House hearings on EPA rulemaking offers opportunities — and challenges and frustrations — of re-teaching and re-learning fundamentals of climate science … and of the proverbial ‘consensus.’

Listening to testimony at a recent House subcommittee hearing on “Climate Science and EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Regulations,” one gets the feeling that we’ve been here before.

How many times do lawmakers have to be schooled on Climate Science 101? Of course, that wasn’t really the point of the March 8 hearing, which featured testimony from mainstream climate scientists, committed climate skeptics, and plenty of leading questions and commentary from lawmakers not really looking for answers.


After all, the hearing was mainly intended as political theater, in advance of the subcommittee’s March 10 vote to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its power to regulate greenhouse gases emitted from power plants, refineries, and other sources. On Tuesday, March 15, the full Energy and Commerce Committee approved the bill, known as The Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011, or H.R. 910. A floor vote in the House is expected later this spring, and its prospects in the Republican-controlled House appear bright.

The bill faces a tougher time in the Senate, where Democrats are still in control. On Wednesday, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Michigan), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Ed Whitfield, (R-Kentucky), chair of the subcommittee on Energy and Power that held the March 8 hearing on climate science, met with Senate Republicans to discuss advancing the proposed legislation.

Interestingly, it was Democrats who had requested the March 8 subcommittee hearing in the House, presumably to once again get what they regard as mainstream climate science on the record before H.R. 910 passed. Republicans, with firm control of the House, were happy to oblige and brought out their own witnesses to discredit the body of scientific evidence that supports today’s “consensus” on climate science.

Skeptic John Christy: Climate Science ‘Murky’

Here’s how John R. Christy, director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama-Huntsville and a critic of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, framed the IPCC’s evolving view of the threat of continued warming:

“Consensus … is a political notion, not a scientific notion,” he said in written testimony. “As I testified to the Inter-Academy Council last June, the IPCC and other similar Assessments do not represent for me a consensus of much more than the consensus of those who already agree with a particular consensus.”

Christy went on to call climate science “a murky science.”

Whitfield actually bristled at the idea of his panel’s holding yet another hearing on the science of climate change. “The Energy Tax Prevention Act, far from being an attack on global warming science as some have suggested, is in fact a repudiation of a regulatory scheme that will only harm the American economy and destroy jobs,” he said in his statement.

So, while the science of climate change and mainstream climate scientists were once again put on the block, the Republican majority is primarily focused on not allowing EPA to be used as an instrument of the federal government to lower carbon emissions.

If EPA Actions Barred … the Common Law Nuisance Option?

One perspective is that Congressional Republicans may want to be careful what they wish for. In the absence of federal regulations, environmentalists are sure to push harder in the courts, arguing that federal common law can be used to declare that greenhouse gas emissions are a nuisance that requires relief. On April 19, the U.S. Supreme Court is to hear arguments in Connecticut v. American Electric Power, a case in which the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that states and private environmental organizations could sue greenhouse gas emitters under federal common law.

If Republican-sponsored bills to strip the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions were to become law, (not highly likely in the next two years given Senate Democrats’ opposition and prospects of a presidential veto) “it will create a vacuum of regulation over GHGs which the federal common law could rush back in to fill,” wrote Peter A. Appel, an associate professor at the University of Georgia School of Law, in the online magazine Slate on February 10.

“Congressional Republicans would be better off leaving the EPA’s rules alone for now if they want to avoid what may be an even more invasive fate: regulation by federal injunction,” Appel wrote.

It appears, however, that Congressional Republicans are charging ahead full steam.

Interpreting Latest Gallup Poll Findings

Meanwhile, a new poll suggests that Americans continue to express less concern about global warming than they have in the past — although the decline has stabilized since last year, according to Gallup’s annual Environment poll conducted March 3-6. Fifty-one (51) percent say they worry a great deal or a fair amount about the problem, compared with 66 percent three years ago and 72 percent in 2000.

More than 4 in 10 Americans (43 percent) say they believe that the seriousness of global warming is generally exaggerated in the news, according to the Gallup poll. But on this point, Democrats and Republicans are highly divided. Only 22 percent of Democrats believe the news exaggerates the seriousness of global warming, but 67 percent of Republicans believe that’s the case.

An AP news story about the poll can be found here.

Joe Romm, the well-known blogger at Climate Progress, not surprisingly offers a different take on the Gallup poll, arguing that American support for mainstream climate science remains stable.

Climate Consensus: From Building to Crashing?

New research by Dana R. Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, shows just how much the politics around global warming has changed in Washington. In February, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Fisher presented an analysis of hearings on climate change during the 109th Congress (2005-07), when George W. Bush was President and Republicans controlled both houses, and during the 110th Congress (2007-09), the last two years of the Bush presidency when Democrats controlled both houses.

In short, Fisher found that consensus had been building around the climate issue, and what to do about it, from the 109th Congress to the 110th Congress.

“I would argue that there’s been this progression away from the polarization around climate change, and I would have stood by that statement until at least the past few weeks,” Fisher said in a recent telephone interview.

Last summer, during the last months of the 111th Congress, likely offered the last opportunity — at least for quite some time — to enact substantive legislative action on reducing carbon emissions. Once Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) withdrew his support for the bill in April 2010 and the White House decided not to press the Senate as it had the House in the summer of 2009, it was all over for federal legislation.

“My research showed that we were moving toward consensus,” Fisher said. “Perhaps what my research (also) showed was that the 111th Congress is when they needed to do it. The opportunity was there, Graham jumped, and healthcare took over and the window closed.”

Somerville: No Partisan Thermometers

What we’ve been left with are hearings like the one on March 8. Richard Somerville, a long-time climate scientist and professor emeritus at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, CA who testified at the hearing, said the science shouldn’t be clouded by politics. Somerville was testifying as the witness invited by the committee’s minority Democrats.

“My view on this has always been that there aren’t any Republican or Democratic thermometers, or there aren’t any conservative or liberal satellites,” Somerville said by telephone shortly after the hearing. “It ought to be possible to arrive at a framing in which the science is more or less objective and agreed to, and then you can mix that in with your policy convictions and priorities and so on when you’re deciding what kind of action to take or not to take.

“But here [at the hearing] it was very clearly an attack on the science itself, that it’s not credible or not praiseworthy or not trustworthy. That’s a bit sad, you know?

“I don’t know of any other government in the world in a major country where a party that’s in control of one of the houses of the legislature basically has as the party line position to reject the findings of a major branch of modern science.”

Bruce Lieberman, a long-time journalist, has covered climate change science, policy, and politics for nearly two decades. A newspaper reporter for 20 years, Bruce worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune...