Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Senate Republicans are pushing back on the issue of global warming, with the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee questioning not only the evidence for warming, but also the link between human actions and climate change.

“This research begs an obvious question: If the Earth was warmer during the Middle Ages than the age of coal-fired power plants and SUVs, what role do man-made emissions play in influencing climate?” asked Chairman James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma.

“I think any person with a modicum of common sense would say, ‘Not much,’” Mr. Inhofe said.

His Monday speech and a committee hearing yesterday in which two scientists discussed their research questioning the human link to climate change are a precursor to a showdown on carbon emissions expected this week as the Senate debates the energy bill.

Republicans said they expect to defeat amendments that would impose curbs on carbon dioxide emissions, but sources in both parties said some weaker amendments that would require industries to report their carbon emissions to the government are likely to pass.

Mr. Inhofe called the amendments “politically driven” and pointed to the sponsors — some of whom are running for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination — as evidence that climate science is being overtaken by politics.

“All of the Democrats running for the nomination — the one group that is the most cherished to them in order to get the nomination is the environmental groups,” Mr. Inhofe said.

The four Senate Democrats running for president missed several votes yesterday on other amendments to the energy bill, but they are expected to be present today to debate and vote on the climate amendments.

Democrats said the evidence for warming is overwhelming and criticized those who pushed for more studies rather than action.

“One would have to be madder than a March hare to fail to see the need to act,” said Sen. James M. Jeffords, Vermont independent, who Democrats have tapped to be the ranking opposition member on the committee.

Mr. Inhofe is chairman of the committee that has direct power over the issue, so a bill that mandates curbs on carbon emissions is not likely to pass the panel. Therefore, those who favor restrictions can best get their way by attaching amendments to the pending energy bill.

Burning fossil fuels puts carbon dioxide in the air and, according to some models, the gas then traps the sun’s heat inside the atmosphere and changes climate patterns. But some scientists have argued that there’s no evidence of a link between recent warming and human activity.

In the hearing, called by Mr. Inhofe, Willie Soon, with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said he and his colleagues had catalogued hundreds of studies and concluded that local and regional climate change, which has been detected, matters more than global climate change.

Mr. Soon also said there was a “Medieval Warm Period” from 800 to 1300 A.D. and a cooling from 1300 to 1900, and that there exists no proof that current warming trends are out of line with the earlier warming period.

“There is no convincing evidence from each of the individual climate proxies to suggest that higher temperatures occurred in the 20th century than in the Medieval Warm Period,” he said. “Nor is there any convincing evidence to suggest that either the rate of increase or the duration of warming during the 20th century were greater than in the Medieval Warm Period.”

Michael E. Mann, a professor at the University of Virginia and one of the authors of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, said yesterday that Mr. Soon’s study was “unsound.”

He said most scientists have reached a consensus that warming in the late 20th century “cannot be explained by natural factors but, instead, requires significant … human influences during the 20th century.”

Still, Mr. Inhofe said, he is convinced by Mr. Soon and his colleagues that “the balance of the evidence offers strong proof that natural variability is the overwhelming factor influencing climate.”

Michael McKenna, a Republican strategist on environmental issues, said Mr. Inhofe’s public criticism “makes it easier for Republicans to be where they should be on the issue, and he makes it more difficult for Democrats to create random mischief because they know they have an opponent who has substantive knowledge on the issue.”

For the past five years, the debate on climate change has focused on the Kyoto treaty, which most Democrats and some Republicans have urged the United States to ratify in recent years.

The 1997 treaty, which President Clinton signed but did not send to the Senate for ratification after a 95-0 vote warning him against submitting the pact, would require industrial nations to cut emissions of carbon dioxide to slow global warming.

But the treaty excludes such developing nations as China and India, and opponents say it would devastate the economies of the affected nations.

When British Prime Minister Tony Blair addressed a joint meeting of Congress on July 17, he made a plea for U.S. leadership on implementing the Kyoto treaty, and supporters of the treaty say it is an important indicator of U.S. standing in the international community.

“The climate change issue is important because it reflects whether our country is going to be in the mainstream,” said Sen. Rob Wyden, Oregon Democrat and a member of the environment panel.

He said curbing carbon emissions is attractive, but he thinks there are places where both sides could agree on measures that might partially reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, such as encouraging forestation.

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