After listening to some of the world's preeminent climate researchers yesterday, a bipartisan group of senators said they saw the need to take quick action on global warming but were struggling to reach consensus on what policy to adopt.
Several Republicans on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee said during the two-hour hearing that they would consider adopting mandatory limits on emissions of heat-trapping gases but that they prefer the approach of promoting new technologies that do not contribute to the problem.
"I don't think the issue is whether we have a major international problem; the question is: How do we solve it?" said the panel's chairman, Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.). "I'm looking for a solution, but I'm not going to join the crowd that thinks it's simple."
Last month, the Senate adopted a nonbinding resolution by a vote of 53 to 44 calling for a "national program of mandatory market-based limits and incentives on greenhouse gases" that would not hurt the U.S. economy and would encourage other polluting nations to follow suit. The Senate defeated a bipartisan bill by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) that sought to establish a mandatory federal cap on heat-trapping emissions, and Domenici said he hoped his committee's climate change hearings would help lawmakers devise an alternative.
The scientists testifying yesterday, including National Academy of Sciences President Ralph J. Cicerone and Nobel prize-winning chemist Mario Molina, all said the world is warming at a dangerous rate, and that human activity accounts for much of the recent temperature rise.
"Climate change is perhaps the most worrisome global environmental problem confronting human society today," said Molina, a professor at the University of California at San Diego. Molina added that while experts are still uncertain about exactly how global warming will play out in future decades, "not knowing with certainty how the climate system will respond should not be an excuse for inaction."
Several committee Republicans, including some who had questioned climate change predictions in the past, said they agree the world has reached a scientific consensus on global warming.
"I have come to believe, along with many of my colleagues, that there is a substantial human effect on the environment," said Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), who has opposed mandatory curbs on greenhouse gas emissions and voted against last month's "sense of the Senate" resolution on climate change.
Some GOP senators, such as Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), went further. In an interview, Murkowski said that "there's an emerging consensus we've got to deal" with climate change, adding it would be "tough" to cut greenhouse gases sufficiently through voluntary programs alone.
"I'd rather we don't have to [adopt mandatory limits], but we know what happens when we leave it to our good judgment. Sometimes we don't see the benefits," she said.
Some Republican panel members said they would be more open to the witnesses' call to arms if the scientists would embrace nuclear power, which does not release carbon dioxide as coal-fired power plants do. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) lectured the climatologists from the dais, saying that installing solar panels "might be nice for a desert island, but that's not going to work . . . in America."
Cicerone replied that nuclear power "has tremendous potential. People just want to see it done safely."
It remains unclear how quickly lawmakers would be willing to act on climate change proposals. Domenici said in an interview that he plans to bring in a group of global warming skeptics to testify, and he would prefer requiring that American companies install cleaner technology, rather than setting specific targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
"They're not saying we have to do something tomorrow morning," Domenici said of the scientists.