By inviting four former Republican heads of the Environmental Protection Agency to testify in favor of prompt climate change action, Democrats on a Senate committee hoped to highlight some degree of bipartisan support for the EPA's crackdown on carbon emissions from power plants.
The four duly defended the agency and disputed the notion that air pollution regulations are harmful to the economy. They also declared their acceptance of the established science on man-made global warming as an increasingly compelling reason to cut emissions.
"We have a scientific consensus around this issue. We also need a political consensus," said Christine Todd Whitman, who was George W. Bush's EPA administrator, but who quit after the White House decided against controlling CO2 under the Clean Air Act, as the Obama administration is doing now.
But the hearing, where roughly half of the talking was done by senators rather than witnesses, did more to expose the divisive debate over EPA's actions and the administration's broader plans than it did to develop any kind of consensus.
Republican allies of the fossil fuel industry packed the room with coal miners and invited witnesses to disparage the agency's actions. They included the attorney general of Alabama, who will fight the rule in court; a scientist who regularly challenges the bona fides of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN body that won the Nobel Prize; and a monetary economist, who argued that in his profession there is broad consensus that cap-and-trade programs, strongly favored by the EPA's new rules, are ill-suited to controlling CO2.
Whitman said she was frustrated that EPA is being challenged over whether it has authority to control carbon dioxide.
"The issue has been settled," she said. "EPA does have the authority. The law says so and the Supreme Court has said so twice. The matter should be put to rest."
She said that "honest disagreement" about whether the agency "may be stretching its legal authority a bit too far in some parts of the proposed rule" can be worked out during the coming year of public comment and revisions to the draft regulation. A public comment period of 120 days—twice the usual period—begins today with the rule's publication in the Federal Register.
As for the validity of the mainstream science, William Ruckelshaus, the first EPA administrator during the Nixon administration and again its chief under Ronald Reagan, said bluntly: "The IPCC report validates in the strongest terms the science of climate change and the projected impacts."
"We 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," he said. "This is an extremely complex problem whose solutions are not straightforward. We believe this is no excuse for complacency or not stepping up to our responsibility."
"We know there are many approaches that can be taken, and all are controversial," said Lee Thomas, another administrator under Reagan. He said EPA's recent moves "once again position the U.S. to demonstrate international leadership."
"Each of us, during our tenures, had to navigate the complexities of law, science, economics, public policy, the prevailing winds of politics and public sentiments, and more on any number of difficult issues," said William Reilly, who ran the agency under George H. W. Bush. "While the President has taken many important steps, a full and constructive response is needed from Congress."