Global Warming Bill Defeated in Senate

Published November 21, 2003

Senate legislation to cap greenhouse gas emissions—the first of its kind since the Senate unanimously rejected the Kyoto Protocol in 1997—was defeated on October 30 by a vote of 55-43. The defeat of the bill, sponsored by John McCain (R-Arizona) and Joe Lieberman (D-Connecticut), came despite significant last-minute weakening of the bill in an attempt to attract more supporters.

McCain attempted to rally support for the bill by suggesting recent weather events provided evidence global warming was already occurring. He displayed pictures of Glacier National Park as it existed in the 1930s and as it exists today, claiming those photos documented the effects of global warming. He also argued that melting polar ice caps and wildfires burning in Southern California were further evidence of warming.

Science Trumps Anecdotes

McCain’s assertions were discredited by Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma). The anecdotes offered by McCain, Inhofe said, were no match for the 17,800 scientists who have signed a letter concluding there is “no convincing scientific evidence” that human activity is causing significant climate change.

Satellite temperature readings of the Earth’s lower atmosphere show no warming in the 25 years since measurements began, although global warming theory predicts the Earth’s lower atmosphere will exhibit the first signs of warming. The 1º Fahrenheit warming reported by surface-based weather stations during the past century is likely due to artificial heat-island effects caused by population growth.

Patrick Michaels, research professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia and past president of the American Association of State Climatologists, also criticized McCain’s anecdotal approach. According to Michaels’ research, retreating glaciers in Glacier National Park are the natural result of the Earth thawing from the abnormally cold Little Ice Age that occurred from the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries. Much like an ice cube will continue melting in a refrigerator even though the refrigerator’s temperature remains steady, Michaels has noted, mountain glaciers adjusting to the end of the Little Ice Age will continue melting in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries despite an equilibrium of temperatures today.

Michaels and other scientists have also provided evidence that precipitation has moderately increased as a result of greenhouse gas emissions—casting doubt on McCain’s wildfire theory—and that the polar ice caps have increased, rather than decreased, in size.

“I ask my colleagues not to listen so much to the opinions of labor unions, businesses, or even scientists,” McCain responded to the scientific evidence. “Look at what is happening around the world. Use your eyes to see what’s happening.”

High Price to Pay

Opponents of the McCain-Lieberman measure noted not only its shaky scientific foundation, but also the high costs it would impose on U.S. taxpayers and economy. The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released a statement concluding McCain-Lieberman would result in a 40-cents-per-gallon increase in gasoline prices and would cost the average household $444 per year in higher energy bills. Unemployment would increase by 600,000 and the federal deficit would jump by $100 billion by 2025, OMB projected.

Inhofe observed that the OMB numbers themselves understated the true costs of greenhouse gas legislation, as McCain himself has repeatedly stated his bill would be only a “minimal first step” in a series of planned energy restrictions.

“That confirms what I’ve argued all along,” said Inhofe, “that this so-called ‘modest first step’ is cover for more drastic and more dangerous restrictions on energy use in the future.”

Welcome Defeat

The defeat of the McCain-Lieberman measure was welcomed by public policy experts, scientists, and business leaders alike.

“While the failure of the cap-and-trade approach in the Senate today comes as little surprise, it is still welcome news,” said Myron Ebell, director of global warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, representing more than three million businesses and organizations, praised the Senate’s defeat of the measure.

“We need to have better science to support any efforts to restrict energy use before Americans can justify sacrificing their jobs, quality of life, and paying almost double for their utility bills,” said William Kovacs, the Chamber’s vice president for environment, technology, and regulatory affairs.

“Even its sponsors agree that McLieberman would have an unmeasurable effect on atmospheric carbon-dioxide and climate,” said S. Fred Singer, president of the Science and Environmental Policy Project, in a letter to the Wall Street Journal. “And its economic burden and impact on jobs are certainly much greater than its supporters maintain. All in all, it is a bad deal.”

While McCain-Lieberman proponents took comfort in their relatively narrow margin of defeat, Singer discouraged such optimism.

“The Senate was on target in 1997, during the Clinton administration, when it passed the Byrd-Hagel Resolution against a similar proposal—by unanimous vote,” continued Singer. “Yesterday’s vote of 55 to 43 against S. 139 does not represent a shift in opinion so much as a ‘freebie’ for senators willing to cater to environmental pressure groups.”

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].