The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee returned to familiar partisan territory today, as Democrats and Republicans faced off for the first time in three years about the science of climate change.
Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) joked that the heated discussion at this morning's hearing was a welcome break from the cooperation that had characterized her committee's work on major transportation legislation that was enacted in June.
"This is something we haven't done in a while," she said. "It's sort of exciting."
"The highway bill got sort of boring," agreed Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), the top Republican on the panel.
From the beginning of this morning's hearing, Republicans and Democrats drew clear battle lines. Boxer, who in 2009 shepherded a carbon dioxide cap-and-trade bill through her committee despite a boycott by the panel's Republicans, said climate change is real and is happening.
"To declare otherwise, in my view, is putting the American people in direct danger," she said.
"Predictions of global warming are coming true before our eyes," she continued, pointing to the weather trends of the past few years including storms, drought and declining snowpack.
Boxer and the other Democrats on the committee reeled off what the chairwoman called "a mountain of evidence" that man-made climate change is already in full swing, including a report issued last year by the National Academy of Sciences that found "climate change is occurring, is very likely caused primarily by human activities, and poses significant risks to humans and the environment."
University of California, Berkeley-based physicist Richard Muller, who over the weekend declared he had "converted" to a belief that human activity is playing a role in changing weather patterns, made an appearance in the Democrats' citations, as did the two-year drought Texas has endured.
Inhofe, meanwhile, declared that since EPW held its last hearing on the subject in February 2009, the "global warming movement has completely collapsed, and cap and trade is dead and gone."
Inhofe said the faulty science of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had been "exposed" by the so-called Climategate incident, in which emails by climate scientists were stolen from a server at the University of East Anglia in Great Britain. Opponents of action on climate change have said the emails show scientists manipulating their research data to show warming where none exists, but independent investigations have found that isn't the case.
Inhofe blasted the current presidential administration for pursuing what he called a global warming agenda masked by pretend support for fossil fuels, citing President Obama's visit to an Oklahoma pipeline earlier this year.
Environmentalists should be outraged, he said. But "I imagine they're keeping quiet because they know President Obama is still moving forward with his global warming agenda; he just doesn't want people to know about it."
No administration officials attended this morning's hearing, and Inhofe said that showed Obama was trying to avoid engaging on climate during an election cycle. Boxer said she did not invite any administration witnesses.
"I wanted outside scientific voices because I didn't want this to turn into an attack on the Obama administration," she said. "Clearly, it still is turning into an attack on the Obama administration, but that's OK."
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said events during the past three years have tended to vindicate Inhofe's views of the science, adding that temperatures appear to have stayed "basically the same" over the past decade.
Given the uncertainty about the cause of any observed warming, Sessions said, the federal government should avoid introducing any new consumer costs like regulations or a price on carbon.
"We have to be careful about what price we ask the American people to pay to meet the visions of people who have not been proven right by reality," he said.
But Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) argued there are costs associated with climate change, as well.
"I think we have to recognize that extreme weather conditions has a real burden and cost on our economy," Cardin said.
Cardin said that extreme heat was already wreaking havoc with local infrastructure, while Whitehouse showed pictures of Rhode Island towns that flooded in 2010.