By Andrew Restuccia
June 18, 2014

Four Republican former EPA chiefs called on Congress on Wednesday to combat climate change, challenging GOP lawmakers’ hostility to measures that would rein in carbon pollution.

The hearing before a Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee highlighted the massive gap between the old-guard Republicans, whose tenure in Washington dates to the 1970s, and the current crop of Republicans in Congress, who have questioned whether mankind played a role in climate change and complained that the Obama administration’s climate efforts would cripple the economy.

“You would have to reject the ‘greenhouse effect’ outright to conclude that human activities pumping millions of tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year are having little or no impact on the earth’s climate,” said William Reilly, the EPA chief during the George H.W. Bush administration. “That is simply not a tenable position.”

Republican politicians’ positions on the environment have shifted in recent decades. Prodded by public demand for action on the environment, President Richard Nixon created the EPA, and Republicans and Democrats came together to pass the Clean Air Act and numerous amendments to the law in the following decades, despite major disagreements.

But the Obama administration’s efforts to use the Clean Air Act to slash greenhouse gas emissions have united the Republicans in Congress in opposition. Moreover, many in Congress reject the premise that human beings are a major contributor to climate change.

“We have a scientific consensus around this issue. We also need a political consensus,” said Christine Todd Whitman, who served as EPA administrator under President George W. Bush. “The two parties were able to rally around a common purpose in the early days of modern environmental policy making. It is urgent that they do so again.”

Republicans on the committee countered that the comparisons between the Clean Air Act amendments and Obama’s current effort to use the law to regulate greenhouse gases are unfair. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who noted that he co-sponsored some of the Clear Air Act amendments, said Obama had gone too far, and he argued the law was never meant to regulate carbon dioxide.

Whitman and the other administrators rejected that argument.

“The issue has been settled,” she said. “The EPA does have the authority. The law says so, the Supreme Court has said so twice.”

Several of the former administrators made the case that the EPA can regulate greenhouse gas emissions without destroying the economy, countering a main argument of Republicans in Congress.

Whitman, in her testimony, noted that even as air pollution was cut dramatically from 1980 to 2012 due in large part to EPA regulations, the county’s GDP more than doubled.

“So more people, consuming more energy, emitted much less pollution without sacrificing economic growth,” she said. “That’s clear evidence of the balance the EPA has struck.”

The former EPA chiefs in August 2013 wrote an op-ed in The New York Times that also made the case for action on climate change.

During a news conference with reporters before the hearing, the former EPA chiefs said GOP lawmakers will abandon their opposition to efforts to tackle climate change once the public demands action.

Republican lawmakers “need some cover and they will get it from the public,” Whitman said.

They cited recent polls that show the majority of the public supports action to tackle climate change. But they said the public must do more than just support action; it must actively demand it.

“It’s not been translated into demand. You first had awareness, support and finally demand from the public. If there’s demand from the public, there will be action,” said William Ruckelshaus, who served as EPA administrator during both the Nixon and Reagan administrations.

Democrats and Republicans on the subcommittee spent more than an hour ahead of the former administrators’ testimony delivering their own talking-point-laden opening statements that stuck to their existing positions on climate change. Several of the lawmakers left the hearing after giving their speeches, declining to stick around for the administrator’s remarks.

Several coal miners were in the audience for the committee hearing.