Global Warming a Hot Topic in Congressional Hearing

A congressional committee took up the topic of global climate change Wednesday, focusing on an eight-year-old study suggesting that the world is warmer now than it has been in a thousand years. Congressman Joe Barton (R-TX) used the hearing to question the study and the debate over global warming.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A Congressional committee yesterday returned to the subject of global warming. At issue were two of the thousands of studies showing evidence of climate change. Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee tried to turn shortcomings in those two papers into a much broader attack on climate science.

NPR's Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS reporting:

The focus of this argument is a graph that's shaped like a hockey stick and which suggests that the planet has warmed abruptly in recent decades. Last year, Texas Republican Joe Barton attacked that conclusion and went after the scientists who published the paper by demanding they turn over their data and their computer programs.

Representative JOE BARTON (Republican, Texas): A number of people basically use that report to come to the conclusion that global warming was a fact and that the 1990s was the hottest decade on record. And that one year, 1998, was the hottest year in the millennium. Now, a millennium is a thousand years. That's a pretty bold statement.

HARRIS: Too bold a statement to make on the basis of that study. Last month, the National Academy of Sciences said the study's claims were overreaching but largely beside the point in the big picture of global warming. But Chairman Barton had handpicked his own reviewers as well, and yesterday he called a hearing to discuss their results. Democrats wondered why the Energy and Commerce Committee up till now has all but ignored global warming.

Jay Inslee is a Democrat from Washington State.

Representative JAY INSLEE (Democrat, Washington): Instead of really engaging Congressional talent and figuring out how to deal with this problem, we try to poke little pinholes in one particular statistical conclusion of one particular study where the overwhelming evidence is that we have to act to deal with this global challenge.

HARRIS: Inslee pointed out that National Academies of Sciences from around the world, including that of the United States, have come to the conclusion from many lines of evidence that global warming is real and that humans are largely responsible. When the time came, he turned to the Republicans' key witness, statistician Ed Wegman.

Rep. INSLEE: Now, I guess the question to you is do you have any reason to believe all of those academies should change their conclusion because of your criticism of one report?

Professor EDWARD J. WEGMAN (Professor Information Technology and Applied Statistics, George Mason University): Of course not.

HARRIS: And the limits of Wegman's expertise became painfully clear when he tried to answer a question from Illinois Democrat Jan Schakowsky about the well known mechanism by which carbon dioxide traps infrared radiation - heat - in our atmosphere.

Prof. WEGMAN: Carbon dioxide is heavier than air. Where it sits in the atmospheric profile, I don't know. I'm not an atmospheric scientist to know that. But presumably, if the atmospheric - if the carbon dioxide is close to the surface of the earth, it's not reflecting a lot of infrared back.

Representative JAN SCHAKOWSKY (Democrat, Illinois): But you're not clearly qualified to...

Prof. WEGMAN: No, of course not.

Rep. SCHAKOWSKY: ...comment on that.

HARRIS: Republicans on that committee were unmoved by the discussion. Michael Burgess is a Republican from Texas.

Representative MICHAEL BURGESS (Republican, Texas): It's false to presume that a consensus today - exists today where the human activity has been proven to cause global warming, and that's the crux of this hearing. I would point out that simply turning off the electrical generation plants that provide the air conditioning back in my district would not be a viable option.

HARRIS: Chairman Barton finally allowed that climate change is a serious matter and that eminent scientists are deeply concerned about it.

Rep. BARTON: My problem is that everybody seems to think that it's automatically a given and that we shouldn't even debate the possibility of it and we probably shouldn't debate the causes of it. And I think that's wrong.

HARRIS: But if anyone showed up at this hearing room to hear a true scientific debate on global warming they ended up instead with just a political debate often far afield from the facts.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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