As 600 scientists meet this week in Paris to finalize the first worldwide assessment in six years of the evidence on global warming, lawmakers on Capitol Hill searched for a political consensus yesterday on how to address climate change.
In a prolonged Senate hearing that one senator compared to "open-mike night," several lawmakers spoke in passionate terms about a need to put a cap on U.S. carbon dioxide emissions before global warming's effects become irreversible, while others sketched out possible policy compromises on the contentious issue. In a separate House hearing, a bipartisan group of lawmakers questioned whether the Bush administration has been suppressing climate science.
Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee who has pressed to regulate greenhouse gases for several years, said he did not want his children and grandchildren chastising him for inaction in decades to come.
"I don't want them to say, 'What did you do about it? What did you do about it when you had an opportunity? Weren't you in the Senate?' " Carper asked, adding that he hoped to tell them, "I tried to move heaven and Earth to make sure we took a better course."
The panel's chairwoman, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), said several hours into the hearing that lawmakers would heed the warnings of Carper and others, including Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.): "I think this is the moment we will take a stand."
Several lawmakers said they felt a new sense of urgency in light of the mounting scientific evidence that the globe cannot sustain an additional temperature rise of more than two degrees Fahrenheit. On Friday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a U.N. body, will release its first report since 2001 on the current state of science on global warming: According to scientists who have read the latest draft of the report, it will conclude there is at least a 90 percent chance that human activity accounts for much of Earth's warming over the past half-century.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who testified before the Environment and Public Works Committee on her proposal to "cap and trade" carbon emission credits, said in an interview the U.S. political debate on global warming has recently "shifted considerably because people know it's real. The science has coalesced."
Some scientists and lawmakers, including Feinstein, have raised concerns in recent weeks that the final IPCC report may in fact understate global warming's impact because the science is changing so rapidly. Yesterday the Zurich-based World Glacier Monitoring Service reported that the rate of mountain glacier melt is accelerating, with initial reports for 2005 suggesting key glaciers lost an average of 31/2 feet of thickness.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, who held his own hearing yesterday, said that as a result of the rapidly changing data, when the international report comes out Friday, "in many ways it will be dated." The IPCC cannot incorporate any scientific data published after December 2005 in its report.
Still, advocates of action on global warming said the IPCC will further strengthen the public perception that the United States must move more aggressively to curb its carbon dioxide emissions. The report will outline how climate change will transform the planet -- with summer sea ice virtually disappearing from the Arctic by the end of the century -- as well as assess the spike in global temperatures in the past 15 years, in which Earth has experienced roughly a dozen of the hottest years on record.
"The timing of this report is critical for the debate that's taking place in Congress, in the business community, and in the evangelical community," said Robert T. Watson, who chaired the IPCC during its last round and now serves as the World Bank's chief scientist.
In the House hearing, lawmakers questioned whether the White House had altered reports by government scientists over the past several years to mask the problems posed by climate change. They highlighted a survey published yesterday by two advocacy groups, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Government Accountability Project, which found that 46 percent of the federal scientists they polled reported they personally had experienced or perceived pressure to eliminate the words "global warming" or "climate change" from their writings, and roughly the same percentage had experienced edits that changed the meaning of their findings.
"All of us have a right to our own opinions as to the seriousness of global warming," Waxman said. "We don't have the right to our own science."
Waxman and the panel's top Republican, Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), sent a letter to the White House yesterday demanding that the administration hand over documents that could shed light on whether political appointees had altered climate reports. Davis said he was "disappointed at the [administration's] lukewarm response" to the panel's requests for information but added that when it comes to pressing the case for action to combat climate change, "we're seeing a dangerous trend toward inflammatory statements and hyperbole."
Kristen Hellmer, spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the administration had provided 10,000 pages of documents to the panel and allowed staffers to review some "deliberative documents" on climate change. "CEQ has been working with the committee and hopes to continue working with the committee to reach an appropriate accommodation," she said.
While House members debated the administration's approach to global warming yesterday, senators focused on promoting their own proposals. Feinstein told the Environment and Public Works Committee that any good climate-change bill must be "practical and doable," citing her plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020, while Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) told reporters after testifying that a plan he introduced with Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) to reduce emissions 65 percent by 2050 made the most sense.
"Anything less than getting the job done is crazy," Kerry said.
Even opponents of a strict cap said they expected lawmakers to craft legislation capping carbon dioxide in the coming months. "The climate-science questions have now given way to real policy analysis -- the tough choices of what policies will work," electric utilities lobbyist Scott Segal said about the Senate hearing. "That will require serious homework, and this hearing doesn't do any at all."