Last week was a bewildering one for those who recognize the abundance of compelling scientific evidence showing that the climate is changing mainly due to human activities and that these changes pose risks to human health and welfare. While the news cycle was dominated by the down-to-the-wire budget negotiations in Washington, ongoing unrest in the Middle East, the nuclear crisis in Japan, a major congressional debate on climate change regulations took place in the House (and Senate) that vividly demonstrated how far off the rails we’ve gone in public discourse of climate science and policy.
Let me state right off the bat that I tend to shy away from directly discussing politics in this column, instead sticking to scientific developments in the sprawling and fascinating field of climate research. At the same time, I recognize that climate science has become so politicized that it’s impossible to steer clear of politics entirely. This is understandable considering that many of the potential solutions to climate change could involve major policy changes, from federal regulations of emissions from cars, trucks, and power plants to a carbon tax on gasoline.
The controversy surrounding the science is largely a front for concerns over potential regulation, as is vividly demonstrated in the book, “Merchants of Doubt”, by Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway.
With the passage on April 6 of a bill that would stop the U.S. EPA’s regulations of greenhouse gases from moving forward, the House of Representatives signaled in crystal clear legislative language that it flat out does not believe that manmade climate change is a real phenomenon that poses risks to Americans’ health and welfare.
I say this because, during the debate on the EPA measure (which failed in the Senate and was not attached to the 11th hour budget agreement), the House held a separate vote on an amendment which for the first time put all Members on record about whether they agree with the scientific evidence showing that the global climate is warming, and this warming is likely due in part to human activities. This vote was as close to a climate science litmus test as you’re ever going to get.
Offered by three Democrats - Henry Waxman, Jay Inslee, and Diana DeGette - the amendment would have added language to the bill stating that Congress agrees with the EPA’s findings on climate science.
The amendment stated: “Congress accepts the scientific findings of the Environmental Protection Agency that climate changes is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for public health and welfare.”
The EPA’s findings were in turn based on peer reviewed scientific research and the findings contained in reports from groups such as the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the U.S. government’s Global Change Research Program, and the National Academy of Sciences.
From a scientific perspective, the amendment’s language was rather benign. It was not a climate alarmist statement, nor did it overstep the science as expressed by highly-regarded research groups, not to mention the trove of peer reviewed scientific studies on climate change that seem to multiply by an order of magnitude each week.
The fact that it failed by a vote of 184 to 240 (three Democrats were among those who rejected the amendment; one Republican supported it) signals the depth of the problem that scientists, environmental policy advocates, environmentalists, and others face in pushing for climate change action at the federal level. A majority of one chamber of the Congress just does not agree with the conclusions of most publishing climate scientists. This is a remarkable turn of events, considering that the last Congress narrowly passed a sweeping greenhouse gas regulation bill, which died in the Senate.
Speaking on the House floor, Congressman Waxman said it best when he stated last week, “As long as Congress pretends that climate change isn’t occurring, we can justify not addressing it.”
Rep. DeGette also framed the issue well. “We in Congress can certainly change the laws of this country, but last I heard we cannot change the laws of nature.”
Now before I portray all Republicans as a bunch of climate science know-nothings bent on destroying the planet, there are many reasons one might vote to halt the EPA’s climate regulations and oppose the Waxman amendment, reasons that have nothing to do with the climate science.
Climate policy scholars have long argued over what the best way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and EPA regulations have typically been viewed as a last resort rather than a front line weapon because they are thought to be more cumbersome and potentially more costly as other regulatory tools. In fact, during the debate last week many Republicans argued that Congress, not the EPA, should address this issue.
However, that’s not likely to happen if many Members don’t recognize that the problem exists.
The House vote is particularly disturbing given that it comes at a time when climate scientists are issuing increasingly dire warnings of what’s in store for a super-greenhouse future, and many other countries are making serious attempts at addressing the problem. For example, a recent study concludes that the temperature target countries agreed to during the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009 is no longer feasible because emissions are rising too quickly. And the American Medical Association just warned doctors that they have to plan for increasing public health impacts from climate change.
As someone who speaks with climate scientists every day to learn about their research, and who believes passionately in the importance of a healthy relationship between scientists and policy makers, it’s simply embarrassing to see lawmakers act with such disregard for scientific evidence.
It also raises an unsettling question: where do we go from here?
The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.