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Hot times yield lukewarm climate debate in D.C.
July 31, 2012

Posted by Matt Dempsey matt_dempsey@epw.senate.gov

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Hot times yield lukewarm climate debate in D.C.

By Darren Goode

7/31/12 7:07 PM EDT

The planet may be getting hotter, but Washington’s debate on climate change isn't heating up.

Amid a summer marked by droughts, wildfires, record temperatures and freak storms, Congress is squeezing in just one hearing on the changing climate before it dashes out for a hot August recess.

And that hearing, set for Wednesday, is unlikely to be a show-stopper: No federal officials will testify and no big-name witnesses will appear — none of the elements that could help this gathering compete for an Olympics-mad public’s attention.

It's a reminder of how much things have changed for Democrats in Congress since their hopes for passing a major cap-and-trade bill died in 2010, reducing the entire climate issue to second-tier status. Now, Republicans are eager to argue, Democrats are reluctant to even talk about the issue in an election year.

"The Obama administration wants to stay silent about global warming," said Matt Dempsey, a spokesman for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s Republicans, citing the roster of witnesses for Wednesday’s hearing as evidence.

Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer bristled when a reporter asked her about the witness list Tuesday.

“Headline grabbing? Like who? Who would be a headline-grabbing federal witness?” the California Democrat asked. “Let me put it this way, you got a lot of headline-grabbing senators on this on both sides.”

The witnesses do include three university scientists who have contributed material for the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a magnet for criticism from the right — a fact that offers some possibility for fireworks among the senators.

And yes, global warming also inspired a round of sniping on the floor Monday afternoon between Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and leading climate skeptic Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) — two senators who couldn’t be further apart on the political poles.

But what about a serious dialogue on the topic on Capitol Hill? “There isn’t one,” Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said Tuesday.

Still, Kerry said, the real-world impact of the warming Earth means the climate’s time in the political spotlight is coming.

“It’s a matter of timing but it’s not going away,” Kerry told POLITICO. “It’s getting bigger, it’s getting more serious. And it will be very much front and center I think over the next months.”

In the House, meanwhile, Republican leaders have been ignoring a steady pounding of criticism from Democrats like California’s Henry Waxman about that chamber’s refusal to hold hearings on climate change.

GOP leaders have been busy instead with an escalating series of votes attempting to strip the EPA's power to regulate greenhouse gases. Mitt Romney has joined that cause, part of the Republican message that voters mainly care about jobs.

Romney and the House GOP want to strip the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the Obama EPA's purview, a step that the Supreme Court says would require legislative action. But Republicans don’t seem to have many suggestions for how else to deal with carbon dioxide emissions, although some people from both parties have been raising new rumblings about the long-dead possibility of imposing a carbon tax.

And some environmentalists say the White House hasn’t lived up to expectations on the topic either. Obama promised Rolling Stone in April that the climate would hold a prominent place on the campaign trail, but so far it hasn’t.

“I’m very disappointed that the president after the Rolling Stone interview has done nothing to inject climate change into the presidential campaign,” said Clinton-era Energy Department official Joe Romm, who blogs for the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress.

“It’s a chicken and egg thing,” Romm told POLITICO. “Obviously if the political leadership of the country doesn’t talk about the problem, obviously the public isn’t going to care a lot about the problem. Because Obama has not talked about it in two years nor has anyone in the senior leadership of the Democratic Party.”

Polls back that up: Only 21 percent of people think dealing with “environmental problems such as global warming” is extremely important, according to a July 19-22 Gallup poll surveying what voters want the next president to make a priority. A little more than half — 52 percent — labeled it as an extremely or very important priority, just slightly ahead of increasing taxes on the wealthy.

Then again, a summer of wilting record-high temperatures has a way of getting people’s attention.

Boxer said she had waited to hold Wednesday’s update on climate science until the conclusion of the two-year effort that led to passage of this year’s highway bill.  But she said the storms and heat played a part in her decision to call the hearing.

“Because of the weather, there’s a lot more concern about it,” she said. “More people were asking, ‘When are you going to have a hearing?’”

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