I am trying to work out which is worse, the Republicans who believe climate change is a hoax, or those that think it is a threat but do not want to see anything done about it.
The all out assault on the Obama administration's climate change strategy stepped up a gear yesterday and if the first climate change hearing from the Republican-controlled energy and power subcommittee is anything to go by it is going to get very nasty.
The clashes between Republican representatives and EPA administrator Lisa Jackson were tense, uncomfortable, and, on occasions, downright unpleasant.
At one point in proceedings Republican Representative Lee Terry of Nebraska facetiously asked Jackson if she liked puppies. Jackson, who by all accounts handled herself throughout with professionalism and no little dignity, started to answer the surreal question before she was interrupted by Terry who revealed he was only mocking the gentle questions Democrats on the committee were posing. These guys are a lot of things, but sophisticated wits they are not.
There are numerous aspects to the Republican's plans to block all federal agencies from ever regulating greenhouse gas emissions that are morally, philosophically, and politically questionable, but the weirdest aspect of the Republican strategy is the completely scatter gun nature of the argument against the EPA's emissions rules.
Their strongest line of attack is that in the interests of democracy such an important issue should be addressed through new legislation approved by Congress not regulations imposed through a federal agency. But this begs the question why energy and climate change legislation has not been passed, and while there has been justifiable criticism of the Obama administrations handling of last year's climate change bill the GOP remains the main reason it failed. Meanwhile, as Jackson pointed out, the EPA was effectively ordered to regulate emissions by the Supreme Court and began the process to do so under the last Bush administration. In attempting to overturn the EPA rules the Republicans are effectively seeking to defy a Supreme Court ruling - at times during yesterday's hearing some Republican representatives appeared unaware of this basic back story.
The Republicans then moved on to arguing the US economy can not afford to enact the EPA's regulations. But this represents a willful misinterpretation of the EPA's regulations. They are in fact extremely modest in nature and centre on vehicle fuel economy standards that would save motorists money and rules for power stations and industrial plants that require them to deploy relatively efficient technologies when undertaking upgrade work or building new facilities. These are essentially efficiency plays and independent study after independent study has show they will create jobs and boost the economy in the long run.
This economic argument resulted in Representative Fred Upton insisting the rules would damage US competitiveness. "The Chinese government and other competitors have no intention of burdening and raising the cost of doing business for their manufacturers and energy producers the way EPA plans to do here in America," he said. An argument that would be fair enough, were it not patently false. As anyone who pays even cursory attention to China's economy knows the country is about to set a whole host of binding environmental, energy and emissions targets and last year famously closed down some industrial plants to ensure energy efficiency targets. If forced closure is not an example of "burdening and raising the cost of doing business" I am not sure what is. China appears to understand better than the Republicans that the short term costs associated with tackling emissions will have huge long term benefits.
The economic and legislative rationale for the GOP assault on the EPA is so weak it makes it all the more apparent that the real driver behind the attack is firmly rooted in climate scepticism. As became clear in yesterday's hearing, Republicans are happiest when pouring scorn on the scientific consensus and touting junk science that has not been peer-reviewed and lacks any real credibility. As Jackson noted during the hearing, the GOP is toying with setting a supremely dangerous precedent. "Politicians overruling scientists on a scientific question - that would become part of this committee's legacy," she warned.
In short, the Republican performance yesterday not only revealed staggering levels of scientific illiteracy, it also demonstrated a cavalier approach to long term risk management that in an ideal world would preclude them from taking public office.
Which brings me back to my initial dilemma. Those Republicans who are fully signed up climate sceptics at least have the comfort of ideological consistency to justify their attacks on the EPA. But those who quietly accept climate change is happening and is an issue (and there are a few still out there) are guilty of the most appalling irresponsibility in their complete failure to seriously engage with potential solutions. Moderate Republican Senator Lindsay Graham gave it a shot last year, before completely giving up, but since then there has been complete silence from those Republicans who accept climate change is a problem. On balance, it is they who threaten to do more harm to US efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions than the misguided but consistent climate denialists.
Ultimately the only question that matters is how best to ensure the US climate change strategy is not completely derailed (there is a very real chance this could happen given rumours the White House is considering delaying the EPA's emissions rules until after the 2012 election in order to avoid the Republicans characterising the move as a job killer on the campaign trail).
In many ways the answer lies with the business community. Republicans insist they are making this stand for the economy, but in reality they are representing a narrow band of the economy - carbon intensive industries with no interest in changing their ways. Business leaders don't like to be seen to meddle in politics, but with the future of the US low carbon economy on trial surely it is time for the leaders of those IT, retail, energy, financial and clean tech firms who understand the need to tackle climate change to step up to the plate and publicly distance themselves from the climate sceptic cabal that has taken over the Republican leadership.
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