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."

Christy warned that "consensus reports by 'thousands' of scientists" rarely represents the broad range of scientific opinion on the issue, and said policy based on observations of year-to-year variations rather than climate models will be the most effective.

"Atmospheric CO2 is food for plants, which means it is food for people and animals. More CO2 generally means more food for all," Christy said. "Today, affordable carbon-based energy is a key component for lifting people out of crippling poverty. Rising CO2 emissions are, therefore, one indication of poverty-reduction, which gives hope for those now living in a marginal existence without basic needs brought by electrification, transportation and industry."

When Boxer accused Christy of standing with only 2 or 3 percent of scientists in doubting global warming, he noted that the survey she quoted only included 77 people.

Christopher B. Field, director of the Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University, testified that "we have reached the stage where the question of whether Earth is warming is not in doubt."

"For several of these categories of disasters, the strength of any linkage to climate change, if there is one, is not known," Field said of the 14 billion-dollar disasters in 2011, which surpassed the previous record of nine such events in a year. "For other categories of climate and weather extremes, the pattern is increasingly clear: Climate change is shifting the risk of hitting an extreme."

Boxer actually latched onto the testimony of a witness called by the Republicans as a "breakthrough moment."

Margo Thorning, senior vice president and chief economist of the American Council for Capital Formation, testified that the current climate models produce conflicting results, making it difficult for policymakers and businesses to actually undertake long-range risk planning. Since businesses plan investments over a 3- to 15-year period, Thorning said, the only adaptation policy that makes sense is one of "no regrets" -- or implementing those policies that would be undertaken anyway in the normal course of business.

"U.S. companies have already begun to adopt 'no regrets' strategies to adapt to climate change," Thorning testified. "For example, some utilities are 'hardening' their infrastructure to reduce damage from future weather events and agriculture and the insurance industry are also developing technologies and policies to adapt to climate change."

Boxer said she was going to take that private-sector "leadership" and extend it to Congress.

"This 'no regrets' strategy should be embraced by everybody," she said.

Inhofe noted that the private-sector preparedness model recognizes that there's a "big difference between what could happen and will happen."

Boxer asked the Alabama Republican to sit down to talk common ground on climate change after Sessions cited a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed in which 16 scientists wrote that there's no need to panic about global warming.

"I'm not panicked about global warming," Boxer protested. "I just feel that Congress is the only place that just shrugs its shoulders."

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) thanked Boxer for "daring to walk into this bonfire of reality" by holding the hearing.

"Our friends on the other side happen to be very likable people, but they're wrong," he said.

"I agree with half your statement," Inhofe quipped in response.