There’s a serious discussion to be had about the link between extreme weather and global warming, particularly in light of the drought, forest fires and severe storms that have wreaked havoc throughout the United States of late. It’s a discussion about assessing and managing risks, the language that we use and the way we frame the questions that we ask. But this is a discussion that did not take place during today’s climate hearing by the US Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in Washington DC.
It was not for lack of effort on the part of US ecologist Christopher Field, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s second working group on adaptation. Field made the basic scientific case for global warming and talked about scientists’ efforts to quantify the risk of extreme events. He cited studies to suggest that global warming at least doubled the risk of the European heat wave of 2003, for example, but need not be invoked to explain last year’s massive flooding in Thailand.
But rather than probe questions about the scientific frontier and what policy-makers can do to address potential risks, today’s hearing merely rehashed a tired debate about whether global warming is real or a giant “hoax”. For the record, Field said that it was not. “The scientific community is as close to unified as it is on anything,” he explained in his classically calm demeanor.
Climate sceptics had their representative in John Christy of the University of Alabama in Huntsville, who questioned temperature records and said the climate models are prone to overheat. Christy was countered by Field and James McCarthy, an oceanographer at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, both of whom summarized the findings of the scientific community at large. And as has become alarmingly customary, the Republicans lined up to question the mainstream climate science, while the Democrats did what they could to defend it.
This dynamic helps to explain why the global-warming debate has gone underground in Washington. Republicans have publicly backed off of the science and launched attacks on regulation of almost any kind. Many Democrats are afraid to discuss the subject, and for different reasons, neither President Barack Obama nor Republican contender Mitt Romney have chosen to make an issue of it. But, quietly and in the background, a few serious conservatives and Democrats are talking about how and when to revive the debate.
The assumption is that at some point the United States will need to deal with climate change, and a few optimists think there’s a chance — ever so slight — that a carbon tax could sneak into the policy debate as lawmakers scramble to avoid the fiscal cliff at the end of the year. That is unlikely, to be sure, but lawmakers will be looking for revenue, which a carbon tax can provide. And perhaps some of the more moderate Republicans would swallow this kind of a consumption tax if it were part of a grand deal that extended or cut taxes for citizens and/or corporations. For their part, economists tend to like the idea of taxing things that you don’t want (energy consumption) as opposed to the things that you do want (income).
But none of this came up at the hearing today, where California Democrat and chairwoman Barbara Boxer eventually conceded that the panel wound up where it began: in gridlock. And even on that, the two sides were not in accord.
“We can agree on something, Madam Chair,” chimed in Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions. He rattled off examples such as energy efficiency and biofuels. “If CO2 is causing an increase in temperatures, all of these things will alleviate it,” Sessions said. “It’s just a question of how much we can afford to spend.”