Marburger vs. Connaughton rhetoric on need for “urgent” action on climate change

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In his exchange with Sen. John Kerry at a recent hearing on climate change research, White House science advisor John Marburger resisted acknowledging the need for “urgent” action on climate change. Kerry said, “I think you need to resign.” Two days later, White House environmental advisor James Connaughton said climate change “requires urgent action.”

[Returning to posting after a break to deal with other pressing matters.]

As far back as 2002, when questioned about global warming, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Marburger would respond like someone who was looking over his shoulder in deference to Bush-Cheney political sensitivities on this issue. His responses to questions always pulled back from a straightforward use of IPCC language on anthropogenic climate change, to keep his formulations closer to the manufactured sense of scientific uncertainty that characterized Bush administration officials and aligned them with the slant of the global warming disinformation campaign. Marburger lost credibility on the Hill and with the science community (and with us) by giving the clear impression that, when pressed on global warming, he was speaking more as a political representative of Bush-Cheney than as an intellectually independent scientist.

Dr. Marburger testified on November 14 at the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on the federal climate research program (“A Time for Change: Improving the Federal Climate Change Research and Information Program”). See our November 15 posting (“Webcast and Written Testimony from Senate Hearing on U.S. Global Change Research Program”). Here’s an unofficial Climate Science Watch transcript of a portion of the exchange between Sen. Kerry and Marburger, with Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) coming in at the end.  Dr. Marburger’s formulations made him appear conflicted between acknowledging that climate change is an urgent problem requiring more than voluntary measures — likely his own understanding — and his unwillingness to give a straight answer when he knows that straight answers are not what the Bush-Cheney political operation has been offering. And likely a wariness about ruffling the feathers of committee vice-chairman Sen. Stevens, a ‘skeptic’ of anthropogenic warming who has some difficulty keeping his facts straight and focusing on a coherent line of inquiry on this subject. 

Dr. Marburger:  Thank you, Mr. Chairman, I am pleased to be here this morning, and I want to acknowledge that climate change is occurring, it is a very serious issue, there’s no question that we’re producing more CO2 than we should be for the future health of this planet, and something must be done about it.  I want to be clear that there is widespread agreement on this, this Administration agrees with the statements of the status of science that are embedded in the IPCC reports that were released.  …..

Sen. Kerry:  [L]et me begin by asking – your opening statement, Dr. Marburger, is an important one.  You say that it’s happening, it’s happening rapidly, it’s a serious issue, and we need to respond to it, etc.  We have United States Senators who don’t believe what you just said, who fight that.  Have you ever reached out and come here to brief some of those known resisters to this process?

Dr. Marburger:  Yes I have spoken with some of those who are skeptical about climate change and gone over in some detail.  One of the things I do when I talk with people who resist the notion of climate change is to encourage them to take a visit to the Koshland Museum, which is operated under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences, over here on 6th and E Streets NW, it’s a nice little science museum, and it has an exhibit on global change and climate change in particular, which pretty much spells out the findings of the National Academy as expressed in its reports and gives visual instructions in the impacts and causes of climate change, and I would recommend that to anyone who is interested in learning more about it.  …..

We intend no disrespect to the Koshland Museum—people should visit it—but if Dr. Marburger’s best idea for straightening out global warming contrarian Senators and House members (who have made up a fair number within the administration’s own party’s delegation) is to suggest that they go to the musuem, well….put this on the list of items for re-thinking the relationship between the next science advisor and the Hill. Continuing:

Sen. Kerry:  So let me perhaps phrase the question this way, so you’re the chief Science Advisor to the President of the United States who is the leader of the free world, and we’re the largest emitter of emissions of the world, and we’re the biggest and strongest economy, for a little while longer.  My question to you is, what urgency do you tell the President?  How urgent do you believe it is that we put in place some kind of mandatory movement in order to meet what the science is telling us we must meet? 

Dr. Marburger:  Sir, that’s a somewhat, that’s a multiple question, and the… issue of exactly how you go about changing the behavior of a large fraction of the human population of the world is one that….

Sen. Kerry:  (interrupting)  Just answer the first part of the question – how urgent do you believe the science is telling us it is?  It’s a simple question.

Dr. Marburger:  I believe the science is telling us that it’s important to begin to address the emissions of greenhouse gases…  (they begin talking over one another)

Sen. Kerry:  So it is urgent???

Dr. Marburger:  … and we need to do it as soon as we can.

Sen. Kerry:  Does that mean it’s urgent?

Dr. Marburger:  [undecipherable]

Sen. Kerry:  You’re the Science Advisor, I hear you resisting the word urgent.

Dr. Marburger:  There is, yeah absolutely, there is a sense of urgency here, you’re…..

Sen. Kerry:  A sense of urgency?  Or, is it, in your judgment, is it really urgent?

Dr. Marburger:  In my judgment, it’s important to begin to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible…

Sen. Kerry:  The top science advisor to the President is resisting using the word urgent.

Dr. Marburger:  (slight pause)  Yes, I am resisting using the use of the word urgent.  I think that the, I think the, frankly… I think….

