Congress seems frozen as climate-change evidence accumulates | St. Louis Public Radio

Congress seems frozen as climate-change evidence accumulates

Nov 15, 2011

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 15, 2011 - WASHINGTON - When physicist Richard A. Muller reported last month that global temperatures had warmed since the 1950s, his finding was met with a collective yawn among mainstream climate scientists who had reached the same conclusion years before.

But Muller's study made waves in the media because he had been a prominent climate-change skeptic, partly funded by a foundation linked to global-warming deniers, and his research focused on skeptics' objections to previous studies of warming.

Those waves had little impact on Capitol Hill, however. For the 112th Congress is awash in climate-change skepticism -- in some cases, outright denial. Even though some other nations have taken action, Congress has blocked significant U.S. action to slow the greenhouse gas emissions that most experts believe hasten the process of climate change.

"We are the single country in the world that is supposed to be scientific and technically adept, but has a major movement that denies" climate change, said Peter Raven, president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden and an internationally known botanist.

Raven, a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a recipient of the National Medal of Science and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, believes the scientific evidence for global climate change is "overwhelming."

He served on a National Research Council panel that warned earlier this year -- in the final report of the America's Climate Choices project -- that every ton of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere intensifies the risks related to climate change. The report called for more action to try to limit the extent of climate change and prepare to adapt to its impacts.

"The conclusion of the scientific community is clearly that the climate is changing rapidly -- not only in temperature but in other ways as well -- and that human beings are the major factor driving it," Raven told the Beacon.

But that conclusion appears to have little impact in the current Congress, especially in the U.S. House. There, leaders of the Energy and Commerce Committee have mounted a campaign this year to block or roll back several Environmental Protection Agency regulations on emissions -- some of which exacerbate climate change. While the House has passed several bills to stop such EPA rules, the Senate so far has blocked them.

While he says that intelligent people can disagree on what steps should be taken to slow global warming, Raven worries that "if we make those [issues] political footballs, we would be fostering a kind of anti-science or even anti-intellectual attitude that will make it very difficult for us to be world leaders in science and technology."

Some lawmakers in Washington agree with him. U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Ca., the top Democrat (and former chairman) on the Energy and Commerce Committee, told the Center for American Progress: "I have never been in a Congress where there was such an overwhelming disconnect between science and policy."

GOP skeptics block emissions initiatives

Even if they acknowledge that some studies show a gradual warming trend, many Republicans on Capitol Hill say they are not convinced that human activities such as power-plant emissions are primarily responsible for the warming. And they argue that the some efforts to slow the warming -- such as the proposed "cap and trade" bill that Waxman championed but died in the last Congress -- would hurt the U.S. economy by raising energy prices at a time of economic troubles.

Among those skeptics is U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, a harsh critic of EPA rules who chairs the Energy and Commerce panel's economy and environment subcommittee. At a 2009 hearing on adapting to climate change, Shimkus quoted Bible verses in which God told Noah that the Earth would not be destroyed by flood.

Last fall, Shimkus reiterated to Politico that he relied on Scripture, but qualified his stance by saying he had become convinced during a trip to Greenland -- where ice is melting from many coastal areas -- that "the climate is changing." He added, however: "The question is more about the costs and benefits and trying to spend taxpayer dollars on something that you cannot stop versus the changes that have been occurring forever."

Others on Capitol Hill go so far as to question the scientific evidence. The list includes Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. -- who has called the notion of climate change "a hoax" and claimed that the science "has been pretty well debunked" -- and Science Committee vice chair Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who denounced as "scientific facism" reports of data manipulation in a report by a climate change panel. The chair of the science panel's oversight subcommittee, Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., once alleged that global warming was "one of the greatest hoaxes perpetrated out of the scientific community."

Among the Republican contenders for the 2012 presidential nomination, only Jon Huntsman has explicitly defended climate science and accused some Republicans of being "anti-science" in their comments. Asked by the moderator of a September debate to name which presidential contenders are anti-science, Huntsman declined to be specific but said he worried about politicians who question climate change.

"When you make comments that fly in the face of what 98 out of 100 climate scientists have said ... all I'm saying is that in order for the Republican Party to win, we can't run from science," Huntsman said.

When candidate Mitt Romney was governor of Massachusetts, he helped lead talks on a pact to control emissions, but he pulled out of those talks late in 2005 and has since back-tracked in his position. Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a climate-change skeptic, argued at the September debate that "the science is not settled on this."

