Exemplifying the proactive way authentic conservatives should be talking about climate policy, former Environmental Protection Agency administrators William Ruckelshaus, Christine Todd Whitman, Lee Thomas, and William Reilly — all appointed by Republican presidents — gave Senate hearing testimony last week that stood in sharp contrast to the current Republican Senators on the panel, who seemed to live in an alternative universe, offering up a sustained litany of party-line denial and delayer talking points.
At a June 18 Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works subcommittee hearing on “Climate Change: The Need to Act Now” (archived webcast, witness testimony, and opening statements here), the political theater involved a Democratic chairman (Sheldon Whitehouse-Rhode Island) calling on former heads of the EPA who served under Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and both Bushes to give testimony. A few samples from what they said:
William Ruckelshaus (served as the first head of the EPA in 1970 under Nixon, and during 198-1985 he returned as EPA Administrator under Reagan):
We have, as EPA administrators, served four Presidents over four decades. We have successfully wrestled with a variety of public health and environmental problems, all contentious, including severe automobile and industrial air pollution, widespread water pollution and the unacceptable effects of pesticides like DDT.
We have made progress. We have cut automobile emissions, for example, by 95% and greatly improved air quality while the number of cars has doubled. The hole in the ozone layer and acid rain are under control.
Inherent in all of these problems was uncertain science and powerful economic interests resisting controls. The same is true of climate change. In all of the cases cited the solutions to the problems did not result in the predicted economic and social calamity. Scientific uncertainty or the inevitable industry resistance does not mean that nothing should be done unless we are willing to suffer the consequences of inaction. …
We also know that if America does not get serious about our responsibility to deal with this problem nothing much will happen in the rest of the world. Not taking action is a choice. It is a choice that means we leave to chance the kind of future we want, and opt out of the solution to a problem that we are a big part of.
We like to speak of American exceptionalism. If we want to be truly exceptional then we should begin the difficult task of leading the world away from the unacceptable effects of our increasing appetites for fossil fuels before it is too late.
Christine Todd Whitman (served as head of EPA from 2001-2003 under George W. Bush):
I must begin by expressing my frustration that the discussion about whether the Environmental Protection Agency has the legal authority to regulate carbon emissions is still taking place in some quarters.
The issue has been settled. EPA does have the authority. The law says so and the Supreme Court has said so twice. The matter should be put to rest.
Given that fact, the Agency has decided – properly, in my view – that it should act now to reduce carbon emissions to improve the quality of our air, protect the health of our people, and as part of an international effort to address global climate change.
For the United States, climate change is not just an environmental issue or an economic issue. Climate change also has very real implications for our national security, and those concerns must be an important part of the discussion. …
Congressional action and leadership would be a preferable approach. But since Congress has declined to act, the EPA must. …
We have a scientific consensus around this issue. We also need a political consensus.
The two parties were able to rally around a common purpose in the early days of environmental policymaking. It is urgent that they do so again.
Lee Thomas (served as head of EPA from 1985-1989 under Reagan):
I’ve approached the issue using a risk assessment and risk management process. This is the approach I used during my time at EPA as we addressed a range of environmental problems. …
The issue of climate change is one that the EPA and the global scientific community have studied and analyzed for decades. And since my time as Administrator, the assessment of risk global warming poses to public health and the environment has continually improved and become more certain. Whether it is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or the latest scientific valuation authorized by Congress, the National Climate Assessment, there is clear evidence regarding climate change and its anthropogenic foundation. …
We know that communities in our country are already dealing with the effects of the changing climate today. In my state of Florida, we see increasing salt water intrusion infiltrating our drinking water supply due to sea level rise. Coastal communities are dealing with the impact sea level rise is having on their drainage systems, resulting in an investment of more than $300 million to upgrade flood mitigation infrastructure in Miami Beach alone. The economic impact is undeniable, and local governments struggle to address today’s impacts of climate change while trying to anticipate the increased risk it poses in the future.
On a broader scale, scientific analysis of the issue points to widespread impacts across our country. They range from depleted shellfish harvests in the Pacific Northwest due to ocean acidification, to increased drought and wildfires in the Southwest and a more than 70 percent rise in the occurrence of heavy downpours in the Northeast since the late 1950s.
Given this assessment of the impacts and risk posed by global warming, the EPA has the responsibility given to it by Congress, and affirmed by the courts, to address the risk management challenge.
