it looked like a détente had been reached between John Holdren, the president's science advisor, and Representative Dana Rohrabacher
(R-CA), the leading climate skeptic on the House of Representatives science committee. But the moment passed quickly after Holdren made a belated
reference to something Rohrbacher said earlier, invoking the wrath of the panel's chair, Representative Ralph Hall (R-TX). Soon the gloves were off
again, and the good feelings were a distant memory.
The occasion was Holdren's first appearance before the committee since the Republicans took control last month of the House. He came to defend the
president's 2012 budget request for science, a document that called for spending billions more than Hall and other fiscal conservatives feel is
prudent. The hearing itself was delayed for 2 hours as the House debated dozens of amendments to the Republican plan to cut current spending by $61
billion. And once it began, there were few surprises in either Holdren's staunch defense of additional investments in such priorities as energy
research, nor in the Republican opposition to them.
When his turn to question Holdren arrived, Rohrabacher began by requesting permission to submit the names of 100 climate scientists who disagree with the consensus on global warming, including people Rohrabacher described as prominent academics.
Then he asked Holdren to disavow previous comments in which he labeled such critics as "deniers," saying that the word is commonly used only to
describe those who deny that the Holocaust occurred. Using it with regard to climate science impugns their motives, Rohrabacher suggested. "What
purpose does it serve?" he asked.
Holdren immediately ceded Rohrabacher's point. "It was not my intent to compare them to Holocaust deniers, and I regret it," he replied. "In the future
I will find other terms to use."
The rest of Rohrabacher's queries were relative softballs. Within minutes, the two men had also agreed that it was important to prepare for climate
change, whether human-induced or natural, and that an expansion of nuclear reactors to generate power could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As
his time expired, Rohrabacher acknowledged that some might be surprised to learn that there were climate-related issues "on which I agree with the
Administration." Then Rohrabacher left the hearing room, a common practice for legislators juggling a busy schedule.
But Holdren hadn't forgotten about Rohrabacher's list of scientists, which was first compiled 2 years ago. After fielding questions from other
legislators on unrelated topics, Holdren mentioned the list in the course of answering a question about the nature of scientific consensus from
Representative John Sarbanes (D-MD), who shares Holdren's views on climate change.
"I haven't seen the list," Holdren began. "But in the past, most of the names on such petitions have turned out not to be climate scientists, and one
could assume that they had not spent much time reviewing the literature." Holdren repeated his earlier remarks summarizing the basis for the
overwhelming scientific consensus on the topic, and ended his statement by asking why anyone would "bet the public welfare against the small odds that
the vast majority of scientific opinion is wrong and the tiny group [of dissenters] is right?"
That was too much for Hall, who interrupted a line of questioning from a junior member of the committee to say that he felt obliged to speak on behalf
of his absent colleague. "There might be some scientists on that list who know what they are doing. Don't pooh-pooh what you call the minority
viewpoint," he chastised Holdren. "We need to get them in here to explain their views, and then we can take a shot at them."
So much for détente on the climate front.