By Laura Barron-Lopez - 06/18/14 12:26 PM EDT
Four former Environmental Protection Agency administrators who served under Republican presidents on Wednesday said climate change should not be a partisan issue.
The former EPA chiefs told reporters that Republican lawmakers who believe the climate is changing should speak out because voters will be on their side.
The problem, the four former EPA administrators said, is looking at climate change through a partisan rather than policy lens.
When asked how the debate would be able to shift away from the debate over science, Christine Whitman, EPA chief under President George W. Bush, said it will take public pressure to make that happen.
"It will be the American people, those who want to talk about climate change — and there are Republicans who believe that the climate is changing and believe humans have an impact on that — but they need some cover and they will get it from the public," Whitman told a group of reporters before testifying before a Senate Environment and Public Works subpanel.
Whitman stressed that when the EPA was first established under Nixon it wasn't because "talking heads in Washington said this was great," it was because the public demanded it.
"It was the public that gave the cover during a contentious time," Whitman said, citing the race riots and Vietnam War in the 1970s.
When asked what they hoped to accomplish in testifying before the Senate, and if they believed Republicans, who have generally been vehemently opposed climate policies pushed by President Obama, would be responsive, all four said they are simply trying to inform the debate.
"The more people with some experience speak out and do it in a non-combative way the better it will be," Whitman said.
Former EPA chief under President George H.W. Bush, William Reilly added: "To extent that the public is presented with this issue and it's kept alive by people who have served Republican presidents, by people like us who are united in our views, then we can show it is a reasonable course to undertake."
Reilly praised the administration's new rules limiting carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants as the "first significant rule to effect greenhouse gases" in decades.
Still, barely a few minutes into the Wednesday hearing, the partisan fight began. Republicans chided Democrats for holding "climate change slumber parties" and voiced their anger with the new carbon rules.
The hearing room was filled to the brim with coal miners, who have come out against the administration's climate policies as well.
The former EPA heads remained optimistic that climate change would become a bigger issue for voters, and less partisan.
"You are going to find more and more [Republicans] speaking out," Whitman said "It won't be the issue that races hinge on, but a lot will come down to voter turnout."