GOP advances in attempts to "repeal" climate science

Story Repair | By Mike Alberti |

April 13, 2011 — Votes in both houses of Congress last week demonstrate strong support for the denial of climate science, despite the sweeping scientific consensus that supports it.  While some Republicans have been frank about denying the science, many other Republicans (and some Democrats) attempted to frame the votes to amend the Clean Air Act and strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its authority to regulate greenhouse gases as responses to EPA “overreaching.” In fact, the charge of overreaching appears to be largely an attempt to obscure the fact that some members of Congress are unhappy that EPA went ahead and used the authority the Supreme Court has confirmed that the Agency possesses. The charge also diverts attention from the decision made by some members of Congress that action on climate change is less important than protecting the short-term interests of local industries.

What is Story Repair?

In this feature, we select a story that appeared in one or more major news outlets and try to show how a different set of inquiries or observations could have produced a more illuminating article. For repair this week, four Apr. 7 articles: “House Votes to Stop EPA From Regulating Greenhouse Gases” (Wall Street Journal); “Senate rejects measure to stop EPA on climate” (Reuters); “House Passes Anti-EPA Legislation” (US News); and “U.S. House Passes Repeal of EPA Carbon Rules Over White House Objections” (Bloomberg).

A reader looking at any of those stories would have little or no way to know that those supporting the legislation were: (a) denying scientific consensus on climate change; (b) presenting an argument about an “overreaching” Environmental Protection Agency that is apparently belied by the Agency’s existing responsibilities as determined by the Supreme Court; and (c) were largely unwilling or unable to support their talking points with evidence beyond a desire to assist local industries regardless of environmental impact.

On Apr. 7, every Republican in the House except for five who did not vote, along with 19 Democrats, voted for the “Energy Tax Prevention Act.” The measure would effectively nullify the authority of the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions for the purposes of addressing climate change, as the Agency has just recently begun to do, in connection with the emissions of factories, oil and gas producers, power plants, and other large polluters.

Additionally, the Act would repeal the EPA’s scientific findings, published in 2009, in which the Agency states, among other things, that climate change is occurring as a result of greenhouse gas emissions and that those emissions “endanger both the public health and the public welfare of current and future generations.”

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) authored the bill. In 2003, Inhofe famously called the threat of global warming “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” Upton, who chairs the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, has said that while he believes that climate change is occurring, he does not believe that it is “man-made.”

According to David Doniger, the policy director for the Climate Center at the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), Congress has never overruled or repealed the EPA’s scientific determination on a pollutant in the more than 40-year history of the Clean Air Act.

“It would be unprecedented to step in as politicians and dictate what the science says,” he stated. “It would be like repealing the Surgeon General’s report that smoking causes lung cancer.”

house Democrats voting to repeal epa’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases

The following 19 Democrats voted in favor of repealing the EPA’s findings and prohibiting the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases.

  • Jason Altmire (PA)
  • John Barrow (GA)
  • Sanford D. Bishop, Jr. (GA)
  • Dan Boren (OK)
  • Leonard L. Boswell (IA)
  • Ben Chandler (KY)
  • Jim Costa (CA)
  • Jerry F. Costello (IL)
  • Mark Critz (TX)
  • Henry Cuellar (TX)
  • Joe Donnelly (IN)
  • Tim Holden (PA)
  • Jim Matheson (UT)
  • Mike McIntyre (NC)
  • Collin Peterson (MN)
  • Nick J. Rahall II (WV)
  • Mike Ross (AR)
  • Kurt Schrader (OR)
  • Terri Sewell (AL)

Also last week, Senate Republicans proposed to amend an unrelated small business bill to include provisions nearly identical to those passed by the House on climate change and EPA authority. The effort garnered 50 votes; four Democrats (Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas) voted in favor, and one Republican (Susan Collins of Maine) voted against.  Opponents of EPA’s attempts to regulate greenhouse gases were heartened by the fact that, in the course of a series of related votes, a total of more than 60 Senators recorded support for limiting, delaying, or ending EPA authority to regulate greenhouse gases.


Taking climate change seriously?

