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Senate Panel Reviews President's Climate Action Plan

White House Climate Action Plan: Image of Community Climate System Model simulation

This image depicts a single month from a simulation of the 20th century by the NCAR-based Community Climate System Model (now the Community Earth System Model). A large collaborative and interdisciplinary community of scientists has built and refined this computer model into one of the world’s most powerful tools for simulating the complex interactions of Earth’s climate system, including the atmosphere, oceans, sea ice, and land surface. This image captures wind directions, ocean surface temperatures, and sea ice concentrations. (Image courtesy Gary Strand, NCAR.)

January 27, 2014 | The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a four-hour hearing on January 16 to review the President’s Climate Action Plan (PDF). Released last June, the plan has three prongs: to cut carbon pollution in the U.S., to prepare the U.S. for the impacts of climate change, and to lead international efforts to combat global climate change and prepare for its impacts.

The hearing, led by Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-CA), was well-attended, with nearly all of the 18 senators who serve on the Committee in attendance and delivering opening statements. Nine witnesses testified at the hearing, including the former Governor of Colorado Bill Ritter and two atmospheric scientists, Dr. Andrew Dessler of Texas A&M University and Dr. Judith Curry of Georgia Tech. You can see the full witness list here.

Opening statements

In the senators’ opening statements, the discussion frequently returned to questions about the credibility of climate science and the extent and nature of the President’s and the Environmental Protection Agency’s powers to address climate change by limiting carbon pollution.

Many Republican senators on the Committee, including Ranking Member David Vitter (R-LA), made statements critical of federal efforts to address climate change, saying, for example, that the President’s plan would have major economic consequences while offering minimal environmental benefit. Senator Vitter said President Obama was “legislating [climate policy] by fiat” despite the Senate’s “solid rejection” of carbon cap-and-trade legislation in 2009.

Other Republican senators, including Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), expressed concern for vulnerable low-income consumers, whom he said would face higher electricity and gasoline costs as a result of climate regulations, and for mining communities that he said would suffer further job losses as a result of EPA regulations. Senator Barrasso said the EPA was “colluding” with the Sierra Club to establish a new formula for the social cost of carbon, a key metric used in determining the stringency of federal carbon regulations, saying the new formula would result in the shuttering of many coal-fired power plants.

Senator Wicker (R-MS) stated that the EPA was overreaching its authority and that EPA staff have “anointed themselves both legislators and administrators” of the President’s plan at a time when Congress has not approved it. He quoted founding framer of the Constitution James Madison, who stated in 1788, "There can be no liberty where the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or body of magistrates."

Of particular interest to the scientific community was the assertion that the climate science, including modeling, is flawed. Senator Sessions (R-AL) stated that the President “misrepresents climate science” and that average global surface temperatures have not increased since 1998. Senator Boozman (R-AR) agreed, stating “the climate is not doing what the models predicted” and that the models cannot predict and adequately explain the consequences of climate change “enough to justify expensive policies that will lead to higher electricity and food prices.”

The opening statements by the Democratic senators were unanimous in support of the President’s plan. Chairwoman Boxer and Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) framed their support for the President’s plan as essential to ensuring that future generations of Americans inherit a clean, safe, and habitable planet.

Chairwoman Boxer cited the latest scientific studies that indicate the Earth will warm by 7 degrees Celsius by 2100, arguing that “future generations will look back to this moment and judge each of us.” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-WI) addressed those who question the scientific consensus on climate change, stating: “My belief is that the propaganda machine behind the climate denial effort will go down in history as one of our great American scandals like the Teapot Dome.… Most Americans see through it.”

Witness Panels

The four witnesses on the first panel enumerated the actions their respective organizations are taking in response to the President’s plan. Gina McCarthy, Administrator of the EPA, testified that the agency has worked to improve vehicle emissions standards and cut gasoline consumption. She also credited her agency with the successful use of existing carbon capture technology at power plants that burn fossil fuels.

Ms. Nancy Sutley, Chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, stated that the President’s plan has helped improve the nation’s infrastructure in order to strengthen the country’s resilience to extreme weather and climate change impacts. Agencies, she said, are already releasing climate change adaptation plans.

Mr. Dan Tangherlini, Administrator of the General Services Administration, testified that the Government Accountability Office added climate change to its “red flag,” high-risk list in 2013. He explained how the GSA is working to reduce energy consumption across the federal government through energy efficiency measures. He also stated that almost half of the energy the federal government used in 2013 came from renewables.

The second panel of witnesses included two atmospheric scientists and two policy experts. Mr. Bill Ritter listed the efforts Colorado has made at the state level. He testified that many states are working with each other to take the lead in acting, but will need the federal government’s support as outlined in the President’s plan to build new energy business models that create jobs.

Dr. Andrew Dessler stated that climate science gives ample evidence that climate change is happening. He said the "standard model” has made successful predictions but these successes are not mentioned as often as the deviations. He observed that science tends to talk about what is not known, more than what is known.

Dr. Judith Curry, the final panelist, said that policy should not be based on the climate science as it exists today. She stated that global climate models are too sensitive to CO2 and added that there has been no measurable increase in extreme weather based on the historical record. She also stated that climate models and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change cannot explain the recent hiatus in warming.

An archived webcast of the full hearing is available here.

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