US Senators' Discourse on Air Quality Regulation and Climate Change: Cartoonish Prop or Environmental Reality?

Cherry trees are in full bloom in Washington, DC. On Tuesday, I traveled to DC with a group of students from my York College science classes. Pink cherry blossoms -- considered the springtime soul of our nation -- graced the entire perimeter of the tidal basin. Dogwoods and other flowering trees lining the Capitol Mall and side streets served as a pleasing visual indicator that we had finally emerged from the lingering brutal winter that gripped much of the nation. The fragrant scent of spring was in the air.

The purpose of our DC trip was to connect classroom discussion about the scientific basis of climate change with contemporary political discourse. What we observed was a spectacle of contentious political discord...Whew!

Verbal fireworks during a confirmation hearing within the Dirksen Senate Office Building contrasted sharply with the mellow mood outside. My students and I slipped into the Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) meeting where senators were conducting hearings for three environmental agency nominees:
• Janet G. McCabe to be the Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation, Environmental Protection Agency
• Ann E. Dunkin to be the Assistant Administrator for Environmental Information, Environmental Protection Agency
• Manuel H. Ehrlich, Jr. to be a Member of the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board

Senator Barbara Boxer (D, CA) serves as EPW Chair. The political divide on climate change and regulation of air and water quality was on stark display. Senators to Boxer's right (politically and seated) pointedly and repeatedly challenged nominees about her acceptance of IPCC "science," frequently quoting references that refuted this "politicized" group. By contrast, Senators to Boxer's left (politically and seated) praised the nominees for their expertise and qualifications, pledging to "follow the science" and seek clean energy solutions.

The Republican side focused on affordable energy, criticizing regulation and challenging the science. The Democratic side accepted the science and placed greater concern on adverse environmental impacts. There did not appear to be a common ground between the polarized parties.

A testy sparring match between liberal, pro-environment Boxer versus far-right, pro-fossil fuel Ranking Minority Leader Senator Vitter (R, LA) became quite heated. You can check out the verbal spat here (click on time at approximately 1:33 and view for 5 minutes).

Boxer attacked the political right for its, "direct assault on the Clean Air Act putting forth efforts to [dismantle it] the grace of God we have been able to stop repeal of [all these acts]." She emphasized, "Climate change is happening, you just need to read the science."

Boxer displayed a photo of a woman in Habin, China wearing a mask to filter the dense, smog-polluted air which had soared to 40 times the internationally accepted safety standard on October 21, 2013.


Vitter called Boxer's prop "cartoonish...[and]...laughable."

Nations around the globe accept the science and seek to address impacts resulting from climate disruption. All 196 Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are united in principle but divided in details. This includes the U.S. since the EPA holds regulatory power over the greenhouse gas CO2 as a toxic emission and this regulatory power has been upheld by the Federal Court. All UNFCCC Parties accept the known science, but they just can't get by national self-interest in the details.

By contrast, our U.S. legislators are deeply divided both in principle and details. The EPW meeting clearly showed that Republicans will not accept what the science is saying -- greenhouse gas emissions are rising, this is dramatically changing our climate and humans are responsible. As long as our politicians wear ideological blinders, we will never find common ground on the details.

Senator Boxer spoke directly to my York College students near the end of the hearing (click on time at approximately 1:57 and view for 3 minutes). Her message was aimed at all youth. "To you young people here. I hope you will look into this more. And, I hope it will motivate you. If you feel that we need action on climate change, I hope you will push forward on that. Do something. Exercise your right to make sure that you breathe clean air and drink clean water."

All of us need to press our policy makers to read and objectively assess the science. The IPCC has condensed the science, impacts and what-to-do-about-it into accessible Summaries for Policy Makers:
• WGI: The Physical Science Basis
• WGII: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability
• WGIII: Mitigation (soon to be released)

(Cherry blossoms in Washington DC: photo credit Ashley Criswell)
(Senator Boxer showing AP photo is screen capture of EPW hearing)