Hearing on Agricultural Sequestration of Carbon

July 8, 2003



The Hearing will come to order. Good Morning.


We are here this morning to discuss agricultural sequestration of carbon. Specifically, today’s hearing will focus on the potential for agricultural sequestration to reduce concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases and on the Administration’s actions to understand and enhance that potential.


As everyone in this room is aware, the issues surrounding greenhouse gas emissions and climate change have become so controversial – with people on both sides of the issues – that they are interfering with our ability to move forward on legislation dealing with SO2, NOx and Mercury.


I have stated several times that we need to enact a comprehensive energy policy that harmonizes the needs of our economy and our environment.


Nowhere is that need more important than with the issue of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change – where the options that have been proposed to mitigate potential human impacts on the climate and related environmental systems are likely to have substantial economic and societal consequences and where there is raging debate about whether there are any conclusive environmental benefits from implementing them.


As we look at the issues surrounding greenhouse gas emissions and the stability of our utility, manufacturing and industrial sectors, it is very clear that the nexus between environment and economy is – rather than an academic or political exercise – a very real issue for those who will be affected by the decisions we make on this Committee and in the Senate.


We here in the Senate – as public policy makers – must have reliable and readily understood information in order to make informed decisions about them.


In 2000, total greenhouse gas emissions (in carbon dioxide equivalent terms) were about 14 percent higher than emissions levels in 1990. CO2 accounted for 82 percent of total US greenhouse gas emissions, methane accounted for 9 percent, nitrous oxide accounted for 6 percent and other gases accounted for the rest.


The Administration projects that total US greenhouse gas emissions will increase by 43 percent between 2000 and 2020. Several uncertainties are associated with this projection, including forecast methodology, meteorological variations, and rates of economic growth and technological development. Further, the Administration’s projections do not incorporate future measures to address greenhouse gas emissions or legislative and regulatory actions not yet in effect.


Despite the fact that many in the environmental community argue that the science of the causes, effects and extent of climate change is settled, there – is in fact – real controversy over whether or not greenhouse gas emissions affect the climate.


The National Research Council has noted that fundamental scientific questions remain regarding the specifics of the connection between atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and projections of climate change.


The Administration has stated that uncertainty in predicting the potential impacts of climate change is compounded by a lack of understanding of the sensitivity of many environmental systems and resources to climate change.


According to the National Academy of Sciences, potential risks of increased concentrations of greenhouse gases are generally characterized as long-term in nature and the current scientific knowledge and ability are insufficient to conclude whether these shifts are a result of human activities.


Just yesterday, former Secretary of Energy James Schlesinger published an op-ed in the Washington Post noting that we are making only slow progress in our understanding of the science that underlies these issues. I would like to (without objection) have Secretary Schlesinger’s op-ed placed into the record.


In order to further understand the relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and potential climate change, the Administration has funded several research and development projects. While the aim of this research is relatively simple – to understand what effects atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases have on the climate – the actual implementation is very complex. At this time, the Administration is conducting (or funding) research at the Department of Commerce, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency (as well as several others)


In order to address the potential risks associated with greenhouse gas emissions and concentrations, the Administration has initiated several administrative and regulatory actions intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enhance carbon sequestration – including agricultural carbon sequestration initiatives at the Department of Agriculture.


Last month, Secretary Veneman announced several new incentives to encourage greenhouse gas reduction and support voluntary actions by private landowners, including farmers and forest and grazing landowners to increase carbon storage.


Specifically, USDA will give consideration to management practices that store carbon and reduce greenhouse gases in setting priorities and implementing forest and agricultural conservation programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Forest Land Enhancement Program (PLEP). USDA will also fund financial incentives, technical assistance, demonstrations, pilot programs, education and capacity building, along with measurements to assess the success of these efforts.


The Administration projects that increasing conservation investments in these programs (to $3.9 billion in agricultural and forest conservation in FY 2004) will not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester roughly 12 million tons of greenhouse gases annually by 2012, it will greatly increase productivity on our farms.


I have long been a supporter of such programs – even when I was unaware of their benefits in reducing greenhouse gas concentrations. When I was Governor of Ohio, I put into place a program that planted about 15 million trees. At the time, I knew that it was good for the environment and that it certainly helped the areas where we planted look better. It was only later – once I had moved onto this Committee – that I was told (by Dr. Lal – who is testifying in our second panel) how much that program really helped in reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.


I hope that today’s hearing will provide us with an understanding of the agriculture sector’s potential to sequester carbon and increase productivity and whether the Administration’s programs are providing resources and research in the most effective manner to ensure that our farmers can reach that potential.


Our first witness today is the Chief Executive Officer of the Natural Resources Conservation Service at the Department of Agriculture, Mr. Bruce Knight. I would like to thank Chief Knight and the rest of our witnesses for coming down here to discuss these issues and I look forward to their testimony.




