Climate Change:

Senate EPW's Wheeler defends committee stance on global warming science

With the release of a film written by former Vice President Al Gore, a Fox News special and other documentaries, discussion of the scientific research on climate change has reached a fever pitch. But Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, maintains that global warming is the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." During today's episode of OnPoint, EPW staff director Andrew Wheeler explains Inhofe's controversial views on the state of climate research. Plus, Wheeler discusses recent EPW Committee efforts to learn more about technology that could reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Transcript

Darren Samuelsohn: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Darren Samuelsohn. Joining us today in Washington is Andrew Wheeler, staff director for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Andrew thanks for coming back on the program.

Andrew Wheeler: Thank you Darren. It's good to be back.

Darren Samuelsohn: Global warming remains a very hot topic, I guess you could say, right now. There's been a lot in the media about it. Fox News just ran a special report where they put the second piece to their debate about global warming out there. I'm curious, from your perspective what are Senator Inhofe's three or four main contentions with the science on climate change as we sit here today?

Andrew Wheeler: With the science on climate change? Well, and he's of course looking at with the scientists are telling him and what the potential impacts might be in the future. I guess his No. 1 problem statements of the science is from the U.N.'s IPCC, which is the United Nations' report, the third assessment that they've put out, which the summary report was drafted by the U.N. politicians, not by the scientists. And what Senator Inhofe did in December was lay out, on the Senate floor, a list of the recommendations to the IPCC on what they can do and what the U.N. can do different for the fourth assessment, which is due out next year, so that the science can be settled or least be moved towards being settled. And try to take care of some of the problems that we've had in the past, such as the lack of peer review on the individual chapters and the editing by the politicians over the scientist's work. And if we resolve some of those issues I think that would go a long way to resolving some of the concerns that the chairman has on the science.

Darren Samuelsohn: What do you mean by the politicians are involved? Certainly you don't hear that from the scientists that are involved in this debate. They're not really talking about politicians being involved.

Andrew Wheeler: Well on the IPCC process you did. You had several people who were contributors to the different chapters who complained about the fact that the summaries were written before the chapters were finalized. I think the chapters were finalized about seven or eight months after the summary was drafted. Any complaints that you heard were from scientists who said that they put in comments through the peer review process and their comments were ignored. And all we're asking for the IPCC to do is to take a look at the comments they received from their peer review process. And then just comment publicly on whether or not they took the comments and if they did not, why they didn't. Is one of the things that could be done as far as the IPCC process. Another area on the science that the chairman has concerns about would be the models and the way the models are used and Dr. Mann's hockey stick is a prime example. And actually most of the IPCC work was based on the Mann hockey stick, which has pretty much, at this point, been repudiated by a number of different scientists who've taken just random data, pumped it into the model that Dr. Mann used and came out with the same hockey stick graph.

Darren Samuelsohn: Let's talk about, I guess, the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Right now we're at 380 parts per million is what we hear. And using ice core samples, they say it's about 100 parts per million more than where we were at the start of the Industrial Revolution. And business as usual says that we could be double by 2050, up to 500 parts per million. Does Senator Inhofe agree with those views, at least that the carbon dioxide levels are on that track right now?

Andrew Wheeler: I honestly cannot comment specifically on what the levels are. I don't have those off the top of my head, but what he is concerned about is whether or not man-made contributions are contributing to the climate changing and what those contributions might be. A number of the scientists who've looked at the models and looked at what the level of CO2 releases are have stated that if you zeroed out CO2 releases it's not going to do very much as far as altering the predictions based on the modeling of what the temperature might be in 50 or 100 years. So before we unilaterally go forward and cut off CO2 emissions or do drastic harm to the economy what he wants to make sure is that we know whether or not it's going to change the environment and what the impacts would be on the economy.

Darren Samuelsohn: Scientists say that the levels in 2050 could be where they've never really been when humans really inhabited the planet and that could be quite catastrophic I guess is what you were hearing from many scientists. Is that something that you totally discount?

