Republicans seize on climate errors to challenge EPA

Senate Republicans on Tuesday seized on errors in a United Nations climate change report and the recent “Climategate” e-mail controversy to press the administration to drop its push to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Democrats, meanwhile, countered that the overwhelming evidence suggested human activity was causing global warming and compared climate change skeptics to people in the 1930s who refused to believe Nazism was a threat.

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The debate, which took place at a Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee hearing that was scheduled to review the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2011 budget, will likely do little to build consensus around climate change legislation or an effort at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate heat-trapping gases.

At the end of the contentious hearing, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson insisted she had not seen any new evidence to lead her to reassess EPA’s finding that greenhouse gases posed a threat to human health and welfare and therefore should be regulated through the Clean Air Act.

EPA regulations now being written would force utilities, refiners and large manufacturers to cut greenhouse gas emissions most scientists link to global warming.

Republicans may try to block EPA from acting through legislation that could face a vote as soon as next month, and the hearing Tuesday seemed designed to help build a record of support for that action.

The EPA is making its push as a Senate climate change bill remains stalled, although supporters continue backroom negotiations over subsidies for nuclear power and “clean” coal to attract centrist support for a cap on carbon.

Jackson said she preferred that Congress pass climate legislation but felt compelled to act by a Supreme Court decision that allows EPA to regulate carbon dioxide. She said that much of the research into whether greenhouse gases endangered human health and welfare, a precursor to regulatory action, was conducted during the George W. Bush administration.

EPA action is controversial, however, even among some Democrats. Eight wrote Jackson last Friday expressing concern that regulating carbon and other heat-trapping gases could hurt the economy.

Jackson told reporters that she believed her agency was giving business the “predictability and time” to meet any new standards, thus minimizing economic harm.

She sought to reassure the eight senators on Monday that the regulations would not go into effect until the second half of 2011, and would be applied then only to the largest emitters. Other emitters would come under the regulation in subsequent years, although it isn’t yet clear how the rule would be applied.

Jackson said that one component of the rulemaking effort has attracted nearly 500,000 comments and that some of the concerns expressed would be reflected in final regulations.

Committee Republicans focused on three areas to combat the push to regulate greenhouse gases: a series of what they called “gaffes” in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that they contend undermine the panel’s credibility; “Climategate” e-mails hacked from a leading British research institution that seem to suggest climate scientists sought to suppress dissenting views; and a statement by a leading climate scientist that there had been no “statistically significant” warming in the last 15 years.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who seven years ago famously called global warming the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” declared that the recent record proves he was right. Climate scientists have “cooked the books,” Inhofe said.

The gaffes Republicans pointed to in the IPCC report include an unsubstantiated claim that Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035, that 40 percent of the Amazon rainforest was endangered because of warming and that African crop production could fall as much as 50 percent.

Inhofe said the IPCC report has been “discredited,” an assertion Democrats refuted.

Inhofe also repeatedly referred to a statement from Phil Jones, director of the East Anglia Climate Research Unit, the research institution that was hacked. Jones told the BBC that there had been no statistically significant warming over the past 15 years.

Environmental groups said Inhofe had taken Jones’s statement out of context. The Union of Concerned Scientists noted, for example, that Jones said he was certain the earth had warmed over the past century, and that Jones said temperatures had risen over the past decade and a half, just not high enough to be statistically significant.

“The way to evaluate climate trends is to look at scientific records over time,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said during the hearing. Her statement was intended to combat another argument used recently by climate skeptics: that recent mid-Atlantic snowstorms show global warming is not real.

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The fight over EPA is important because climate legislation is uncertain in the Senate, including a bill passed by a deeply divided EPW Committee last fall.

Inhofe insisted a cap-and-trade bill could not pass the full Senate. He said there were only 20 votes of support, far from the 60 necessary to end a filibuster.

That would leave the EPA to act on its own — which Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) referred to as a “backdoor” effort to “circumvent” the stalled Senate climate bill.

Democrats compared Republicans to Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who has been judged harshly by history for embracing the policy of “appeasement” toward Hitler’s militarism.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said history could be an even harsher judge of climate deniers because they seem to be motivated by the desires of special interests — e.g., fossil-fuel companies — rather than science.

“Nobody accused [Chamberlain] of having an ulterior motive,” Whitehouse said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) suggested that critics of climate legislation may be motivated by campaign contributions from fossil-fuel industries.

“Global warming is real,” Sanders said.

Democrats also defended the IPCC report even as they sought to distance the research from it, noting that NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and leading science-based organizations have all stated that human activity is causing global warming.