March 21, 2007
By Felicity Barringer and Andrew Revkin
WASHINGTON, March 21 — It was part science class, part policy wonk paradise, part politics and all theater as former Vice President Al Gore came to Congress on Wednesday to insist that global warming constitutes a “planetary emergency” requiring an aggressive federal response.
Mr. Gore, accompanied by his wife, Tipper, delivered the same blunt message to a joint meeting of two House committees in the morning and a Senate panel in the afternoon: Humans are artificially warming the world, the risks of inaction are great, and meaningful cuts in emissions linked to warming will happen only if the United States takes the lead.
While sparring with Representative Joe L. Barton, a Texas Republican critical of his message, Mr. Gore resorted to a simple metaphor. “The planet has a fever. If your baby has a fever, you go to the doctor.” He added, “If the doctor says you need to intervene here, you don’t say ‘I read a science fiction novel that says it’s not a problem.’ You take action.”
In the House, there was little debate about the underlying science; the atmosphere was more that of a college lecture hall than a legislative give-and-take. But in the Senate, James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, set a pugilistic tone, challenging Mr. Gore’s analysis of the dangers of climate change from hurricanes and melting ice in Antarctica.
“It is my perspective that your global warming alarmist pronouncements are now and have always been filled with inaccuracies and misleading statements,” Mr. Inhofe said.
Beneath the carefully groomed surface of the House and Senate committees’ scripted production, a rift was evident. Republican committee leaders, including Mr. Barton in the House, and Mr. Inhofe in the Senate, seemed somewhat isolated from their rank-and-file colleagues, who appeared more receptive to Mr. Gore’s message and the scientific consensus on climate change. Even J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, the former House speaker, seemed to accept the scientific consensus.
Climate experts have concluded with growing accord that human-generated greenhouse gases are the dominant driver of recent global warming and that centuries of rising temperatures and seas lie ahead if emissions are not curbed.
Instead of challenging the science, many Republicans focused on questions of how to attack the problem in the United States, tending to favor nuclear power — which Mr. Gore said should be a “small part” of any solution — and asking what to do about the emissions of large developing economies like China and India.
Senator John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican who briefly considered trying to replace Mr. Inhofe as the ranking member on the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, expressed concern about how to coax China into reversing its build-out of coal-fired power plants, which are heavy emitters of carbon dioxide, the most prevalent heat-trapping gas associated with global warming.
“When we lead, they will be a part of it,” Mr. Gore replied, adding that two recent speeches by Chinese leaders indicate “there’s excellent evidence that they” are concerned about the effects of climate change.
From the time that he arrived in the morning at the Rayburn House Office Building in a black Mercury Mariner hybrid S.U.V. to the time he was whisked out of the senators’ entrance at the Dirksen Building committee room, Mr. Gore combined the erudition of a professor with a touch of the preacher’s fire.
Evoking the movie “300,” about the ancient Spartans’ stand at Thermopylae, Mr. Gore, speaking to a joint session of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the House Science Committee, called on Congress to put aside partisan differences, accept the scientific consensus on global warming and become “the 535,” a reference to the number of seats in the House and Senate.
Democrats and Republicans, he said, should emulate their British counterparts and compete to see how best to curb emissions of smokestack and tailpipe “greenhouse” gases.
Mr. Gore also proposed a 10-point plan, calling for initiatives like a tax on carbon emissions, a ban on incandescent light bulbs and another on new coal-fired plants that cannot be designed to capture carbon. He also called for a national mortgage program to underwrite the use of home energy-saving technologies.
Waving his finger at some 40 House members, he said, “A day will come when our children and grandchildren will look back and they’ll ask one of two questions.”
Either, he said, “they will ask: what in God’s name were they doing?” or “they may look back and say: how did they find the uncommon moral courage to rise above politics and redeem the promise of American democracy?”
On the Senate side, Mr. Inhofe quickly hit an issue that some of Mr. Gore’s critics have sounded in recent weeks — the size and energy-consuming properties of his new home in Tennessee. Mr. Inhofe sought to exact a pledge from Mr. Gore to cut electricity use so that his home outside Nashville used no more than the average American home in a year.
This triggered a jousting match with both Mr. Gore and Senator Barbara Boxer of California, the committee chairwoman, which ended when Ms. Boxer made a tart reference to the change in power in the Senate. “You’re not making the rules,” she told Mr. Inhofe.
Mr. Gore then said he pays extra to use wind-generated electricity at the home; Mr. Inhofe took that response as a rejection of the pledge.
When Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, asked if Mr. Gore would favor a tax on carbon emissions over a cap on emissions, accompanied by a system of trading pollution allowances, he said both were needed.
Representative Ralph M. Hall, Republican of Texas, said calls for cuts in emissions of greenhouse gases amounted to an “all-out assault on all forms of fossil fuels” that could eliminate jobs and hurt the economy.
In written testimony for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish statistician and author critical of people who present environmental problems as a crisis, asserted that Mr. Gore’s portrayal of global warming as a problem, and his prescription for solving it, were deeply flawed.
Mr. Lomborg said that “global warming is real and man-made,” but that a focus on intensified energy research would be more effective and far cheaper than caps or taxes on greenhouse gas emissions or energy sources that produce them.