What started as a hearing Wednesday on the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed budget for the 2016 fiscal year turned into a political forum on the agency’s proposed climate change rules for power plants.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) decided to use the occasion to attack the rules by quizzing EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy on her climate and weather knowledge. The resulting exchange highlighted a new variant on the GOP’s longtime strategy to oppose climate change action: sowing doubt.
One by one, Sessions presented McCarthy with statements on very recent trends in drought, hurricanes and climate models, and asked whether she agreed with the statements. What all these trends had in common: They downplayed, at least superficially, the threat of climate change. Sessions cited figures showing that in roughly the past decade, soil moisture has slightly increased, that major hurricane landfalls in the United States have decreased, and that temperatures have risen less than many models predicted.
The cringe-inducing questioning by Sessions amounted to a series of “gotchas” aimed at an EPA administrator who not only isn’t a scientist but who obviously wasn’t going to prepare for a budget hearing by memorizing responses to all possible climate contrarian arguments. McCarthy deferred on most of Sessions’s questions, saying she was happy to provide answers in writing. “Well you need to know, because you’re asking this economy to sustain tremendous cost,” Sessions responded sternly.
Regarding Sessions’s question on whether climate models have overestimated global warming since the late 1990s (by the way, they haven’t), McCarthy responded at first that she disagreed. But later she added that she couldn’t give a better answer right away because she didn’t know which specific models Sessions was referencing.
Sessions declared victory: “This is a stunning development: that the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, who should know more than anybody else in the world, who’s imposing hundreds of billions of dollars in costs to prevent this climate — temperature increase, doesn’t know whether their projections have been right or wrong.”
Of course, McCarthy could very well go back to her office and submit a scientifically detailed response rebutting all of Sessions’s points. And as our Fact Checker has noted, Sessions and his fellow Republicans aren’t on such solid ground when they say that the EPA rules would devastate the economy.
But that doesn’t matter, as Sessions wasn’t trying to disprove climate change. He was merely trying to sow doubt. This has been the GOP playbook on climate change for years now. Today, we’re seeing a slightly different version of it. In past years, Republicans sought to sow doubt on climate change science itself. But here, Sessions was trying to cast doubt on McCarthy’s scientific knowledge to call into question her agency’s policy response to climate change.
Still, there’s no guarantee that the doubt strategy will work this time. Previously, it worked well, given that many Americans still believe scientists are divided on climate change and that Congress ultimately killed various climate bills. Now, however, the policymaking ball is in the EPA’s court. Absent a party change in the White House or a court ruling against the EPA, there’s little Republicans can do right now to stop the rules, no matter how much doubt they try to sow.