Views on Climate Change Vary Widely in Missouri and Illinois

In the bi-state region, the most outspoken supporter of legislation and regulatory moves to address climate change is Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate's second-ranking Democrat. Calling climate change "one of the most significant environmental crises we face," he has supported efforts to update the Clean Air Act to strengthen standards for air pollutants and advocated of mandatory fuel efficiency standards for vehicles.

At a Senate hearing in August, Durbin expressed concerns about the possible signs of a changing climate -- including melting glaciers, rising sea levels and extreme weather events -- and worried that "we've stopped talking about this on Capitol Hill. We've decided that the debate over global warming is too contentious. I think it's a big mistake."

But many other lawmakers on Capitol Hill still question the link between human activity -- in particular, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from power plants -- and climate change. "I think there is always climate change," Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said last week in response to a Beacon question. "I don't know exactly how much man-made impact [there] is."

Blunt -- one of 41 senators (the only one from Missouri and Illinois) to vote this month for an unsuccessful resolution, sponsored by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to block new controls on power plant pollution that blows downwind into other states -- told reporters that some EPA rules on CO2 might prove to be counterproductive.

"If you accept the idea that it's a good policy to minimize CO2, you have to have policies that minimize CO2 globally, not just in the U.S." Blunt said. "And if foolish policies in the U.S. create more CO2 in other places than we eliminate here, you have actually had the reverse impact on the environment than you were trying to have."

While Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has defended clean-air regulations, she opposed the "cap-and-trade" legislation that died in the last Congress. McCaskill told the Beacon that she does not question the science of global climate change but did not think the cap and trade approach was the right solution.

"There were a lot of things about [the cap-and-trade legislation] that were wrong, and it was particularly wrong for Missouri," McCaskill said. "I believe in the science of climate change. But I work for folks in a state that, through no fault of their own, is 85 percent coal dependent. So these decisions have huge impacts on families who live on fixed incomes, working families and small businesses."

McCaskill added: "It may be out of fashion, but I really believe in science. I think our country has really been the strongest in the world" in science. "Because we have really supported scientific research and have revered our scientific community."

Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., voted for the cap-and-trade legislation when he was a U.S. House member representing a suburban Chicago district. But after he was elected to the Senate last year in a state that includes coal-mining regions, Kirk backtracked on the issue. He told reporters that opponents of the bill sent him "a stronger reaction than I've ever seen before." He told journalists that his vote was for the "narrow interests" of his congressional district, and said he would vote differently as a senator.

In Missouri's U.S. House delegation, positions on climate change tend to run along party lines, with Democrats defending EPA regulations and Republicans skeptical about the impact of human activities on the climate.

"Many of our veteran [House] members, but also a large number of the new Republican members, have taken some very anti-science positions and really tried to politicize science for an ideological agenda," said Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, who served for several years on the Science Committee.

On the attacks against EPA air pollution regulations, Carnahan said: "You have to wonder what planet some of these people come from, when they are trying to turn back the clock on what had been the result of common sense and bipartisan measures in the past that have been really important."

Evidence Mounts on Climate Change, Links to Human Activities

As the political stalemate continues on Capitol Hill, mainstream scientists say the evidence continues to mount that the global climate is changing and that human activity is influencing that change.

This spring's NRC report, re-examining available data, reiterated that scientific evidence points to human activities -- particularly the release of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere -- as the most likely cause for most of the global warming that has occurred in recent decades. The report found that the warming trend cannot be adequately explained by natural factors (such as cyclical trends or changes in energy from the sun), and predicts that climate change will impact human and natural systems. It called for a coordinated U.S. response to climate change.

"America's response to climate change is ultimately about making choices in the face of risk," said the NRC panel's vice chair, William L. Chameides, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, in a statement.

Meanwhile, the report by Muller -- a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory -- found that land temperatures are at least 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than in the 1950s.

Muller heads the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project, whose scientists reached that conclusion after analyzing 1.6 billion measurements from 39,000 temperature stations around the world.

That is similar to findings by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA, and in generally in line with what most climate scientists have found in recent decades. What is remarkable is that a quarter of the $600,000 that paid for the Muller group's research came from the Charles Koch Foundation, which was founded by one of the conservative Koch brothers (Charles and David) who has been major funders of global warming skeptic groups, as well as the tea party.

