Senators Go to Global Warming's Front Lines

Melting Ice Sheets Seen as Ecological Threat but Senators Disagree on Severity


July 30, 2007 —

A delegation of senators traveled by fishing boat and helicopter last weekend through a remote stretch of Greenland that's covered by a thick -- and receding -- sheet of glacial ice.

The group of seven Democrats, two Republicans and one independent set out to explore firsthand the effects of climate change in a region where glacial melting and rising sea levels have already forced the human and animal population to adapt.

The senators returned Sunday from the two-day trip, and Democrats, along with independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont spoke about their experiences in a press conference Monday.

"After this trip ... I know I have a responsibility to move now to lessen the impacts of severe global warming," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. "We can do it in a way that actually makes us stronger as a nation, and that is my goal."

Accompanied by photographs of receding ice sheets and thawing glaciers, Democrats and Sanders recounted stories of a changing ecosystem and its effects on local villagers. They told of polar bears that have been shot wandering into towns searching for food, and fish species disappearing off the coasts.

Sanders said he was shocked that "something as huge as the Greenland ice sheet is at risk of being lost because of our actions, but this is the reality I witnessed firsthand this weekend."

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., explained his anxiety that a rise in global sea level could have catastrophic effects for his state.

That sentiment was shared by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who said that "viewing the vast Greenland ice firsthand underscored the magnitude of the potential consequences of unchecked global warming, since melting Greenland ice would cause a 23-foot rise in sea levels worldwide. The economic and ecological impacts for our country would be devastating."

Sen. Klobuchar, D-Minn., called the melting Greenland ice sheet the "canary in the coal mine of climate change," meaning she sees the warming of Greenland as the first sign of a catastrophe.

Cooling Down the Debate

Despite the relative agreement among members of the Greenland delegation, there is still considerable debate about global warming across congressional party lines.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, has been an outspoken critic of the view that humans are the main cause of rising earth temperatures.

Marc Morano, GOP Environment and Public Works Committee spokesman, published a bulletin Monday morning refuting the notion of global warming.

Titled "Latest Scientific Studies Refute Fears of Greenland Melt," the blog entry lists a series of scientific studies that call into question the human element many view as the cause behind global warming.

"The very latest research reveals massive Greenland melt fears are not sustainable. Current Greenland temperatures are neither alarming nor linked to a rise in man-made carbon dioxide emissions," wrote Morano.

Republican Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., were also part of the delegation. Corker released a statement Monday a bit more tepid in response to both the Democrats and Isakson.

"Climate change and reducing carbon dioxide emissions will likely be a major subject of debate this fall in the Senate, so as we've done with other key issues, we're digging in to understand this issue in great detail so that we can play a meaningful role as it is debated," said Corker. "We don't want to react impulsively and enact something that we can't reverse in the future if there are unintended negative consequences or our understanding of this issue evolves." 

Boxer said that Morano, who took part in the trip, consistently challenged scientists whom the senators met. When Boxer was asked if she may have converted the Republican senators on the trip, Corker and Isakson, she was a bit more consolatory. "I don't think they need conversion," said Boxer. "I think they are concerned about this issue."