Sen. Kerry:  Frankly, I think you need to resign.  I really do. Can you tell me why it isn’t urgent, when you have the science that we’ve heard?  Do you disagree with Jim Hansen that there’s a ten year window to get this right?  Do you disagree with that?

Dr. Marburger:  I am conflicted on this issue, because I know that it’s going to be very, very difficult to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions as rapidly as is desirable.  There is, it’s very important for us to begin, it’s very important for us to take the problem seriously …

Sen. Kerry:  Then you don’t agree with the IPPC report.  I’m basically hearing you disagreeing with it, because the IPCC, and the consensus of scientists is, that you have to hold our greenhouse gas emissions to a level of about 450, it was 550, but now they say, 450 parts per million.  Now we’re at 370 today, 370 to 380, we’ve gone up a hundred in the course of the industrial revolution, China’s coming on line with hundreds of coal fired powered pulverized coal plants, India’s doing the same, we’re going to do the same, at the rate we’re going we’re looking at 600 to 900 parts per million, which every scientist I’ve listened to tells me is catastrophic, beyond the tipping point of global climate change.  Would you accept that?

Dr. Marburger:  I accept those high numbers…

Sen. Kerry:  Then how can it not be urgent to move? 

Dr. Marburger:  What is urgent is to begin to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there’s no question about that.  We must begin.  This administration has begun by calling together the leaders of countries that are responsible for the greatest fraction of the emissions…

Sen. Kerry:  But they’re not in favor of mandatory reductions.

Dr. Marburger:  … and beginning to develop plans in each of those countries, that, that are consistent with the.. particular circumstances of those countries, ah, I don’t…

Sen. Kerry:  Do you believe we can meet the goals we need to meet on a voluntary basis, Doctor?

Dr. Marburger:  I believe that the….that meeting the goals will require a mixture of policy and technology alternatives, so as the, and they would…

Sen. Kerry:  I asked you, do you believe we can do it without mandatory requirements?

Dr. Marburger:  (slight pause)  “Belief” is not a word that I tend to use for these issues. 

Sen. Kerry:  Do you have confidence, that as a policy, we can achieve our goals without mandatory…

Dr. Marburger:  (interrupting)  .. and it’s possible that we could achieve our goals without mandatory

Sen. Kerry:  And you have confidence that that is doable?

Dr. Marburger:  I don’t have confidence that it’s doable. 

Sen. Kerry:  Senator Stevens.

Sen. Stevens:  I regret that you asked someone to resign just because they disagree with you.  I disagree with you and I’m not gonna resign.  …. 

Sen. Kerry:  Senator (addressing Sen. Stevens), the reason I made the comment that he should resign, I didn’t call on him to, I said I think he should, is that I think the President of the United States ought to be getting what represents the scientific consensus in fact that has been put forward in the IPCC and elsewhere, and if the President is not getting that sense of urgency, in fact, then I don’t think the President’s getting the best advice, that’s my feeling. 

Two days later, in a November 16 press briefing by senior administration officials on the release of the IPCC Synthesis Report, White House Council on Environmental Quality Chairman James Connaughton acknowledged the need for “urgent” action and denied that the administration opposes “mandatory” programs. As usual, Connaughton takes the lead in spinning the administration’s policy and articulating its shifting rhetoric:

President Bush has backed mandatory fuel economy requirements. President Bush has backed mandatory renewable fuel requirements. President Bush has backed a whole new suite of mandatory appliance efficiency requirements at the federal level. President Bush has supported the Department of Energy’s work with the states, who currently have legal authority to set renewable power requirements; the federal government does not have that authority, but the states do—and we have assisted them with that. And then finally the states have the authority on building codes, and our Department of Energy has been working with the states to update their building codes to achieve more efficiency in new and retrofit buildings. So in the major activities that give rise to CO2 emissions, we have backed sensible, mandatory programs that are predicated on the availability of technology to achieve them. We have also, though, found great power in incentive-based programs and in partnerships. And so it would be false to assert that—the assertion about the President’s position on mandatory programs is a false one.

And this:

We are operating consistent with the G8 leaders’ consensus that the issue warrants urgent action, and we need to bring forward, in a more accelerated way, the technology that will make a lasting solution possible. So we’re operating within that construct. The scientific definition of [dangerous climate change] is lacking, and so we are operating within the construct of, again, strong agreement among world leaders that urgent action is warranted.

The global warming disinformation campaign can no longer make headway by spinning up a sense of fundamental uncertainty about the reality of anthropogenic global warming—as Connaughton and his CEQ Chief of Staff Phil Cooney spent years doing earlier in this administration—so the rhetoric shifts to a slipperiness about action.  Marburger took a hit from Sen. Kerry at the hearing, then Connaughton covered this base by including the buzzwords “mandatory” and “urgent” in his own rhetoric—but in a slippery way, to defend a policy that remains fundamentally unchanged: opposed to a mandatory cap on greenhouse gas emissions and lacking a program that reflects the urgency of the global warming problem.

In any case, it looks like Marburger now has permission from Connaughton to frame his answer differently the next time Sen. Kerry asks.

See earlier postings on July 7 (“OSTP Director Marburger’s misleading testimony on NPOESS space-based climate observations”) and September 17 (“White House science director Marburger says Earth may become “unlivable” without CO2 emissions cut”).

 

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