Muller said his research took into account two major objections by skeptics of previous global-warming reports; questions about the reliability of weather station data, as well as concerns that the "heat islands" of big cities tend to skew temperature analyses. But Muller told the Associated Press that, even the skeptics had valid points, "now we have confidence that the temperature rise that had previously been reported had been done without bias."

NOAA's most recent Annual Greenhouse Gas Index, which was released this month, shows a continued upward trend in such emissions. The index measures the direct climate influence of many greenhouse gases, such as CO2 and methane.

The index reached 1.29 last year, meaning that the combined heating effect of long-lived greenhouse gases (which were added to the atmosphere by human activities) has increased by 29 percent since the base year of 1990. The previous year (2009), the index reported that the combined heating effect of those additional greenhouse gases was 27 percent higher than in 1990.

"The increasing amounts of long-lived greenhouse gases in our atmosphere indicate that climate change is an issue society will be dealing with for a long time," said Jim Butler, director of the Global Monitoring Division of NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory, in a statement.

In an interview, Raven said, "Global warming is not a matter of believing or not believing. ... It's the conclusion reached by the world's scientific community, studying the basic facts and relationships involved in the situation, publishing them in peer-reviewed literature, having them reviewed thousands of times.

"That's not something that you can simply do away with by having a talk-show host say, 'Oh, that's a bunch of malarkey.' "

There remain scientists skeptical about the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on global climate change, but Obama's top science adviser, John Holdren, said the overwhelming consensus is that there is an impact.

"This is not the view of a few isolated scientists, this is the overwhelming view of scientists who study this matter around the world," Holdren told the House Science committee. "There are always skeptics, there are always heretics. That's in the nature of science."

He added that "public policy, in my judgment, should be based on the mainstream view because to base it otherwise is to risk the well-being of the public against very long odds."

Prospects for Future Action

So far, the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, has blocked most efforts to roll back clean air laws and other EPA initiatives to limit the impact of U.S. emissions on climate change. However, the Senate dropped cap-and-trade in the last Congress, and prospects for a return to that approach appear slim.

There have been a few hopeful signs, climate and environment groups say, but mostly emanating from the White House. Last week, President Barack Obama put off a difficult decision on the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which climate groups fear would encourage further development of Canada's vast oil-sands resources and thereby release huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. Supporters of the pipeline extension argue that the oil sands would be exploited either way, and the U.S. would benefit from the pipeline.

"Our movement spoke loudly about climate change and the president responded," wrote Vermont author Bill McKibben, co-founder of an anti-Keystone XL group called 350.org. Its name refers to the goal of reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from today's 392 parts per million to below 350 ppm.

"There have been few even partial victories about global warming in recent years so that makes this an important day," McKibben wrote.

In another development, Australia's Senate -- capping a debate that had lasted more than a decade -- voted last week to approve a package of carbon-tax laws dubbed "Clean Energy Future." The nation's Finance Minister, Penny Wong, said, "We accept the need to act [on climate change], and . . . we accept the science and the advice that putting a price on carbon is the best way to reduce emissions."

Raven said Australia's action is "really great. Their emissions per capita are about the same as ours, world leaders, so it's a significant step."

But prospects for major climate-change legislation in the 112th Congress appear to be dim, lawmakers say, and -- depending on next fall's election results -- the following Congress could be even more reluctant to address the issue.

In a speech this spring, Waxman said the Republican House majority has considerable power in revising laws, "but they do not have the power to rewrite the laws of nature. Republicans in Congress can't cure cancer by passing a bill that declares smoking safe. And they can't stop climate change by declaring it a hoax."

The hope of many scientists, environmentalists and climate-change activists is that the evidence of a changing climate might eventually have an impact on policy makers.

"I hope that those in Congress and elsewhere who are making these arguments would stop to think about what science is really telling us," Raven said. "And, again, I want to keep stressing this: They are completely free to draw any conclusions they want, on economic, political and other grounds, about what to do about it. But you don't have to destroy the objective base of what's known to do that."

Even if international action were taken immediately, scientists warn that global warming will lead to significant changes, with ocean levels rising significantly and many cold-weather habitats would be eliminated within decades.

Climate change "is going so fast that we have to do something about it," Raven said. "Even if we stopped emitting all greenhouse gases now, it would go on warming for a few decades, just on the basis of the equilibration of what's already there.

He added: "The longer we don't deal with that, the worse it gets."