The House bill was notable for a provision apparently designed to convey the impression that Congress was taking climate change seriously — one element of which said that “the United States has a role to play in resolving global climate change matters on an international basis.” But votes on a series of amendments, both in committee and on the House floor, made clear that a majority of the House was indeed refusing to accept climate science or the need for immediate and significant domestic action to limit greenhouse gases.

During the House bill’s mark-up in the Energy and Commerce Committee last month, Democrats had proposed a series of amendments that would have affirmed that climate change is occurring, that it is caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases, and that those gases are harmful to public health. (See box identifying what the provision passed by the House included, and what it left out.)

Those amendments were voted down in Committee along party lines. When the bill came to the House floor for a vote last week, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) proposed another amendment that reprised the previous Democratic proposals in consolidated form. The Waxman amendment failed, garnering only one Republican vote from Dave Reichert (R-WA).

Additionally, three Democrats — Dan Boren (OK), Collin Peterson (MN), and Nick Rahall (WV) — voted against the Waxman amendment. None of their offices responded to repeated requests for comment on why they did so. Rahall has previously justified his opposition to EPA regulation on his desire to protect the coal industry; similarly, Boren opposes EPA regulation because of its costs to oil and gas producers; and Peterson has said that agricultural producers in his district would welcome climate change because “[t]hey’ll be able to grow more corn.”


EPA “overstepping”?

Other Members of Congress who voted in favor of the House and Senate measures last week justified the attempt to repeal the EPA’s scientific findings by claiming that the Agency had “overstepped” its authority in regulating greenhouse gases.

For example, Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX) said in a press release after the vote, “The Clean Air did not include greenhouse gases and Congress, not EPA, is the one with the authority to amend that law.”

Some Democrats echoed that sentiment, as well. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who voted for the Senate bill, said: “The EPA’s overreach is destroying jobs in my state and all over the country, and it must be stopped. I am committed to using every tool at my disposal to put this Agency back in its place.”

Language matters

In the bill passed by the House, there is a provision that doesn’t shout the rejection of climate science, but an examination of the phrasing of the provision, as well as a look at alternative provisions that were voted down in committee makes clear that the provision rejects the scientific consensus on global warming. Scroll over the highlighted sections for further explanation.

(1) there is established scientific concern over warming of the climate system based upon evidence from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level;

(2) addressing climate change is an international issue, involving complex scientific and economic considerations;

(3) the United States has a role to play in resolving global climate change matters on an international basis; and

(4) Congress should fulfill that role by developing policies that do not adversely affect the American economy, energy supplies, and employment.

On the House floor, Rep. Waxman proposed an amendment that stated: “Congress accepts the scientific findings of the Environmental Protection Agency that climate changes is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for public health and welfare.” The House rejected the amendment on a largely party-line vote.

“Scientific concern” is not meant to be the equivalent of the EPA findings. On the contrary, proposed amendments to accept the EPA findings that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal,” that the “scientific evidence is compelling,” and that “the public health of current generations is endangered and that the threat to public health for both current and future generations will likely mount over time,” were all rejected.

This language says nothing about either the cause of warming or the impact of warming. Amendments proposing to acknowledge that recently observed warming is caused by human activity and pose a serious threat to human health were voted down.

While climate change may be multi-factorial, this language suggests that action to deal with the contribution to warming made by greenhouse gas emissions that result from human activities needs to be tempered by complex scientific considerations. The complexity is not specified, and does not form part of the scientific consensus on climate change. The reference to complex economic considerations is in marked contrast to the lack of nuance in paragraph 4 of this provision.

This sentence, like the reference in the previous paragraph to climate change being an “international issue,” is saying in effect that the issue is not one as to which the United States has a responsibility to act domestically regardless of what other nations do, and is made in the face of the fact that Congress has stood in the way of attempts by the Administration to reach consensus on an international basis.

This sentence both presumes that a move towards a greener economy will have the harmful economic, energy, and employment impacts that are referenced, and fails to acknowledge that a shift may involve both costs and benefits (short- and long-term), or that the benefits could, in either time frame outweigh the costs.

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