On June 10, the Senate voted down Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s resolution to strip EPA of the authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.  The vote, 53-47, united all 41 Republicans in the chamber in support of Murkowski along with six Democrats: Mary Landrieu (LA), Blanche Lincoln (AR), Mark Pryor (AR), Ben Nelson (ND), Evan Bayh (IN), and Jay Rockefeller (WV).  While many lawmakers defended the resolution as not a rejection of the science underlying EPA’s endangerment finding but of EPA as the proper authority for regulating greenhouse gases, its passage would, in fact, have set a precedent of overturning a robust scientific assessment to avoid uncomfortable policy implications.

Post by Alexa Jay

Senator Murkowski and her supporters waved aside the larger implications of the resolution for science-based public policy:

“My resolution does not affect the science behind the endangerment finding…Bringing climate science, the oil spill, and fuel economy into this debate are attempts at misdirection.  They are red herrings that are intended to convince Members to oppose the resolution of disapproval. But this debate has nothing to do with those topics…This is not a debate about the science. Science has been discussed a lot. Really, this is about how we respond to the science,” Murkowski said.

This is the real motivation behind Senator Murkowski’s resolution: to overturn a scientific finding because its policy implications are unpalatable.

The resolution cannot be separated from its rejection of the science underlying the endangerment finding; the endangerment finding is a scientific assessment that reflects the leading scientists’ widely shared understanding of the likely impacts of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.  The Supreme Court ruled in Massachusetts v. EPA that the Environmental Protection Agency has the obligation to determine whether greenhouse gases pose a threat to human health and welfare and should be regulated under the Clean Air Act.  The EPA, drawing on the leading national and international scientific assessment reports, found that greenhouse gases do pose this threat, and therefore that the agency has an obligation under law to regulate them. 

Sen. Murkowski framed her opposition to the endangerment finding as a matter of EPA being an inappropriate vehicle for regulating greenhouse gases. This would be an “unprecedented power grab, ceding Congress’ responsibilities to unelected bureaucrats…Congress needs time to develop a more appropriate solution,” the Senator said.  But as the law stands, EPA currently does have this responsibility, this obligation.  Congress has not acted yet.  And while there may be a broad consensus that legislation is the preferred approach for regulation, the nullification of a scientific finding requiring regulation under the Clean Air Act is not justified.

Sen. Boxer (D-CA) said in her opening statement: “The Murkowski resolution we are considering today would overturn the endangerment finding developed by scientists and health experts in both the Bush and Obama administrations that too much carbon pollution in the air is dangerous—dangerous for our families, dangerous for our environment. Imagine, 100 Senators—not scientists, not health experts—deciding what pollutant is dangerous and what pollutant is not. Personally, I believe it is ridiculous for politicians, elected Senators, to make this scientific decision. It is not our expertise; it is not really our purview. ” 

Other arguments from Democrats voting down the resolution:

Sen. Sanders (I-Vermont): “This resolution really is not about whether EPA or Congress should regulate greenhouse gas emissions.  What this resolution is about is whether we go forward in public policy based on science or based on politics.”

Sen Reed (D-RI): “The Senate can pass a resolution saying practically anything, but it does not change reality.  The fact is, the best science tells us that climate change is real and that greenhouse gas emissions contribute significantly to it.”

As for the part of the Republicans, it is a strange world indeed when a legislator can stand before the US Senate and say the following:

Sen. Chambliss (R-GA): “Obviously, it was warm enough in the past for humans to live and thrive in that part of the world, even though in recent memory we only think of Greenland as covered in ice.  I talked to the scientists who have studied Greenland’s glaciers for decades.  They told me that while the climate is changing they don’t know with any certainty if the changes are natural or caused by human activity or a combination of the two.  I found it interesting that while some glaciers are melting, some are increasing in size.  We just don’t see what is happening on the back side.”

Sen. Sessions (R-AL): “Global warming developed a certain momentum and a number of scientists signed onto this idea.  Even though CO2 is a plant food and the more CO2 that is in the atmosphere the better plants grow.  And even though we breathe out CO2 and plants breathe in CO2 which produces the oxygen that we breathe in this wonderful system we are a part of.  They concluded that CO2 was increasing because we were taking carbon fuels mostly from our soils, burning it, and that was increasing the percentage of CO2 in the atmosphere.  Presumably it had at one time been in the atmosphere and had been sucked up by plants.”

Sen. Inhofe (R-OK): “Take Al Gore’s science fiction movie and the IPCC and look at all of the assertions they made in this movie and the IPCC has made, every one has been refuted.  I can’t find one assertion that has now not been refuted…”

These are some of the more egregious examples of scientific disinformation peddled during the debate, but they bring to mind a basic question: can these Senators possibly buy into this level of disinformation?  Are they really so uninformed or so willfully ignorant?  Many Senators, including Democrats voting for the resolution, argued that EPA regulation would have harmful economic impacts, but did not attack the basic science outright; why is it necessary for others to spread disinformation to make their case?