“Climate change is an issue that is personal to me, and it has been since the 1980s, when we were organizing the very first climate hearings in the Senate…. Al Gore, Tim Wirth, and a group of us organized the first hearings in the Senate on this, 1988. We heard Jim Hansen sit in front of us and tell us it’s happening now, 1988.”
–Secretary of State John F. Kerry, remarks to the Atlantic Council, March 12, 2015
Does Secretary Kerry have a Brian Williams problem?
In a speech to the Atlantic Council about climate change, he mentioned that he was part of group that included then-Sen. Al Gore and then-Sen. Timothy Wirth in organizing the first Senate hearings on climate change.
This is not the first time he has made such a claim.
In 2007, in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, he asserted, “I was privileged to be part of the first hearings that we held in the United States Congress on this subject, with Al Gore, on the Commerce Committee, where we sat together in 1987, 20 years ago.”
In 2009, speaking at a Senate hearing at which Gore testified, Kerry said: “It’s well known that Al and I have a certain political experience in common. What is less well-known is that we also teamed up on the first-ever Senate hearing on climate change for the Commerce Committee back in 1988.” (He also said something in yet another Council on Foreign Relations speech in 2009.)
In a 2010 article for The Huffington Post, Kerry wrote: “My bottom line: Al Gore and I held the Senate’s first climate change hearings in the Commerce Committee way back in 1988. Since then, precious little progress has been made and ground has been lost internationally, all while the science has grown more compelling.”
And, in a 2014 profile of Kerry in The Boston Globe, Andrew Holland of the American Security Project was quoted as saying Kerry “has had a personal interest in climate change going back to when he worked with Al Gore in 1988 on the first climate hearing on Capitol Hill.” Holland told The Fact Checker that the source of this factoid was Kerry himself.
In all of the statements, there is a common theme—Kerry and Gore, riding shotgun together, organizing the “very first” Senate or Capitol Hill hearings on climate change. So was this what really happened?
Determining the first hearing on climate change is somewhat open to interpretation. In theory, one could go back to the 1960s. Or one could focus on hearings in the House and Senate in the 1970s, which led to the creation of the National Climate Program Act of 1978 to study the impact of climate change. Kerry did not join the Senate until 1985, and some argue that those earlier hearings did not specifically focus on a possible global warming trend and the role of humans in climate change.
Yet, in 1982, while in the House of Representatives, then-Rep. Al Gore (D-Tenn.) organized a hearing that for the first time featured the testimony of James E. Hansen, then head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Hansen in 2007 recalled that testimony, saying he told Congress that data indicated that the earth had warmed 0.7 degrees Fahrenheit over the previous century. Even earlier, in 1981, Gore (with Rep. James H. Scheuer of New York) arranged a hearing that featured the testimony of scientist Roger Revelle on global warming–which some experts peg as the first congressional hearing on climate change.
Rafe Pomerance, in a chapter on the “public awakening” to climate warming in a 1989 book, “The Challenge of Global Warming,” highlights the Gore hearings, as well as 1986 hearings chaired by Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.), as calling attention to the impact of greenhouse gases. The Chafee hearings “transformed the priority of the greenhouse issue, making it more important in policy discussions,” Pomerance wrote.
Then came Hansen’s testimony on June 23, 1988, before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. That hearing was presided over and organized by then-Sen. Timothy Wirth (D-Colo.), who later told an interviewer that, for a bit of stage effect, he chose a particularly hot day in the summer—it turned out to be a record high–and left the windows of the hearing room open the night before. Thus witnesses were sweltering and wiping their brows as they testified about global warming. (Note: We later determined that Wirth’s anecdote was false.)
Hansen’s testimony was considered a bombshell—he said it was 99-percent certain that a global warming trend was the result of man-made pollution–and the hearing ended up on the front page of The New York Times.
