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Setting the record straight: The real story of a pivotal climate-change hearing

Former U.S. senator Timothy Wirth (D-Colo.) in 2009 (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

“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.”

— The Fact Checker, “Kerry’s claim that he organized the ‘very first’ hearings on climate change,” March 18, 2015

The Fact Checker recently gave Four Pinocchios to Secretary of State John F. Kerry for repeatedly making the false claim that he organized the first Senate hearing on climate change. In the article, we recounted an often-told anecdote about the most famous climate-change hearing — the June 23, 1988 hearing at which James E. Hansen, then head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, declared it was 99 percent certain that a global warming trend was the result of human activity.

As shown in the quote above, we said the hearing was amplified for “stage effect” — a sweltering day made worse by leaving the hearing room windows open. The anecdote has been repeated in books and news articles, and Kerry often mentioned it in his remarks as if he had personally witnessed it.

For skeptics of climate change, the story has become an example of how left-leaning politicians have manipulated public perceptions on the issue.

But after the March 18 article was published, we received information suggesting that the stage-effect anecdote is simply not true. So let’s set the record straight.

The Facts

The inquiry began with an e-mail from Daryl Owen, who was the staff director of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee at the time. He wanted to note that then-Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) was the chairman of the committee, even if Wirth had presided over much of the June 23 hearing. And he wanted to dispute the story of the windows and how the hearing date was chosen.

“You may have been more successful in unearthing the archives than have I, but I can say with certainty that it was we who chose the hearing date, as that was the protocol of the committee,” Owen wrote. “Thus, the notion that it was chosen to coincide with a warm day in Washington is fiction, as is the notion that the hearing room windows were left open to warm the room.  In fact, I’ll have to check but I’m not even sure those windows can be opened.”

He added: “If you’ve ever seen the Chairman perspire, it would have been career ending to open the windows on a hot day for a hearing he was to attend.”

This sparked our interest. We dug into news reports at the time and found no reference to a particularly hot room. Alice Crites, ace researcher at The Washington Post, obtained a copy of the full hearing transcript (embedded at the end of the column). There is no reference to excessive heat in the hearing room or an apology from lawmakers for non-functioning air conditioning.

C-Span unfortunately does not have a copy of the hearing in its video library. But we found a brief clip  in an ABC News report on the 20th anniversary of the hearing (below) and also looked at archival photographs. We did not see any beads of sweat on the witnesses’ foreheads.

In fact, as far as we can determine, the story of the windows and the heat did not exist until Wirth gave an interview to PBS Frontline in 2007. Here’s the transcript of the relevant exchange:

What else was happening that summer? What was the weather like that summer?
Believe it or not, we called the Weather Bureau and found out what historically was the hottest day of the summer. Well, it was June 6 or June 9 or whatever it was, so we scheduled the hearing that day, and bingo: It was the hottest day on record in Washington, or close to it. It was stiflingly hot that summer. [At] the same time you had this drought all across the country, so the linkage between the Hansen hearing and the drought became very intense.
And did you also alter the temperature in the hearing room that day?
… What we did it was went in the night before and opened all the windows, I will admit, right? So that the air conditioning wasn’t working inside the room and so when the, when the hearing occurred there was not only bliss, which is television cameras in double figures, but it was really hot. …
So Hansen’s giving this testimony, you’ve got these television cameras back there heating up the room, and the air conditioning in the room didn’t appear to work. So it was sort of a perfect collection of events that happened that day, with the wonderful Jim Hansen, who was wiping his brow at the witness table and giving this remarkable testimony.

But Hansen says it did not happen that way. “Yes, the ‘window open’ bit is fiction,” he wrote an e-mail. “As for June 23 being chosen because it is the hottest day in climatology, I assume that is nonsense — I have not checked Washington’s climatology but the hottest day normally is some weeks after the beginning of summer, not two days.  I love Tim and his wife Wren, but he just made these up later to make it seem interesting.”

Eventually, we tracked down David Harwood, who was Wirth’s principal staff aide for climate change at the time. “The windows being open absolutely did not happen,” he said. “I know that did not happen. Tim would never have known, as he was a Senator of course. I have no idea where that came from.”

