Senate Turns Focus to Planning for Extreme Global-Warming Events

The first Senate hearing on climate change in years centered around an attempt to tie extreme weather -- from the derecho that knocked out power this summer in the D.C. area to the drought ravaging the Midwest -- to global warming.

But with such a contentious issue on the table at a hearing chaired by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), senators barely touched on the stated hearing purpose of determining how communities could steel themselves against calamitous acts of Mother Nature.

"Last month at Washington Reagan National Airport, a US Airways regional jet became stuck in on the tarmac when temperatures over 100 degrees melted the asphalt. There was a D.C. Metro train derailment just up the road last month after tracks buckled in the extreme heat," Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said at this morning's Environment and Public Works hearing.

"We need to adapt our water infrastructure, our transportation infrastructure, and our electrical grid" for the coming "consequences of climate change," Cardin added. "We need to help our farmers to adapt so that our food supply – and that of the world – remains reliable. We need to adapt our coastal regions and prepare for the sea-level rise that is already beginning to threaten some of our coastal communities. We need to improve our public health infrastructure to deal with the heat-related illnesses that result from these extreme temperatures."

As the hearing came on the heels of Monday sparring on the Senate floor between two committee members over global warming -- Ranking Member James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) -- the debate over whether the science supports climate-change models took center stage.

Sanders kicked off the week by taking to the floor to counter Inhofe's assertion that global warming is a hoax. "Many who take climate science seriously dismiss Sen. Inhofe. I believe that is a huge mistake," Sanders said. "For better or worse, when Sen. Inhofe speaks, the Republican Party follows. And when the Republican Party follows, it is impossible to get real work done in the Congress."

"The bottom line," Sanders said, "is that when Sen. Inhofe says global warming is a hoax, he is just dead wrong, according to the vast majority of climate scientists."

At today's hearing, Inhofe predicted that a look back over the three years since the committee last addressed climate change would be "a little painful for my friends on the other side," after "the global warming movement has completely collapsed and cap-and-trade is dead and gone."

The Republican noted that there were no federal witnesses before the panel "to testify about the grave dangers of global warming," mirroring President Obama's silence on the issue that has rankled many of his supporters.

"It must be very hard for my friends on the left to watch the president who promised he would slow the rise of the oceans posing in front of pipelines in my home state of Oklahoma, pretending to support oil and gas," Inhofe said. "I imagine they are trying to keep quiet because they know President Obama is still moving forward with his global-warming agenda -- he just doesn't want the American people to know about it."

Sanders said he and Inhofe have "profound disagreements" but "having honest and straightforward debates on this issue is good for the Senate."

Comparing scientists who don't buy global-warming arguments to doctors who don't believe that smoking causes lung cancer, Boxer presided over the hearing with an iron determination that all present acknowledge that global warming is real.

"The purpose of this hearing is to share with the committee the mountain of scientific evidence that has increased substantially over time: time that we should have used to reduce carbon pollution, the main cause of climate change," Boxer said.

"We cannot turn away from the mountain of evidence that climate change has already started to impact the planet and will only grow worse without action," she added, noting throughout the hearing with a certain giddiness that reviving the issue congressionally was "exciting."

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), pulling out charts to show that the extreme weather being cited wasn't so extreme when framed in terms of historical averages, said he took offensive to Boxer's lung-cancer comparison.

"How much can we demand this economy pay to meet and confront a fear that is not being proven by empirical data?" Sessions said.

Alabama State Climatologist John R. Christy testified that the recent "extremes" noted were actually exceeded in previous decades.

"New discoveries explain part of the warming found in traditional surface temperature datasets," Christy summarized in 22 pages of charts and explanations submitted to the committee. "This partial warming is unrelated to the accumulation of heat due to the extra greenhouse gases, but related to human development around the thermometer stations. This means traditional surface datasets are limited as proxies for greenhouse warming."