WASHINGTON – Four former Environmental Protection Agency administrators – all veterans of Republican administrations – are urging lawmakers to take action on global climate change, which one warned carries an “enormous consequence for our future.”
“We all know, after all, that the earth’s climate is changing,” former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who headed the EPA under President George W. Bush, told the Senate Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety. “We also know that human activity, although not solely responsible, as we should freely acknowledge, is both contributing to that change and increasing the risk that we will push the environment beyond the point upon which we can repair it.”
Those contributing to the problem, Whitman said, have “an obligation to contribute to its solution.”
Whitman was joined by William Ruckelshaus, the agency’s first administrator during the administration of President Richard Nixon; William K. Reilly, who served under President George H.W. Bush; and Lee Thomas, who held the post under President Ronald Reagan. All agreed that while a legitimate scientific debate exists over the pace and effects of climate change, there is no question that the earth is warming and that the human race is contributing to the change.
“The models of the world’s leading scientists predict rising seas, drought, floods, wildfires and more severe and frequent storms,” Rckelshaus said. “We are seeing impacts already.”
Ruckelshaus told the panel that the world’s oceans absorb 25 to 30 percent of produced carbon – an element thought to contribute to global climate change.
“The culprit is the same carbon that originated from fossil fuels that is contributing to planetary warming,” Ruckelshaus said.
If the U.S. fails to take action, Ruckelshaus noted, “nothing much will happen in the rest of the world.”
“Not taking action is a choice,” he said. “It is a choice that means we leave to chance the kind of future we want and opt out of the solution to a problem that we are a big part of.”
Reilly warned that change is underway “and we can expect to see many more disruptions, more intense storms, more wildfires, the spread of pests and diseases, storm surges that overwhelm coastal communities, heat waves and other impacts on our health, on water resources, on food production and on other sectors of our economy.”
“The longer we delay, the more adverse the impacts will be and the more expensive to address them,” he said. “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, especially carbon dioxide, can help fend off more draconian impacts later this century.”
The U.S., Reilly said, has an advantage in addressing the issue: technology and innovation.
“We have the know-how, the ingenuity, the entrepreneurial spirit, the ability to demonstrate leadership in tackling this challenge,” he said.
But if the four former GOP administrators were hoping for a political consensus on the issue, they left disappointed. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), ranking member on the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee, rejected “extreme claims” regarding global climate change over the past three decades, asserting that “the devastating impacts of global warming failed to come true.”
The earth’s climate, Vitter said, “has, is, and always will be changing” and many of the recent claims regarding global warming’s impact on the weather “were found to be without merit.” Rather, what has come to pass is “the economic calamity that befalls nations that head down the path President Obama unilaterally selected for America. It provides us a window into our future – and it looks bleak.”
Vitter was particularly critical of proposed new EPA regulations that impose tighter restrictions on emissions from coal-fired power plants – a step taken in part to combat global climate change.
“Instead of embracing our domestic energy resources and the bright economic light they provide in our otherwise dismal economy, the President’s Climate Action Plan moves us beyond coal, and eventually beyond natural gas, which they characterize as a bridge fuel,” Vitter said in a hearing room that included dozens of coal miners protesting against administration policies. He added that it is “an inescapable fact” that fossil fuels and nuclear will continue to meet demand for electricity for decades to come.
“There’s simply no way around it, because coal, natural gas and nuclear are abundant, affordable, and reliable,” he said. “If we deny this and pursue the pie-in-the-sky path of the administration and environmental groups, we will end up like Europe.”
Dr. Daniel Botkin, professor emeritus of biology at University of California, Santa Barbara, raised further questions about climate change science, insisting there are “major problems” within the reports warning of potential disasters.
“My biggest concern about the reports is that they present a number of speculative and sometimes incomplete conclusions embedded in language that gives them more scientific heft than they deserve,” Botkin said. “The reports, in other words, are ‘scientific-sounding’ rather than clearly settled and based on indisputable facts. Established facts about the global environment exist less often in science than laymen usually think.”
But Thomas told the committee that the climate change issue has been studied by the EPA and the global scientific community for decades “and since my time as administrator, the assessment of risk global warming poses to public health and the environment has continually improved and become more certain.”
“We know that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have increased by 40 percent since pre-industrial times,” Thomas said. “We know that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are warming the atmosphere, contributing to a more than 1.5 degree Fahrenheit rise in global temperatures since 1880. We know global sea level has risen by an average of eight inches since 1870 primarily from thermal expansion caused by warmer oceans and the melting of glaciers and the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheet.”
“Clearly, more action is needed to address the impacts today while addressing the larger issue of committing ourselves to avoiding dangerous levels of future warming,” he said.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee, maintained there exists an urgent need “to control carbon pollution so we can avoid the most calamitous impacts of climate change — such as rising sea levels, dangerous heat waves and economic disruption.”
“Power plants account for nearly 40 percent of all carbon pollution released into the air,” Boxer said. “Unlike other pollutants, right now there are no limits to the amount of carbon pollution that can be released into the air for power plants. The president’s carbon pollution reduction plan will avoid up to 6,600 premature deaths, 150,000 asthma attacks, 3,300 heart attacks, 2,800 hospital admissions, and 490,000 missed days at school and work.”