Andrew Wheeler: Well that is certainly what some of the climate modelists predict, at the far extreme of the predictions. You know there's a whole wide range of predictions and, unfortunately, what some of the major media groups and newspapers look at is what the extreme prediction might be. And I think most climatologists will say that the extremes are not going to be what is shown over the next 50 or 100 years. But you also can't look just at CO2. You have to look of water vapor, the impact of clouds, just the heating from the sun. There are a number of variables that go into climate predictions and climate modeling that are not accounted for in most of the model predictions.

Darren Samuelsohn: Uncertainties is something though that has been mentioned. I'm going to read you a couple of quotes. One is from Lee Thomas, who was the head of the EPA under President Reagan. He said, "You can't wait until you've got certainty on these issues, then it's way too late." And then here's another quote. This is from Stephen Johnson, the current EPA administrator. He said, "The fact is there's climate change. The Earth is warming. Even the president has said the Earth is warming and I believe the president believes we must do something." Does Senator Inhofe have a different position than Lee Thomas and Stephen Johnson and maybe even President Bush on this?

Andrew Wheeler: Well I think particularly Mr. Johnson's remarks, I think he had further extend remarks than just that sentence. I'm not sure about Mr. Thomas, I haven't talked to him about the issue. Is the climate changing? Yes, the climate is changing. It has been changing. We've gone through natural cycles of warming and cooling. We've done that since recorded time. And actually, going back to the ice core samples and different sea samples and even further back than that, but the question is whether or not it is warming or cooling. If you paid attention to the scientists in the 70s we were cooling. If you paid attention to them now we're warming. The fact is that the climate changes regularly and what we need to make sure is that we aren't confusing the regular cyclical movements of the climate for some extrapolation of a specific rise in temperatures or lowering. That everything works in cycles. And we have to make sure that we understand what the impact is of man-made emissions on those cycles. As far as whether or not we need to do something, Chairman Inhofe is supportive of the president on his Asian-Pacific Partnership, which is investing in the technologies which will help. While some people are concerned about that for the CO2 impact, it helps improve efficiency and reduces NOX, SO2, mercury and other pollutants, the real pollutants. The pollutants that are actually doing something today to harm people in countries like China and India. So he's very supportive of advancing technology and incentives for technology and in trying to work with developing nations to improve their environment. There are children that are dying in India and China today. And the CO2 proposals of Kyoto and some of the legislation that you see in the United States would do nothing to help those children today in dealing with emissions from those power plants.

Darren Samuelsohn: By talking about the technology, and I know that your committee is planning at least a session with the administration and industry officials on this, are you not acknowledging that something needs to be done to, in the future, figure out a way to capture and store carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning power plants?

Andrew Wheeler: No. What we're doing is we're hosting a roundtable discussion. It will be a closed door event so that the different experts are free to speak their mind without fear of being quoted in the press or other outside groups. Looking at the issues around the technology on CO2 reductions. And we've done this on a number of topics in the past. We did one a couple of months ago on nanotechnology. We've done it on multi-emissions, on the different Army Corps projects related to Katrina, immediately after the Katrina hurricane, where we had these roundtable discussions, where we bring in the experts so they can inform the staff and the members who are interested in the issues. So that there can be a more enlightened and informed debate on the issues.

Darren Samuelsohn: Do you think though that justified $3 million, which is I think the annual expenditure from the federal government on climate technologies and that's a whole range of things. Questioning the science like Senator Inhofe does, do those two ideas square?

