7:52am

Thu February 10, 2011
Opinion

New Republic: The Wilting Climate Change Debate

Bradford Plumer is the associate editor for The New Republic.

If you spend enough time listening to climate deniers speak, you start to recognize certain tropes and tics that crop up again and again. There's the personal conversion story, for instance. The skeptic explains how, once upon a time, he, too, blindly accepted everything climatologists had to say about how human activity is heating the planet. But then, as he began to pore over the evidence, the holes in the theory became readily apparent, and, more in sorrow than anger, the skeptic had to conclude that the scientific consensus was wrong.

Indeed, it's such a common theme that, yesterday, when Oklahoma senator James Inhofe kicked off his testimony at a House hearing on the EPA's carbon regulations with a St. Augustine-like confession, it seemed obvious what would follow. Inhofe was testifying about a bill he has sponsored that would overrule the EPA's scientific finding that heat-trapping greenhouse gases pose a threat to public health and welfare. "I have to admit — and, you know, confession is good for the soul," Inhofe began. "I, too, once thought that catastrophic global warming was caused by anthropogenic gases — because everyone said it was."

But, all of the sudden, Inhofe seemed too bored to recap his now-familiar screed against climate science. Instead, he was content to leave it at, "There's nothing conclusive in the science," noting that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had been "totally debunked" by the great Climategate scandal of 2009. Never mind that three separate investigations have cleared East Anglia researchers of any wrongdoing. Inhofe simply cited The Daily Telegraph, which called the whole affair "the greatest scandal in modern science." Later on, when Democrat Jay Inslee asked Inhofe if he really thought he was smarter than the IPCC's 2,000 climate scientists, Inhofe brushed the question aside, noting that he'd already given "five speeches on the science." (To hear more, we may just have to wait for Inhofe's forthcoming book, which he previewed at the hearing: "I won't tell you what it's about, but it's titled The Hoax.")

Is this what the climate-change debate has come to? Just two years ago, after Barack Obama's victory, environmental groups were ecstatic at the prospect that the United States might finally do something serious about climate change. But now, after the cap-and-trade bill failed in the Senate and Republicans won big at the midterms, it's the skeptics who are giddy — so giddy, in fact, that they barely even feel the need to argue their case.

Take Fred Upton, the new chair of the House energy and commerce committee, who is working with Inhofe on the stop-the-EPA bill. Upton once thought climate change was "a serious problem." But, just this week, he said at a National Journal event, "I do not say that it is man-made." Surprisingly, he didn't feel the need to explain his shift — he recently told Politicothat he probably wouldn't bother to hold climate-science hearings. (Another newly minted GOP skeptic, Illinois's Mark Kirk, explained his recent about-face by citing "the personal and political collapse of Al Gore.") At the hearing on Wednesday, Texas Republican Joe Barton was simply content to quote former EPA economist Alan Carlin saying that the theory that humans were warming the planet failed to "conform with real world data." (He didn't trouble himself explaining what real-world data he was referring to. Record temperatures? Dwindling ice caps? Who can say?)

And if Republicans want to gloss over the scientific evidence, there's not much Democrats can do about it. Representative Bobby Rush, of Illinois lamented that no actual scientists had been invited to the hearing; Republicans had mainly summoned industry representatives to complain about the costs of carbon rules. And, in his own opening statement, an exasperated Representative Henry Waxman of California tried to warn his fellow Republicans, "You do not have the power to rewrite the laws of nature." Maybe so. But now that they have a majority in the House, Republicans certainly have the power to ignore nature.

So what about the EPA's new greenhouse gas rules that were being discussed at the hearing? The basic story is fairly simple. Back in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA had to regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act if the agency found that those gases pose a threat to public health and welfare (which, most scientists agree, they do). As it turns out, even George W. Bush's EPA administrator, Stephen Johnson, conceded that the agency would have to start regulating carbon-dioxide. And, under Obama, the EPA has been putting forward new rules to control pollution from cars and stationary sources. (Here's a full primer on the topic.)

Republicans, for their part, are trying to argue that these regulations will crush the U.S. economy. At Wednesday's hearing, they invited Steve Rowlan, a representative from Nucor — a major U.S. steel producer — to explain how his company had to build a $750 million plant in Louisiana instead of a $2 billion one because of "the uncertainty created by these regulations." Likewise, Jim Pearce, an official from soda-ash manufacturer FMC Corp., warned that new pollution controls could drive businesses offshore.

All these examples may be true (and certainly there's room to quibble with the EPA's new study suggesting that forthcoming clean-air regulations will actually create jobs). But, then again, no one suggests that these carbon rules are free — companies will have to spend money on pollution controls and efficiency upgrades. The environmentalist argument is that the benefits outweigh the costs. And that's something Republicans would rather not confront head-on. At one point, Representative Ed Whitfield of Kentucky informed EPA head Lisa Jackson that her agency's new fuel economy standards would add $948 to the cost of a car by 2016. But that's only a decisive argument against if you ignore the fact that the rules will save consumers far more than that amount in gas costs — to say nothing of whatever clean-air benefits ensue. (All told, EPA estimates the benefits at $240 billion.)

That brings us to the nub of the debate. If you don't believe climate change is a problem, then most of these new carbon rules are pointless. And, within the Republican Party, the belief that global warming is a made-up non-problem has become thoroughly ingrained — so much so that it's no longer even worth justifying. Copyright 2011 The New Republic. To see more, visit http://www.tnr.com/.

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