[From the Washington Post, July 7, 2003]

Climate Change: The Science Isn’t Settled

(By James Schlesinger)


Despite the certainty many seem to feel about the causes, effects and extent of climate change, we are in fact making only slow progress in our understanding of the underlying science. My old professor at Harvard, the great economist Joseph Schumpeter, used to insist that a principal tool of economic science was history -- which served to temper the enthusiasms of the here and now. This must be even more so in climatological science. In recent years the inclination has been to attribute the warming we have lately experienced to a single dominant cause -- the increase in greenhouse gases. Yet climate has always been changing -- and sometimes the swings have been rapid.


At the time the U.S. Department of Energy was created in 1977, there was widespread concern about the cooling trend that had been observed for the previous quarter-century. After 1940 the temperature, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, had dropped about one-­half degree Fahrenheit -- and more in the higher latitudes. In 1974 the National Science Board, the governing body of the National Science Foundation, stated: “During the last 20 to 30 years, world temperature has fallen, irregularly at first but more sharply over the last decade.” Two years earlier, the board had observed: “Judging from the record of the past interglacial ages, the present time of high temperatures should be drawing to an end ... leading into the next glacial age.” And in 1975 the National Academy of Sciences stated: “The climates of the earth have always been changing, and they will doubtless continue to do so in the future. How large these future changes will be, and where and how rapidly they will occur, we do not know.”


These statements -- just a quarter-century old -- should provide us with a dose of humility as we look into the more distant future. A touch of that humility might help temper the current raging controversies over global warming. What has concerned me in recent years is that belief in the greenhouse effect, persuasive as it is, has been transmuted into the dominant forcing mechanism affecting climate change -- more or less to the exclusion of other forcing mechanisms. The C02/climate-change relationship has hardened into orthodoxy -- always a worrisome sign -- an orthodoxy that searches out heretics and seeks to punish them.


We are in command of certain essential facts. First, since the start of the 20th century, the mean temperature at the earth’s surface has risen about 1 degree Fahrenheit. Second, the level of C02 in the atmosphere has been increasing for more than 150 years. Third, C02 is a greenhouse gas -- and increases in it, other things being equal, are likely to lead to further warming. Beyond these few facts, science remains unable either to attribute past climate changes to changes in C02 or to forecast with any degree of precision how climate will change in the future.


Of the rise in temperature during the 20th century, the bulk occurred from 1900 to 1940. It was followed by the aforementioned cooling trend from 1940 to around 1975. Yet the concentration of greenhouse gases was measurably higher in that later period than in the former. That drop in temperature came after what was described in the National Geographic as “six decades of abnormal warmth.”


In recent years much attention has been paid in the press to longer growing seasons and shrinking glaciers. Yet in the earlier period up to 1975, the annual growing season in England had shrunk by some nine or 10 days, summer frosts in the upper Midwest occasionally damaged crops, the glaciers in Switzerland had begun to advance again, and sea ice had returned to Iceland’s coasts after more than 40 years of its near absence.


When we look back over the past millennium, the questions that arise are even more perplexing. The so-called Climatic Optimum of the early Middle Ages, when the earth temperatures were 1 to 2 degrees warmer than today and the Vikings established their flourishing colonies in Greenland, was succeeded by the Little Ice Age, lasting down to the early 19th century. Neither can be explained by concentrations of greenhouse gases. Moreover, through much of the earth’s history, increases in C02 have followed global warming, rather than the other way around.


We cannot tell how much of the recent warming trend can be attributed to the greenhouse effect and how much to other factors. In climate change, we have only a limited grasp of the overall forces at work. Uncertainties have continued to abound -- and must be reduced. Any approach to policy formation under conditions of such uncertainty should be taken only on an exploratory and sequential basis. A premature commitment to a fixed policy can only proceed with fear and trembling.


In the Third Assessment by the International Panel on Climate Change, recent climate change is attributed primarily to human causes, with the usual caveats regarding uncertainties. The record of the past 150 years is scanned, and three forcing mechanisms are highlighted: anthropogenic (human-caused) greenhouse gases, volcanoes and the 11­year sunspot cycle. Other phenomena are represented poorly, if at all, and generally are ignored in these models. Because only the past 150 years are captured, the vast swings of the previous thousand years are not analyzed. The upshot is that any natural variations, other than volcanic eruptions, are overshadowed by anthropogenic greenhouse gases.


Most significant: The possibility of long-term cycles in solar activity is neglected because there is a scarcity of direct measurement. Nonetheless, solar irradiance and its variation seem highly likely to be a principal cause of long-term climatic change. Their role in longer­term weather cycles needs to be better understood.


There is an idea among the public that “the science is settled.” Aside from the limited facts I cited earlier, that remains far from the truth. Today we have far better instruments, better measurements and better time series than we have ever had. Still, we are in danger of prematurely embracing certitudes and losing open-mindedness. We need to be more modest.


The writer, who has served as secretary of energy, made these comments at a symposium on the 25th anniversary of the Energy Department’s C02/climate change program.