by Luke Morgan
Former EPA Chief and White House Climate Czar Carol Browner says that climate deniers in the House of Representatives are the biggest impediment to getting a price on carbon.
When asked what the most significant obstacle in passing climate change legislation is during an event in Washington on the Clean Air Act yesterday, former EPA Chief Carol Browner pointed to Republicans in the House and their “stunning” denial of the reality of earth’s changing climate.
“I think unfortunately, right now a majority in our House of Representatives appears to not even think the problem is real,” Browner said. “It’s sort of stunning to me because I’ve never seen the breadth of scientific consensus on an environmental issue like there is on this.”
Speaking directly after Browner was Texas GOP Representative Joe Barton. Barton is the chairman emeritus of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and sits on the Environment and the Economy subcommittee. However, while collecting $1.7 million from Big Oil over the years, he has displayed alarming ignorance on climate reality.
Barton claimed that carbon dioxide is not only irrelevant to the Clean Air Act, but that it’s not dangerous at all because it’s “a necessity for life.” To illustrate his example, he noted that he was exhaling carbon dioxide as he spoke, and actually argued that people should build greenhouses because they create life, so greenhouse gases are good.
“There’s a reason that you build things called greenhouses, and that’s to help things grow,” he said.
Barton also claimed that the atmosphere had, in the past, contained carbon dioxide levels greater than 5,000 parts per million (ppm), implying that we could do so again today. The current scientific consensus, however, is that 350 ppm is the safe upper limit.
Barton said that he accepted the climate is changing, but he discounted human influence and the rise in extreme weather as “opinions.” Both the anthropogenic causes of climate change and its effects on extreme weather events are extremely well-documented in the scientific community.
Barton’s remarks came during a panel convened by National Journal and the American Lung Association on the legacy and future of the Clean Air Act. Although he spoke alone, many of the other speakers either pre-empted or responded to his off-base remarks.
Dr. Jerome Paulson of the Children’s National Medical Center pointed out the silliness of Barton’s argument that CO2 is a necessity for life. Paulson noted, “If we had no sodium, we wouldn’t be alive. But there does come a point where if people consume too much sodium or if there’s too much sodium in their bodies, then it becomes toxic and people can die.”
The same is true, Paulson said, of CO2 in the atmosphere: it’s necessary, but too much of it is clearly a bad thing.
The event, which can be viewed online, focused mainly on the Clean Air Act and whether it had been successful, and how successful it could be moving forward. While Barton incorrectly argued that CO2 is not a dangerous pollutant and therefore not subject to the jurisdiction of the Clean Air Act, Browner – who was also the longest-serving EPA Administrator – pointed out that the agency is required by law to regulate anything it considers to be detrimental to environmental health.
Barton also repeated the Republican talking point that the EPA places an undue burden on businesses. However, Browner pointed to the EPA’s review of the Clean Air Act, which detailed $2 trillion dollars in economic savings through 2022. Browner has made similar arguments before to Stephen Colbert.
Barton expressed doubt that Congress would be legislating on the Clean Air Act at all in the current Congress. Browner, however, noted that current law allows the EPA and the executive branch to make significant progress in combatting CO2 without needing Congress’s stamp of approval, and that the Supreme Court has upheld that right.
Luke Morgan is the executive Intern at the Center for American Progress.