“I don’t think there was any single congressional hearing in the 1970s or early 1980s that had any strong impact. There were, as you say, a number of hearings, but none stands out as special,” said Spencer R. Weart, former director of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. “It is widely agreed, on the other hand, that the committee hearing of June 23, 1988, and in particular Jim Hansen’s testimony there and his talk with reporters afterward, was a milestone. In connection with serious climate problems in the United States that summer, it made a huge media splash and did a lot to elevate global warming into public awareness.”
Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard University, echoed that assessment. “There were important reports and meetings before then but I’d say that was the first that got widespread public and media attention so far as I know,” she said.
In his Atlantic speech, Kerry suggested he had organized that hearing with Wirth and Gore: “Al Gore, Tim Wirth, and a group of us organized the first hearings in the Senate on this, 1988. We heard Jim Hansen sit in front of us and tell us it’s happening now, 1988.”
This is not the first time Kerry placed himself at this hearing. Back in 2009, Kerry even mentioned opening the windows: “On a sweltering June day, some Senate staff opened up the windows and drove home the point for everyone sweating in their seats during Dr. James Hansen’s historic and tragically prescient testimony.”
But neither Kerry nor Gore was a member of the Energy and Natural Resources committee–though, as we noted, Gore as a House member certainly was responsible for Hansen’s first testimony before Congress. (We should note that the chairman of the committee at the time was J. Bennett Johnson Jr., who opened the hearing and then turned the gavel over to Wirth.)
So what is Kerry talking about? Alec Gerlach, a Kerry spokesman, pointed to another hearing, held in February of 1989 by the Commerce Committee. The chairman of the committee was Ernest F. “Fritz” Hollings (D-S.C.) and Gore at the time was chairman of the subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space. The purpose of the hearing was to highlight a bill introduced by Hollings that would require government research into the impact of climate change.
Gore’s panel held a follow-up hearing the next day. Kerry did speak at the Hollings-led hearing, and attended the Gore hearing, but he was only the fourth-ranked Democrat on the subcommittee. (He co-chaired an ocean-policy panel with Hollings.) Both Gore and Kerry praised Hollings for his leadership on the issue.
In a statement, Gerlach said:
“Secretary Kerry rightly referred to the work he contributed to in the Senate along with Senators Gore and Wirth beginning in 1988 and 1989 on the issue of climate change, a cause he’s been committed to for his entire career. As the Secretary made clear, these hearings were a turning point: the first to point to new research that made clear the human impact on increasing greenhouse gasses was connected to climate change and a warming planet. No prior congressional discussions had made that critical connection. Without that link to a human impact, the case for this generation to act to curb emissions is dampened, but as Secretary Kerry made clear in his remarks, since those hearings: ‘the science has been screaming at us, warning us, trying to compel us to act.’”
In other words, Gerlach is suggesting that Kerry, in referring to “organizing the very first climate hearings,” is speaking about multiple hearings, including those that did not include his participation.
But is that how ordinary people understand Kerry’s repeated references? Holland, who was quoted in the Boston Globe article, said: “I was repeating what I’d heard him say a few times in both public and private conversations.” He added: “That said, I’m not the person with the best knowledge of this issue.”
The Pinocchio Test
To be fair to Kerry, he has been involved in the debate about climate change for many years, as a member of the Senate. He can certainly claim to have been passionate about the issue for a long time. While he may have been a junior member of the Senate in the late 1980s, his role on the issue certainly grew as he gained seniority.
But his pattern of exaggeration about the congressional hearings is disturbing. On repeated occasions, he has said or suggested that he and Gore were responsible for the first congressional hearing on climate change–and that he was one of the Senators who participated in the pivotal 1988 Hansen hearing organized by Wirth.
Gore might have bragging rights about organizing one of the first hearings, but not Kerry. Kerry was not even a participant in the most important hearing of that time; he simply spoke at a hearing that took place the following year. And yet, like Brian Williams claiming to have come under fire in Iraq, Kerry has repeatedly placed himself at the center of the action—and the narrative.
He earns Four Pinocchios. (Read our follow-up to this column, disclosing new information on the Hansen hearing.)
Send us facts to check by filling out this form