‘Moral Case for Fossil Fuels’ sparks angry Senate debate

By Amanda Reilly | 04/13/2016 01:09 PM EDT

A Senate hearing on climate change this morning was full of fireworks and included a call for one of Congress’ biggest proponents of climate policies to resign.

A Senate hearing on climate change this morning was full of fireworks and included a call for one of Congress’ biggest proponents of climate policies to resign.

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) convened the hearing to push back on the Obama administration’s national security and moral arguments in favor of climate change action.

Inhofe early in the hearing focused on the president’s focus on climate change as a security threat, arguing that it demeaned Americans who serve in uniform.


"The true purpose of the president’s climate polices have nothing to do with protecting the interests of the America people," Inhofe said. "Instead, they are meant to line the pocketbooks of his political patrons while promoting his self-proclaimed climate legacy."

Democrats on the committee pushed back against those arguments. But it was majority witness Alex Epstein, the author of "The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels," who caused much of the contention at the hearing.

Epstein testified that rising carbon dioxide levels benefit plants and Americans. He defended fossil fuels as a driver of stability and prosperity in an ever-changing climate.

"The president’s anti-fossil-fuel policies would ruin billions of lives economically and environmentally," he said, "depriving people of energy and therefore making them more vulnerable to nature’s ever-present climate danger."

He quickly butted heads with several Democratic members of the committee who have long pushed for national policies to address climate change.

Committee ranking member Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said that Epstein was not a scientist. When he pushed back that he was a philosopher and qualified to speak on the subject of climate change, Boxer cut him off.

"You’re a philosopher and not a scientist," Boxer countered, "and I don’t appreciate being lectured by a philosopher and not a scientist."

Later in the hearing, Epstein took aim at Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) for comments that the senator had made questioning the funding sources and past activity of the Rev. Robert Sirico, a Catholic priest and another majority witness on the panel.

Whitehouse had focused on Sirico’s position as founder of the Acton Institute, a free-market research organization. The Acton Institute, Whitehouse charged, received money from and was closely connected with big tobacco companies as they fought federal health regulations and public perception at the end of the 20th century.

"When you’re taking industry money and doing what industry tells you," Whitehouse said, "I have an issue with that."

Sirico later confirmed that about 5 percent of the funding for the Acton Institute came from industry sources, including Exxon Mobil Corp. and organizations affiliated with the Koch brothers.

After Whitehouse left the room to attend another hearing, Epstein called on the senator to resign.

"As long as your life is being made possible by the people of the fossil fuels industry, I think you should be grateful," Epstein said, "and I think it is a crime, a moral crime, that you are damning anyone by association."

"And I wish Senator Whitehouse were here," Epstein added, "because what he is doing to the free speech of those companies and anyone associated with them is unconstitutional, and I think he should apologize and resign."

Democratic senators at the committee audibly gasped at the comment. When asked for comment on the remarks after the hearing, Whitehouse’s office told Greenwire that "Mr. Epstein’s comments don’t merit a response."

Later in the hearing, Boxer and Inhofe could be heard arguing in barely contained whispers at the top of the dais. Boxer pointed toward Epstein, and the word "resign" could be clearly heard.

Shortly after, Inhofe announced he would, "against my better judgment," grant Boxer — for whom this could the last hearing on climate change during a four-term Senate tenure — a closing speech.

"I’ll never forget this hearing," Boxer said. "We have a philosopher who wants Senator Whitehouse to resign. Senator Whitehouse, who is working every day to stop carbon pollution and save lives."

Inhofe criticized Democrats for not focusing on political spending by billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, who has spent millions of dollars attempting to elect lawmakers in favor of climate action. The senator disputed that climate change is occurring in the first place.

"Why is it that we keep hearing the same thing from the individuals over here that the science is settled, the science is settled," Inhofe said, "when in fact it is not settled?"