WASHINGTON — Four administrators of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who served under Republican presidents told a Senate panel Wednesday climate change is real and the federal government has the responsibility and the legal authority to combat it.
While saying they might differ on the details of how U.S. officials should react, the former administrators said the cost of delay — or of doing nothing — was high.
Florida came in for special attention.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., talked about rising sea levels in his state but also about Florida — “ground zero for climate change” — and the flooding problems that come with extreme high tides fueled by rising seas.
former Republican EPA administrator Lee Thomas, who served under Reagan, and William K. Reilly, who served under President George H.W. Bush, also testified.
Thomas also spoke of his home state of Florida, which is already working to combat the affects of climate change. “The economic impact is undeniable,” he said, “and local governments struggle to address today’s impacts of climate change, while trying to anticipate the increased risk it poses in the future.”
In a hearing before a Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee, William Ruckelshaus told lawmakers “the four former EPA administrators sitting in front of you found we were convinced by the overwhelming verdict of scientists that the Earth was warming and that we humans were the only controllable contributor to this phenomenon.”
Ruckelshaus was the nation’s first EPA administrator, a job he held under Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. He said the four administrators “believe there is legitimate scientific debate over the pace and effects of climate change, but no legitimate debate over the fact of the Earth’s warming or over man’s contribution.”
The hearing comes two weeks after the Obama administration proposed new rules to substantially reduce carbon pollution in the nation, a process that could shutter older coal-fired power plants and spur development of more wind and other alternative energy sources. The rules, which are still in the works, face considerable push-back from industry sources and Republicans on Capitol Hill.
The four former administrators were met by senators who generally sparred over familiar terrain and repeated their usual talking points. Republican members of the Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety sought to poke holes in the scientific consensus on climate change and its effects, and to talk about how they think the Obama administration overreached in its recent rules and that Americans’ energy bills would rise if new carbon rules go into effect.
Democrats responded with exasperation that issues that used to have bipartisan consensus had turned bitterly political, and said the prevailing view among scientists about the nature of climate change couldn’t be ignored. More than one Democrat turned to comparisons of doctor-patient relationships: “When doctors tell us we need a heart bypass or cancer treatment, we listen,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
The former administrators generally said that all scientific issues presented complexities as well as costs. And there are always forces pushing back, saying the costs far outweigh the benefits.
Ruckelshaus talked about an effort to reduce automobile pollution. Carmakers at first resisted, saying it wasn’t possible and that it would decimate their industry. But once they saw the EPA was serious about pursuing the rule they began to focus on how — not whether — to comply.
The attitude changed from “one of claiming the end is near to one of `Let’s see if we can do this, and do it in a cost-effective way,’ “ Ruckelshaus said. While he used his authority to give automakers more time to comply, Ruckelshaus said the EPA remained serious about enforcing the rule. The reality today, he added, is that cars emit far less pollution than they once did.
Christine Todd Whitman, a former governor of New Jersey who was the EPA administrator under President George W. Bush, said she was frustrated by the debate over whether the EPA had the authority to take the action it did on carbon pollution.
“The issue has been settled,” she said in her prepared testimony. “EPA does have the authority. The law says so and the Supreme Court has said so twice. The matter should be put to rest.”
While she questioned whether the EPA may be “stretching its legal authority a bit too far in some parts of the proposed rule,” she said those concerns can and should be worked out in the rule-making process. The focus should be on those details, not on whether the EPA has the authority to act, she said.