On Wednesday, EPA administrator Gina McCarthy and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz testified before a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee about the impact of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. The Republican side of the dais argued against doing anything about carbon pollution, but they also spent much of their time focused on inaccuracies and misconceptions about climate change.
McCarthy and Moniz, central to the president’s climate plan, did their best to explain it to the assembled members. Ranking member Henry Waxman (D-CA) said this was the “first time in a long time that this committee is holding a hearing on climate change” and instead of addressing the urgency of action, GOP members wasted time complaining about how many cabinet-level officials showed up, for example.
Here are the five oddest things Administrator McCarthy and Secretary Moniz heard from House Republicans at Wednesday’s hearing.
1. Humans Are So Small And The World’s So Big
Chairman Ed Whitfield began the hearing by arguing that human carbon emissions are insignificant, saying “3.75 percent of all worldwide emissions come from human activity.” This statement, kicking off a hearing about the government’s response to climate change, exposes a shocking lack of understanding for the Chair of the Energy and Power subcommittee.
What Whitfield’s referring to is natural carbon dioxide emissions from animals, plants, and oceans. What he did not say is those natural carbon dioxide emissions are balanced by natural absorption of carbon dioxide by plants and oceans. This equilibrium existed for millennia, until humans started burning much of the world’s forests and extracting hydrocarbons that had been buried for millions of years. Forests are carbon sinks, and so are oil, coal, and gas deposits.
CREDIT: (Credit: Skeptical Science)
So even if, as Rep. Whitfield says, humans “only” emit 30 gigatons of the 800 gigatons of CO2 released into the atmosphere every year, the problem is that human emissions don’t have the same counterbalance that natural emissions do. The Keeling Curve that tracks global carbon dioxide levels makes it clear that our emissions knocked that equilibrium out of balance. Humans also have found ways to emit artificial “super pollutants” that are much more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide.
2. The Earth Isn’t Warming
Rep. David McKinley (R-WV) told McCarthy and Moniz, “here is the reality of temperature changes over the last 40 years — actually we can say over 40 years there has been almost no increase in temperature.”
40 years ago was 1973. This graph, from NOAA, plots how global temperatures each year are different from the average, and the steady increase in temperature is plain:
The upcoming IPCC report will also forecast that the globe will continue to warm, alarmingly so, unless we slow and reverse the current pace of global carbon emissions.
McKinley brought this report as well, saying that most experts think that the benefits of climate change will outweigh the harm. However America’s most prescient climate scientist, James Hansen, has a new paper out saying that warming levels will be catastrophic if emissions continue as-is.
3. Coal Can’t Be Clean, So Let’s Burn More
Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) is skeptical that coal plants can be built that do not spew unregulated carbon pollution. He questioned both witnesses about the upcoming Clean Air Act regulations to address emissions from new power plants, which will likely require carbon capture and storage (CCS) systems. Shimkus, despite taking over $250,000 from the mining industry, doubts that carbon capture and sequestration technology is economically or technologically feasible, even though nearly a century of ads from the coal industry have promised “clean coal.”
While there are many reasons to be skeptical about clean coal, one thing is certain: the coal power industry has not made coal clean on its own. If it’s possible to do so, federal rules might be the only way to do it. Regulations allowed coal plants to find a way to install scrubbers that reined in acidic gases like sulfur dioxide. Technology to scrub mercury from coal plant emissions has been implemented only as states (and, slowly, the federal government) start to implement mercury air toxics rules.
4. They Received A ‘Red Badge of Courage’
Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) spent most of his question time wondering why the 11 other agency heads weren’t in the room, saying “we’re being stonewalled, which means the American people’s being stonewalled.” After awarding Administrator McCarthy and Secretary Moniz a “red badge of courage” for attending, he read aloud, one after another, each question in a questionnaire that he wanted them to answer. After Barton had talked for most of his five minutes, Secretary Moniz started to answer but Barton’s time had expired.
Rep. Waxman noted dryly that “it’s exceptional to have two cabinet-level officials appear before a subcommittee.”
Barton also must have missed that another House Energy and Commerce subcommittee will hear from representatives from the NASA and NOAA on Thursday.
5. ‘Is Anything You Are Doing Any Good?’
Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) wanted to know if the purpose of the upcoming rules was to “impact” the 26 indicators of climate change on EPA’s website. McCarthy said the Clean Air Act regulations were “part of an overall strategy that is positioning the U.S. for leadership and international discussion because climate change requires a global effort.”
Pompeo then said he wanted to know “how many heat-related deaths have been eliminated as a result” of the improved fuel economy standards unveiled in 2010. McCarthy responded with reason, saying no one can “make those direct connections.” The climate is complex and the amount of work yet to do to decrease emissions is immense. The CAFE standards were a first step. Rep. Pompeo then tried to conclude that making cars more efficient and burning less gasoline will not do anything for climate change, asking “Is anything you are doing doing any good?”
The economic benefits of EPA regulations “massively outweigh” the economic costs. The agency is tasked with protecting the nation’s air and water, and though it has made serious progress in doing so, there is much more to do, particularly on climate. The main obstacles are intransigence from Congress and industry.