Democrats, Republicans spar over ‘climate denier’ label during House hearing on EPA carbon rule

Source: Nathanael Massey, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, September 11, 2014

A hearing yesterday on U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan gave way at times to semantic angling, as House Democrats sought to frame resistance to the plan as a rejection of climate science and Republicans pushed back, at times testily, against the label of “climate denier.”

The hearing, which featured testimony from state agency heads and public utility commissioners, focused primarily on states’ concerns over technical aspects and the overall feasibility of the Clean Power Plan (Greenwire, Sept. 9). But it also gave Democratic and Republican lawmakers a forum to place the issue in line with their parties’ platforms — for Democrats as an important environmental safeguard, and for Republicans as a burdensome piece of federal overreach.

With the consequences of human-caused global warming already manifesting themselves around the country in the form of droughts, wildfires and ocean acidification, Democrats said, the Obama administration’s cardinal piece of climate regulation was a critical first step to begin addressing the problem on a national level.

“It is getting more and more difficult to deny climate change,” said Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), in opening comments that preceded the witnesses’ testimony. “We need to face up to this problem and start taking the steps necessary to keep this phenomenon from becoming a global catastrophe.”

Republicans, for their part, sought to move the conversation away from debates over climate science and toward the economic consequences of regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

“Those of us who disagree with [the president] on this issue do not deny climate change; we simply suggest that his priorities are wrong,” said Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.). Having spent the August recess in his home district, he said, he had found that the economy and jobs were at the forefront of his constituents’ minds.

Whitfield had previously said that he recognized the reality of a changing climate, though he has often questioned the science linking it to human behavior. He made the Natural Resources Defense Council’s “Dirty Denier” list last month, due primarily to his past record of blocking climate and other environmental legislation.

Steering the conversation

Some of the witnesses called to testify before the committee also skirted the climate change issue, pointing out that their jobs were to work with EPA in shaping or implementing regulations. But even they were put on the spot when Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) asked the panel members point-blank whether they disagreed with the need to combat global warming.

“Do any of you here today disagree that we must cut our emissions of carbon pollution to try to slow climate change?” he asked the panel. When none of the panelists answered in the negative, he said: “Seeing none, I’m pleased to see that state officials aren’t wasting our time trying to deny the science.”

“Unfortunately,” he added, “My colleagues do that for you — or rather instead of you.”

The next representative to testify, Republican Lee Terry of Nebraska, fired back that “it is appropriate to question the practicality of the rule without being accused of being a denier.”

Democratic legislators and liberal political action groups have been pushing for some time to frame the Republican Party as anti-science on issues like climate change and evolution. Campaigning for re-election in 2012, President Obama lambasted climate skeptics as members of the “Flat Earth Society,” adding: “Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it’s not going to protect you from the coming storm.”

Last year, the political action group Organize for Action — which grew out of and succeeded Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign — launched an online list of legislators it considers climate deniers. So far, the list includes 140 members of the House and Senate.

Among Republicans, views on man-made climate change run the gamut from outright denial to conditional acceptance, though few have gone so far as to publicly embrace the scientific consensus on global warming. Doing so was widely credited with costing former Representative Bob Inglis his South Carolina seat in 2010.