However, that day does hold the record high for Washington on June 23. And Harwood does recall that the room was hot because of all of the television cameras gathered for Hansen’s testimony. “The room was packed. It was definitely hot,” he said. “There was a palpable sense that something important was happening there.”

Harwood also confirmed that the hearing date would have been arranged to work with Johnston’s schedule, not because of a predicted temperature. In November of 1987, he said he had been assigned to help write a bill that would have mandated a 20-percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. Wirth’s plan had been to introduce the bill months later in the hottest period of the year — in July of 1988.

But the high temperature on the June hearing date was coincidental, Harwood said. Hansen had told Harwood he had something important he wanted to say. So, because of media attention concerning a global drought at the time, Harwood initially tried to convince the Agriculture Committee — chaired at the time by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) — to feature Hansen’s testimony. But Agriculture Committee staff members were unenthusiastic, and so Johnston’s committee became the natural venue for Hansen’s historic announcement.

Johnston, for his part, also recalls the room felt hot during the hearing and even has a vague sense that someone suggested opening the windows. (No such conversation appears in the hearing transcript.) “Tim was the moving force for the hearing,’ he acknowledged, adding that it was also scheduled to get ahead of a rival committee, Environment and Public Works, that he feared was also planning a climate-change hearing. “We wanted to protect our jurisdiction,” he said.

In the end, Wirth provided a lengthy statement to The Fact Checker in which he conceded he has spread incorrect information:

I am proud to have worked throughout 1988 to gain public and policymaker attention to the challenge of climate change. I believed then, as I do now, that this is the greatest, economic, environmental, and social issue facing humanity. I was determined to introduce a comprehensive policy proposal to combat climate change in the summer of 1988, when I knew public attention would be heightened.  
Prior to introduction of the climate legislation in July, and after my staff learned of the important testimony Dr. James Hansen was prepared to offer, I thought the timing for a hearing was propitious and I worked with colleagues on the Energy Committee to organize the June 23 hearing where Dr. Hansen gave his historic testimony.  In view of the major drought in the United States and around the world, growing scientific concern about global warming and the content of Dr. Hansen’s testimony, interest in the hearing was substantial. It was a 100 degree summer day in Washington and the room was packed with people and cameras – so it was warm and humid in the hearing room. 
Over the years, the testimony presented at that hearing has been identified as a key turning point in public understanding of the climate issue. Some myths about the hearing also have circulated over the years, including the idea that windows were left open or the air conditioning was not working. While I’ve heard that version of events in the past, and repeated it myself, I’ve since learned it didn’t happen. So let’s put those stories to rest and instead focus on the substance of the hearing — the brave and prescient testimony of Dr. Jim Hansen. Twenty-five years later we know he was absolutely correct, and that policymakers in the United States and around the world need to initiate far-reaching actions to address this enormous challenge.

The Pinocchio Test

So, here’s the reality. The room may have been a bit stuffy, but that was because of television cameras, not because of any manipulation of the windows or the air conditioning. And the hearing date was not set because it the hottest period of the year; instead, that was how the timetable for the bill was determined.

It is rather remarkable that events that happened just 27 years ago could so easily get twisted and misreported, based on one overenthusiastic interview. It is a quintessential example of Washington self-puffery. But The Fact Checker should have conducted more diligence in confirming the events as described by Wirth in 2007, notwithstanding how often the story had been repeated. (We recommend that PBS Frontline add a corrective note on the Web page containing the Wirth interview.)

Frankly, this now puts Kerry’s statements in an even a worse light. Not only did he place himself at a hearing he did not organize and attend, but he described witnessing events that did not happen.

We are happy to finally set the record straight. But Pinocchios to all concerned — including The Fact Checker.

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For other Fact Checks on climate change:

Fact Checker: Kerry’s claim that he organized the ‘very first’ hearings on climate change

Fact Checker: Ted Cruz’s claim that there has been ‘zero’ global warming in 17 years

Fact Checker: GOP lawmakers rush to cite study to discredit new EPA rule

Fact Checker: Rick Perry’s made-up ‘facts’ about climate change

Transcript of pivotal climate-change hearing 1988 by GlennKesslerWP