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GOP, Global Warming & Dinosaur Farts

By Richard Monastersky and Jeffrey Brainard
February 22, 2007

Editor’s Note: After the Nov. 7 elections, many observers believed Republicans would moderate some controversial positions, from the Iraq War to their resistance to the science on global warming. But one of the surprises of the past few months is how many Republicans -- from President George W. Bush to leaders of the new congressional minority -- have stuck to their guns and dug in their heels.

In this guest essay, Richard Monastersky and Jeffrey Brainard look at the hostile reaction that global warming scientists got from key House Republicans during a hearing in February:

When Congress starts discussing the climatic effects of dinosaur farts, it treads on dangerous territory, given members' own reputations for producing hot air. But Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California bravely ventured into that sensitive subject on Feb. 8, during a heated hearing on global warming in the House Committee on Science and Technology.  

In the three-hour session, members quizzed four scientists who had helped oversee a report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, better known as the IPCC [The Chronicle, Feb. 2, 2007].

While much of the hearing centered on technical aspects of climate science, the session produced some dramatic scenes of political theater, including a rare appearance by the speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi of California, before the committee.

The fireworks underscored how politically charged the issue of climate change remains, even as several formerly skeptical members of Congress said they were now convinced that the problem is real.

Rep. Bart Gordon, the Tennessee Democrat who is the committee's chairman, started off the proceedings seriously enough by discussing the new assessment issued by the IPCC, a United Nations panel.

"The importance of this report cannot be overstated," he said. "The report provides overwhelming evidence that global warming is real and that human activity is driving this change."

The IPCC assessment, "Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis: Summary for Policymakers," was written by some 600 scientists from around the world and reviewed by more than 600 other scientists, said Susan Solomon, who led the effort.

Ms. Solomon, who is a senior scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in Boulder, Colorado, and is also affiliated with the University of Colorado's campus there, and three of her colleagues on the IPCC effort ran through the report's main conclusions for the committee.

Global warming is unequivocal, she said, and there is greater than a 90-percent likelihood that human beings are responsible for much of the recent warming.

Ms. Solomon and her colleagues drew a warm reception from Democrats and several Republicans on the committee. But Mr. Rohrabacher, a Republican and former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, took issue with the IPCC's conclusion that people were responsible for global warming.

"There is no doubt that global climate change is happening," Mr. Rohrabacher said. "The question is, Why is this cycle of global change -- we've gone through dozens of cycles of global climate change -- different from any other cycle?"

In describing past periods of change, he suggested that some of them might have been caused by "dinosaur flatulence."

Mr. Rohrabacher peppered the scientists with questions, at one point getting into a dispute with Ms. Solomon when he asked what percentage of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere had been emitted by humans.

Ms. Solomon said that the rising concentrations of such gases since 1750 were almost wholly attributable to humans, but Mr. Rohrabacher cut her off.

"I didn't ask that," Mr. Rohrabacher said, interrupting her. "Listen, this is very dishonest. You're supposed to be a scientist. I've asked you a direct question. Can anyone else on the panel be honest about the answer?"

He added a moment later, "Is everyone else afraid to answer that question as well?"

"Sir, I'm really trying to be honest," Ms. Solomon said.

Mr. Rohrabacher was trying to make the point that scientists he had spoken with estimate that human beings produce only 10 percent of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Keeping a Balance

Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Republican from Maryland and a former scientist, took the opportunity later to teach Mr. Rohrabacher some basic atmospheric chemistry with an analogy. If you have 1,000-pound weights on each side of a seesaw and add 1,000 pounds to one side, it's going to go down, he said. If you have 1,000-pound weights on each side of a seesaw and add 100 pounds to one side, it's still going to go down.

The point Mr. Bartlett was making is that the natural carbon cycle was basically balanced before people started to add billions of tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Mr. Rohrabacher repeatedly said that hundreds of scientists disagreed with the conclusion that humans were causing global warming. However, when Democrats pointed out that he and his Republican colleagues did not produce any of them as witnesses at the hearing, Mr. Rohrabacher was at a loss for a comeback.

"It was remiss on our part not to have someone here" from that group, he said.

In fact, staff members for the committee's Republican minority did invite Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Mr. Pielke has criticized some actions by the IPCC in the past, but he agrees with the panel's conclusion that humans have caused much of the recent global warming. The Republicans disinvited Mr. Pielke.

On his blog, Prometheus, Mr. Pielke posted a message he had received from one of the committee's minority staff members: "Rather than have you testify, they want me to find a witness from industry for the hearing."

Kevin E. Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, testified at the hearing that any scientist could comment on drafts of the IPCC's report and that the panel had received 30,000 comments.

"There were many well-known, so-called skeptics who participated" in reviewing the IPCC's draft report, he said, "and their comments were all addressed."

Ms. Pelosi's appearance before the committee offered other opportunities for political squabbles.

Mr. Gordon introduced her and asked that she be allowed to give her testimony and then leave, a common practice when members appear as witnesses in other committees. To his surprise, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Republican of Wisconsin, denied that request, demanding that he be allowed to question her.

"I am very disappointed and very surprised that we have not extended to this witness, the speaker of the House, the same courtesy that we have extended to many members of the House of Representatives," said Rep. Jerry F. Costello, a Democrat of Illinois.

In her testimony, Ms. Pelosi said "there is a growing chorus of voices in favor of taking serious and sustained action on global warming."

She said she had asked the heads of several committees to bring legislation forward by June 1 so that the House could pass an energy-independence bill by the Fourth of July. Ms. Pelosi called for mandatory caps on the emission of carbon dioxide and pledged to consider the effect of new regulations on the economy.

Mr. Sensenbrenner wasn't buying that, saying that emissions regulations would hurt the economy and cause American companies to move their operations overseas.

For his part, Rep. W. Todd Akin, Republican of Missouri, asked, "Is it so bad if it gets warmer?"

Time to Act?

But Democrats and some other Republicans on the committee said they were convinced it was time to act.

Rep. Bob Inglis, a Republican from South Carolina, said he used to be a skeptic but had changed his mind after joining several other science-committee members on a trip to Antarctica, where they learned firsthand about climate science.

"It's not likely to hurt us to take some action," he said.

Another witness, Richard B. Alley, a professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University at University Park, injected some levity into the proceedings when he compared the ice caps atop Greenland and Antarctica to big piles of pancake batter that spread toward the edge of a pan and then spill over.

That image came back to haunt him, as the morning's hearing pressed past noon.

"I'm also resentful of the fact that you made me really hungry this morning with your pancake analogies," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican from Florida. "It's 12:30, and I think that's unfair."

Mr. Alley said, "We're with you on that, actually."

Mr. Rohrabacher was not the only one to cite animal farts during the hearing. Mr. Sensenbrenner revisited the topic later, when he quizzed the panel members about the relative importance of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, noting that concentrations of methane had increased faster than carbon dioxide.

When Ms. Solomon said that the methane was coming primarily from agriculture, Mr. Sensenbrenner replied, "Does that mean that, to stop this huge growth of methane, we'd better put catalytic converters on the back of cows?"

Ms. Solomon demurred in replying to the congressman from Wisconsin, managing to say only, "I love your cheese, sir. I don't know what else to say."

"We appreciate your patronage," Mr. Sensenbrenner replied.

The fourth scientist to testify before the panel was Gerald A. Meehl, who is also a senior scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research. His statement and those of Ms. Solomon, Mr. Trenberth, and Mr. Alley, as well as Ms. Pelosi's, are available on the panel's Web site.

This story originally appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education. To send an e-mail to the authors, click on the name of Richard Monastersky.

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