WASHINGTON (CN) – The Senate held a “kickoff” hearing Tuesday to debate the energy bill recently passed by the House. Fiery debate fell cleanly across partly lines with one Republican denying the existence of global warming while Obama administration cabinet members urged passage of far-reaching energy legislation “in the fierce urgency of now.”
“Denial of the climate change problem will not change our destiny,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu said. “A comprehensive energy and climate bill that caps and then reduces carbon emissions will.”
California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, called the hearing a “kickoff” in the Senate effort to pass energy legislation. She asked Chu, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, Department of Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack, and Department of the Interior Sec. Ken Salazar if they believe the committee should move forward with the climate change bill.
Each, perhaps predictably, said yes.
Republicans argued against the bill on the basis that it does not plan for enough nuclear power, that it would cost too much, and that it would send more jobs overseas. They also said U.S. action alone would be useless. One Republican denied the notion of global warming.
Democrats said the United States needs to take the lead in clean energy and argued that the costs associated with the energy bill would be relatively low, adding that such costs are worth the future of the nation’s children and grandchildren.
The hearing comes a week after the House passed a cap-and-trade bill by 219-212 with almost no Republican support.
Under the bill, polluters would be charged for their carbon dioxide emissions and emissions levels would be reduce over time.
By 2020, greenhouse gas emissions would be cut by 17 percent, and by 2050, emissions would be cut by 83 percent.
Companies would only be allowed a certain level of emissions, and under the cap-and-trade plan, they would be able to buy and sell emissions credits.
“I don’t want you to spend any additional time on climate change,” said Wyoming Republican John Barrasso to the four cabinet members. “Move onto other issues.”
He said evidence for global warming is weak, and cited a study that found global temperatures are on a downward trend, dismissing the “apocalyptic scenarios” of climate change.
Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse remarked that the Senate is “the last place where sober people still debate whether global warming is real.”
In their opening remarks, all the cabinet members acknowledged climate change, but Chu in particular set his foot down hard on the issue of climate change.
“Overwhelming scientific evidence shows that carbon dioxide from human activity has increased the atmospheric level of carbon dioxide by roughly 40 percent, a level one-third higher than any time in the last 800,000 years” he said calmly, and added that the increased carbon dioxide is causing global warming.
He cited an MIT study reporting a 50 percent chance that global temperatures will rise 9 degrees over the course of the century, and a 17 percent chance of an 11 degree increase.
“Eleven degrees may not sound like much, but during the last ice age, when Canada and much of the United States were covered all year in a glacier, the world was only about 11 degrees colder,” he said. “A world 11 degrees warmer will be very different as well. Is this the legacy we want to leave our children and grandchildren?”
But Senator James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma and the committee’s ranking minority member, said that action from the United States would be useless unless other countries joined. He asked the EPA’s Jackson whether the United States alone would be able to impact global carbon dioxide levels, to which Jackson admitted that it would not.
Maryland Democratic Sen. Benjamin Cardin replied, “That’s not the issue,” and said other countries are taking the initiative. He added that if the United States takes the lead, more will follow.
Inhofe also attacked the bill on an economic level, arguing that it will reshape the American economy in “dozens of ways that many people don’t realize,” and said the majority of Americans “are not willing to pay anything to fight global warming.”
He added that higher energy costs will simply ship more manufacturing jobs off to China.
Jackson said the Clean Energy and Security Act will cost the average American household less than 50 cents a day. “That figure does not account for the economic benefits of saving our children from living with increased drought, fire, pests, flooding and disease,” she argued.
“The earth’s climate is being changed by carbon pollution,” said Sen. Whitehouse, agreeing with Jackson. “It’s simply wrong not to act.” He said that if polluters are allowed to pollute for free, they’re going to keep doing it.
Jackson then compared clean energy to the space race. “America is behind,” she said, citing Asian and European countries as the leaders.
Republicans who do believe in climate change used the hearing to promote nuclear power.
Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander joked that Democrats left out a word when many said the nation with the clean energy economy will lead the 21st century. “A nation that doesn’t have cheap energy is not a nation that will lead the world,” he said, and hailed nuclear power as a cheap and reliable source of energy.
Vermont Democratic Sen. Bernard Sanders countered, noting that nuclear waste is highly toxic. “Maybe the people in Missouri want it. Then we’ll send it there,” he said in an apparent joke on Missouri Republican Christopher Bond, who argued for more nuclear plants.
Chu closed his opening statement with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King. “We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now,” he said. “In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.”