William Reilly (served as head of EPA from 1989-1992 under George H.W. Bush):
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, especially carbon dioxide, can help fend off more draconian impacts later this century. Yet I increasingly believe that we have a second, immediate agenda, namely to prompt states and communities and our federal agencies to begin to adapt to likely changes and to build up resiliency. If you read the Washington Post’s June 1st front-page story on Norfolk, Virginia, you get an excellent picture of the dilemma that community faces—not to mention what the Navy’s base there faces. Dealing with flooding and meeting future projections from storm surges will be costly, and the growing demands on federal, state, and local budgets come at a time when the country seeks to reduce federal debt and tame federal deficits. …
Markets the world over eagerly seek clean energy technologies. … Technology and innovation are a comparative advantage for our country that will help control what we can and help find ways to replace the most serious contributors to the climate challenge. This is an enormous opportunity for U.S. entrepreneurs and exporters even as we deploy more clean energy at home. …
We have the know-how, the ingenuity, the entrepreneurial spirit, the ability to demonstrate leadership in tackling this challenge. While the President has taken many important steps, a full and constructive response is needed from Congress…
Re watching the webcast of the hearing: before the panel of witnesses testified, the first hour of the hearing was occupied by opening statements from 11 members of the Environment Committee — an unusually large number for a subcommittee hearing, but perhaps not surprising given the theater of four Republican former EPA Administrators calling on the Senate to get past denialism and take action, given the political salience, once again, of climate change policy, and given the polarized controversy over EPA’s role in regulating greenhouse gases.
What one sees is alternating Democratic (subcommittee chair Whitehouse, full committee chair Barbara Boxer-California, Bernie Sanders-Vermont, Ben Cardin-Maryland, Kristen Gillebrand-New York, and Cory Booker-New Jersey) and Republican (David Vitter-Louisiana, John Barrasso-Wyoming, James Inhofe-Oklahoma, John Boozman-Arkansas, and Pete Sessions-Alabama) Senators, talking right past each other, with no substantive overlap in their comments. The partisan separation could not be much more complete.
Generally speaking, the Democratic Senators, in their statements and in later questioning of witnesses, were compatible with Obama administration policy, with the former EPA Administrators (albeit with the Senators making some harder-hitting political statements), and not at odds with the IPCC and National Climate Assessment. The Republican Senators have a different political agenda that feeds back into how they relate to the science. The alternating statements provide a one-hour window into where the Senate is at right now on climate policy.
The Republicans called three witnesses. One, Prof. Daniel Botkin, an ecosystem scientist from UC-Santa Barbara, has emerged recently as a favorite Republican witness for his outspoken skeptic positions on the climate science assessments. He rejects findings and conclusions that are widely shared among his colleagues, while uncritically citing sources such as Willie Soon, David Legates, John Christy, and Roger Pielke Jr.
Several Republican Senators took a shot at discrediting in various ways the “97% of climate scientists agree that human activity is warming the planet” consensus finding. That is a finding, based on several independent studies, that the right-wing seems to find quite threatening, and probably justifiably so. As one of their top pollster-strategists, Frank Luntz, pointed out to them a decade ago, once the public understands that there is not a big debate in the science community about the reality of the anthropogenic global warming problem, the door will close on their ability to obstruct a response. Prof. Botkin, helped them with this thrust — ‘science is about data, not taking a vote’, blah blah blah.
The Republican Senators addressed questions to him rather than to the EPA Administrators, as in: “Dr. Botkin, as the only panelist who is actually a scientist…” It’s unfortunate that this witness was put on the record without being balanced by climate and ecosystem scientists who led the IPCC and National Climate Assessments who could respond to the arguments in his testimony. Perhaps the Committee will create this opportunity in follow-up questions for the record. Botkin’s statements shouldn’t stand without a response.
But it’s not our mission here to debate science points, and, as Chairman Whitehouse noted, the purpose of the hearing wasn’t to create a panel for science debate, it was to hear from the former EPA heads at a time when EPA and climate policy are in the spotlight. Thus, although he didn’t put it this way, to contrast the voices of conservatives who think and talk the way conservatives should about science and environmental protection, with the voices we have come to associate with the so-called “conservative” position since the radical right hijacked their party.
Of course, given their posture at this hearing, the right-wing will no doubt summarily dismiss the former EPA Administrators as liberals in disguise, not true conservatives or true Republicans. Why, just having worked at that evil Environmental Protection Agency is probably enough to discredit them in the eyes of the denial machine. Nevertheless, their civilized statements are on the record.
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