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Is This What The Climate-Change Debate Has Come To?

Congressional Republicans choose to just ignore science and attack the EPA.

Spend enough time listening to doubters and deniers of climate science speak, and you start to recognize certain familiar tics and tropes. There's the personal conversion story, for one. The skeptic explains how, once upon a time, he, too, blindly accepted everything climatologists have to say about how human activity is heating the planet. But then, as he began to pore over the evidence, the holes in the theory became readily apparent, and, more in sorrow than anger, the skeptic had to conclude that the scientific consensus was mistaken.

So, on Wednesday, when Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe kicked off his testimony at a House hearing on the EPA’s carbon regulations with a St. Augustine-like narrative, it seemed obvious what would follow. Inhofe was touting his new bill to overrule the EPA’s scientific finding that heat-trapping greenhouse gases pose a threat to public health and welfare (which, in turn, requires they be regulated). “I have to admit—and, you know, confession is good for the soul,” Inhofe began. “I, too, once thought that catastrophic global warming was caused by anthropogenic gases—because everyone said it was.”

But, all of the sudden, Inhofe seemed too bored to recap his now-familiar screed against climate science. All the audience got was a simple “There’s nothing conclusive in the science,” along with a quip that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had been “totally debunked” by the great Climategate scandal of 2009. Never mind that three separate investigations have cleared East Anglia researchers of any wrongdoing. All Inhofe needed to do was quote The Daily Telegraph, which once called the affair "the greatest scandal in modern science.” Later on, when Democrat Jay Inslee asked Inhofe if he really thought he was smarter than the IPCC’s 2,000 climate scientists, Inhofe brushed the question aside, noting that he’d already given “five speeches on the science.” (To get actual details, we may just have to wait for Inhofe’s forthcoming book, which he previewed at the hearing: “I won’t tell you what it’s about, but it’s titled The Hoax.”)

Is this what the climate-change debate has come to? Just two years ago, after Barack Obama’s victory, environmental groups were ecstatic at the prospect that the United States might finally do something serious about climate change. But now, after the cap-and-trade bill failed in the Senate and Republicans won big at the midterms, it’s the skeptics who are riding high in Congress—so high, in fact, that they barely feel the need to argue their case.

Take Fred Upton, the new chair of the House energy and commerce committee, who is working with Inhofe on the stop-the-EPA bill. Back in his moderate days, Upton called climate change “a serious problem.” But after a thorough lashing by his party's conservative wing, Upton has changed his mind. This week he said at a National Journal event, “I do not say that [climate change] is man-made.” Surprisingly, he didn't feel the need to explain his new stance—there was no personal conversion story. He recently told Politico that he probably wouldn’t bother to hold climate-science hearings. (Another newly minted GOP skeptic, Illinois’s Mark Kirk, explained his recent about-face by citing “the personal and political collapse of Al Gore.”) At the hearing on Wednesday, Texas Republican Joe Barton was content to quote former EPA economist Alan Carlin saying that the theory that humans were warming the planet failed to “conform with real world data.” (He didn’t trouble himself explaining what real-world data he was referring to. Record temperatures? Dwindling ice caps? Who can say?)

And if Republicans want to gloss over scientific evidence, there’s not much Democrats can do about it. Illinois Representative Bobby Rush lamented that no actual scientists had been invited to the hearing; Republicans had mainly summoned industry representatives to complain about the costs of carbon rules. And, in his own opening statement, an exasperated Representative Henry Waxman of California tried to warn his fellow Republicans, “You do not have the power to rewrite the laws of nature.” Maybe so. But now that they have a majority in the House, Republicans certainly have the power to ignore nature.

So what about those new EPA greenhouse gas rules? Back in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA had to regulate greenhouse gases as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act if the agency found that those gases pose a threat to public health and welfare (which, most scientists agree, they do). As it turns out, even George W. Bush’s EPA administrator, Stephen Johnson, conceded that the agency would have to start regulating carbon-dioxide. And, under Obama, the EPA has been putting forward new rules to control pollution from cars and stationary sources. (Here's a full primer on the topic.)

Republicans, as usual, argue that these regulations will crush the U.S. economy. At Wednesday's hearing, they invited Steve Rowlan, a representative from Nucor—a major U.S. steel producer—to explain how his company had to build a $750 million plant in Louisiana instead of a $2 billion one because of “the uncertainty created by these regulations.” Likewise, Jim Pearce, an official from soda-ash manufacturer FMC Corp., warned that new pollution controls could drive businesses offshore.

All these examples may be true (and certainly there's room to quibble with the EPA's counter-study suggesting that forthcoming clean-air regulations will actually create jobs). But, then again, no one suggests that these carbon rules are free—companies will have to spend money on pollution controls and efficiency upgrades. The green argument is that the benefits outweigh the costs—as has long been the case with Clean Air Act rules. And that's something Republicans would rather not confront head-on. At one point, Representative Ed Whitfield of Kentucky informed EPA head Lisa Jackson that her agency’s new fuel economy standards would add $948 to the cost of each car by 2016. But that’s only a decisive argument if you ignore the fact that the rules will save consumers far more than that amount in gas costs—to say nothing of whatever clean-air benefits ensue. (All told, EPA estimates the benefits at $240 billion, compared with $52 billion in costs.)

That's the core of the fight here. If you don’t believe climate change is a problem (or real), then of course most of these new carbon rules are pointlessly pricey. And, within the Republican Party, the belief that global warming is a made-up non-problem has become thoroughly ingrained—so much so that it’s no longer even worth justifying or debating.

Bradford Plumer is an associate editor at The New Republic.