Andrew Wheeler: Well, I believe there's probably some money that's being spent on the technologies that may not be the best use of the money, but Senator Inhofe has always supported funding for technologies and for research. I mean he doesn't want to pick the next technology. There are some people, some of the environmental groups are saying that the answer to this is IGCC. Chairman Inhofe is not willing to say let's put all of our money, all of our eggs in one basket, the IGCC basket. There are a lot of different technologies out there and if you pick one at the expense of the others then we could end up going down the wrong path. As far as trying to have a discussion on the technologies, we're going to continue debating climate change for the foreseeable future. We want to make sure that the debate is centered on some facts that we can all agree on and try to move forward with a common understanding of the state of technologies. And not just what is out there and what can be used, like IGCC, but what is affordable and economic. And right now the IGCC technology is not, it's too expensive.

Darren Samuelsohn: What do you say to companies, big ones, Wal-Mart, Duke Energy, GE, Shell Oil Company, that say that they want certainty, they want to know what the carbon rules are going to be?

Andrew Wheeler: Well, and I understand some of them, particularly the multinational ones, are looking at what's going on in Europe and other countries as far as what the CO2 restrictions might be in the future. You know I've been following the Kyoto process for quite awhile, since before the Kyoto Treaty was agreed to. At this point the Kyoto agreement is falling apart. You only have two European countries that are going to be able to meet their goals. Despite the fact that they're even changing their baseline to try to make it easier for the other countries to meet their goals, you're still only going to have probably two that meet that. Kyoto and the international regime is falling apart and there is a complete disagreement as to what those countries will do after Kyoto is dead and buried. Some want to go further than what Kyoto did, others say we couldn't get Kyoto through so let's try a different approach. I don't see any certainty in the international arena for quite some time. As far as the U.S. business environment goes, nationally, the United States Congress is moving away from mandatory carbon. We've had two votes on McCain-Lieberman in the past three years and the Senate has spoken. The last vote was 60-38. There is not a majority of the members of Congress or the House or the Senate that want to do something on climate change. So I don't, I understand that some of the companies are being pushed and some of them, quite frankly, see some, in they're own best interests, where they can make some money off of a mandatory regime. And you can't stop a company from wanting to make money off of a program, but that doesn't mean that we have to implement a mandatory program that will harm the economy just to give some companies or businesses a leg up on their competitors.

Darren Samuelsohn: People say eventually Congress will vote to install mandatory caps and perhaps even in the next presidential administration that could be the case, with the two front runners right now at least. We're a long way away from the presidential election, but Senators McCain and Hillary Clinton both have come out in favor of mandatory caps. Do you think in the Republican Party there's going to be some internal soul-searching going forward as you look at your presidential candidates in 2008 and what their views are on global warming?

Andrew Wheeler: If the presidential election were this year I would say that will be part of the debate, in 2008 I'm not positive, because by 2008 I think the entire world community will see that Kyoto has failed and that there is no agreement on what to do internationally. As far as what we do nationally, you had President Clinton, who supposedly was very much in favor of Kyoto, yet he never sent the Kyoto Treaty to Congress to be ratified. And in fact, his negotiators didn't negotiate a treaty that could pass the United States Senate and they knew that going into the negotiations. So I don't know what might happen in the future. I do know at this point in time that the Congress is not moving towards mandatory carbon. And, in fact, the worldwide mandatory carbon regime is falling apart. Is it possible the United States government, in four or five years, might decide to go with a mandatory carbon? It's possible, but I don't see that happening with the rest of the world not following suit. You know the problem that we have in the United States, when we implement these treaties, is the United States implements them and they do what the treaty requires. And what we see from a number of our competitors and a number of the European countries in particular, they're signing a treaty but they don't necessarily implement it. And they aren't as successful in the implementation. If we were to start implementing Kyoto when some of the environmental groups asked us to we would be along that line, but our economy would be in shambles and our European competitors would be doing great and they would not have implemented Kyoto.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK Andy, we're going to have to leave it at that, but I'm sure that this debate will continue and go on. So thank you so much for coming on the show.

Andrew Wheeler: Thank you.

Darren Samuelsohn: Until next time, this is Darren Samuelsohn for another edition of OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

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