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FYI Number 31: March 20, 2001

House Science Committee Hearing on Global Climate Change

Last week's hearing by the House Science Committee on "Climate Change: The State of the Science" aptly, if unintentionally, illustrated "the state of the politics" surrounding this issue. On the same day that President George Bush announced his opposition to controls on carbon dioxide emissions, the Republican Chairman of the House Science Committee, Sherwood Boehlert (NY) declared this position "misguided and unjustified." Within minutes, the senior Democrat on the committee, Rep. Ralph Hall (TX), was praising the president for his announcement. And, as been the case at similar hearings, there was enough uncertainty about this phenomenon that Members on both sides of this issue could elicit responses to their questions supporting their positions.

Chairman Boehlert opened the hearing declaring "there is one principle concerning global climate change on which just about everyone can agree - and that's that we need a strong and continuing research program to understand more about climate." He later went on to say, "I wish the Administration would have waited to hear from experts like the ones we have before us today before embarking on what I believe is a misguided and unjustified reversal of position. But policy is not what we are focusing on at today's hearing."

Ranking Minority Member Hall described his position on global change as "poles apart" from Boehlert, saying that it was time to "retire" from this subject. Citing the Senate's overwhelming opposition to the Kyoto Treaty, he called it a waste of time to go to Japan.

The first witness was Daniel L. Albritton, Director of NOAA's Aeronomy Lab, and one of the Coordinating Lead Authors of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, "Climate Change 2001. The Scientific Basis." His testimony focused on several major points, stating at the outset that "it has become very clear for some time that we are changing the greenhouse radiation balance, namely: greenhouse gases are increasing in the atmosphere because of human activities, and increasingly trapping more heat." One of the key points in his testimony was that "a greenhouse-gas warming could be reversed only very slowly." Also testifying was Charles Kennel, Chairman of the Committee on Global Change Research of the National Research Council. This committee recently issued a report, "The Science of Regional and Global Change: Putting Knowledge to Work." He testified that the NRC "recommends establishing a high-level governmental authority to define the national priorities related to global and regional environmental research and decision-making. The authority should ensure and direct adequate resources to those priorities. Without such an authority, agencies will continue to fund only those areas that fall within their purview and the resulting patchwork of observing systems and research will not work as an effective decision-support system." The final witness, Berrien Moore, Director of the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space of the University of New Hampshire, outlined ten broad areas in which further effort is needed to understand and predict climate change. Among the ten were: "arrest the decline of observational networks in many parts of the world" and "sustain and expand the observational foundation for climate studies by providing accurate, long-term consistent data, including implementation of a strategy for integrated global observations."

Reaction from many committee members was largely supportive. Boehlert told the witnesses that "we need help," and asked each of them to identify three areas that should be addressed first. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) urged the witnesses to discuss the problem in "plain English," while Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) asked about disagreement in the scientific community about global change, and the positive and negative regional effects of warming. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) was openly skeptical about global change.

Boehlert concluded the hearing by commenting that there are few issues that are marked by 100% certainty. The key to dealing with skepticism about this issue, he said, is the support of research to characterize this problem.

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3095

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