As President Obama's controversial climate-change plan revs into full gear this week, Republicans are seeking to paint it as a vast executive power grab that will cost taxpayers billions of dollars—all to address a problem many in the GOP say doesn't exist.
With the Environmental Protection Agency scheduled Friday to release the first in a series of regulations reining in carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants, House Republicans are already on the attack. Wednesday, Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky, a coal-state Republican and unabashed climate-science skeptic, chaired a House Energy and Power Subcommittee hearing called, he said, for the express purpose of examining "the scope of federal climate-change actions that have been tolling billions of dollars a year in spending and countless man-hours of work since the mid-1990s, reaching over $22 billion this year alone." As soon as the agency puts out its draft rule, Whitfield plans to introduce a bill to block the regulation.
Together, the hearing and rule set the stage for a coming battle over climate change in the 2014 midterm elections. While Whitfield's bill stands no chance of passage in the Democratically controlled Senate, Republican strategists hope that it will put House Democrats in a tough position: Democrats from coal-, rust-, and farm-belt states who vote against rolling back the rule will see that vote haunt them in campaign ads, said Jordan Davis, policy director for the National Republican Congressional Committee. At the same time, Organizing for Action, the advocacy group that grew out of President Obama's 2012 campaign, is running online ads and holding demonstrations targeting Republican "climate deniers."
Obama, who in his first term failed to push climate-change legislation through Congress, has in his second term directed every Cabinet agency to present plans to act on climate change within their existing executive authority. Republicans are now calling attention to that effort as a way to claim the president is abusing his executive power. Whitfield invited representatives of 13 agencies to testify at Wednesday's hearing, including the departments of Defense, State, Interior, Health, Agriculture, and Transportation—and slammed the president for ultimately sending only EPA chief Gina McCarthy and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to the hearing. "Eleven agencies requested to testify—twice, I might add—did not provide a witness or submit information about agency activity to the subcommittee. That does not send a positive message for increased public understanding of what this administration is doing on an economically consequential matter," Whitfield said.
McCarthy and Moniz confronted the attacks head-on, reminding lawmakers that the science of climate change is clearly established, that their agencies have legal authority to tackle it, and that climate change is also wreaking havoc on the U.S. economy.
"The evidence is overwhelming, the science is clear, and the threat from climate change is real and urgent. This is my judgment, and it is the almost universal judgment of the scientific community," said Moniz, who was previously head of the physics department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The threat of a warming planet to our communities, our infrastructure, and our way of life is also clear. Rising sea levels and increasingly severe droughts, heat waves, wildfires, and major storms are already costing our economy billions of dollars a year, and these impacts are only going to grow more severe. Common sense demands that we take action. This is the driving force behind the president's climate-action plan."
McCarthy, who was just confirmed to the EPA post in July, asserted that under the law—specifically, the 1970 Clean Air Act—her agency has the legal authority to regulate carbon pollution.
Republicans, particularly Whitfield and others from coal states, continued to push back at established climate science. Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia cited reports that the rate of climate change has slowed in recent years, and he called the climate rules "an abuse of the president's executive authority." Moniz retorted that despite the recently recorded slowdown in atmospheric global warming, the last 10 years are still the hottest decade in recorded history. "Changes in the rate of increase are expected," he said. "This pattern of effects was predicted decades ago. This is not being made up…. The last several years have seen a slowdown of warming.… It does not obviate the overwhelming conclusion that global warming is going on."
A group of protesters from Greenpeace seemed to concur. Sitting quietly in the audience, the group, dressed discreetly in suits and ties, donned tinfoil tri-corner hats whenever a Republican questioned or denied the science of climate change.
This article appears in the September 19, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.