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FYI Number 87: July 26, 2002

Hearings Highlight Differences on Bush Global Climate Change Policy

Hearings held two weeks ago by House and Senate committees revealed both consensus and conflict surrounding the Bush Administration's global climate change policy. With rare exception, almost all agreed that the world's climate had warmed. The causes of this warming trend and what should be done to counteract it remain in contention.

The first hearing was before the House Science Committee. Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) began by saying, "It's extremely hard to figure out what the Administration is doing in, or planning for, its climate change science and technology programs. We have had trouble getting answers to our questions and we've heard contradictory descriptions of programs from different agencies and even from different parts of the White House."

Three Administration witnesses testified: OSTP Director John Marburger, DOE Undersecretary Robert Card, and Commerce Assistant Secretary James Mahoney. Marburger defended the Administration's program, explaining the need for a science- based policy, that scientific uncertainties were real and significant, and existing climate models limited in their scope. Mahoney, the director of the federal interagency climate change program, called climate change the "capstone issue of our generation." He feared advocates of an immediate reduction in greenhouse gas emissions were employing a "ready- fire-aim" strategy. He admitted that "Yes, there is a problem," but then added, "what specifically do we do about the problem?" Mahoney briefly described a major workshop in early December that will lead to the development of a comprehensive plan. Card's testimony centered on two points: first, the Administration's plan to reduce the "intensity" of emissions (defined as the emissions per dollar of GDP) by 18% over the next ten years, which he said would be both "meaningful and difficult." Second, he advocated the development of nuclear, fusion, wind, hydro, and clean coal technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

There was considerable discussion about the Administration's plan. Marburger said "I believe that an intensity goal is an appropriate goal for the state of knowledge that we have and for the nature of the problem." The alternative method for the reduction of emissions, he said, would be the curtailment or elimination of industrial operations. Marburger admitted, however, that he did "not expect to see" a reduction in the absolute emissions during the ten year period. The discussion turned to nuclear power, with Card declaring that it is difficult to be serious about a climate change strategy without being serious about increasing the utilization of nuclear power. There needs, Card said, to be a large change in the nation's energy mix. Regarding climate models, Marburger contended that they "are not yet up to the point where they can provide useful advice," calling for their further refinement since "the empirical data always comes too late" about such phenomenons.

If the exchanges between the Administration witnesses and the members of the House Science Committee were relatively low- key, the hearing the next day before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee was anything but. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) charged that the Administration's policy "appears to have taken several steps backwards," later declaring "I believe the [Administration's] commitment remains rhetorical." "This issue has been talked and talked for too long now," he said. Joining Kerry in his criticism was Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who cited the then-raging Arizona wild fires as evidence for those predicting that climate change would lead to increased fire hazards. He was, he said, disappointed with the "business as usual approach." Declared Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), "At this point, I think this is a fight."

The Chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, James Connaughton, seemed to be the point man for the Administration at this hearing. Also testifying were Marburger, Mahoney, and R. Glenn Hubbard, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. Connaughton and Hubbard contended that an immediate reduction in greenhouse gases would seriously damage the economy. Using the intensity approach to eventually reduce the level of emissions would be less harmful, they claimed.

Kerry pressed Hubbard on the warnings contained in the Administration's "U.S. Climate Action Report" (see FYI #73). "These are projections based on scenarios," not predictions, Hubbard replied. The discussion returned to the intensity approach, Kerry charging that it would allow emissions to increase. Boxer called the Administration's approach a smokescreen, and said "It's baloney."

The discussion went back and forth, with neither side on this issue yielding little if any ground. At the conclusion of the hearing, Kerry and the Administration officials spoke of a willingness to work toward a common approach. Judging from the tone of the Senate hearing, that consensus will not be forthcoming in the near future.

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

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