THE BLOG

Tim Wirth Defends Boulder Climate Scientists

05/02/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A sellout crowd of 150 Sunday night heard Tim Wirth decry an "army of attack dogs" trying to derail climate-change action by Congress.

Wirth -- well known in these parts for having represented Boulder in the House, then Colorado in the Senate -- now heads the Ted Turner-funded United Nations Foundation. He was the featured speaker at PLAN-Boulder County's annual dinner at Spice of Life Event Center in Boulder Feb. 28, 2010.

Wirth asserted that there's "no doubt whatsoever that the earth's oceans, atmosphere and biodiversity are being stretched to the limit," a conclusion exhaustively documented by work of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which Wirth called "probably the most important and far-reaching scientific undertaking in history."

Yet these scientific conclusions are being challenged via a "well-bankrolled public relations offensive" armed with irrelevancies and mud-slinging, he charged.

2010-03-02-wirthforhuffpo.png"We have to stand up for the dedicated scientific community -- including, and especially, the talented atmospheric scientists right here at NOAA and NCAR -- who are tonight under siege from well-entrenched financial interests who want to sow doubt about the rock-solid evidence surrounding global warming and the destruction of earth's life-support systems." (The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), are both climate research institutions with major facilities in Boulder.)

That's how the opposition rolls, Wirth noted: a big snowstorm in Washington, D.C., "became fodder for mindless mockery" of climate-change science. Or the debunkers pick a few minor mistakes out of a 3,000-page scientific document. Regrettably, he added, "these attacks are remarkably effective."

"The opponents know ... that they don't have to win the argument," Wirth said. "All they have to do is cause doubt."

In the face of this PR assault, he added, government's role should be to "start by standing up for the scientific method."

"Scientists work in academic cloisters and labs where the culture is one of modestly and balance. Public relations spinmeisters perform with cameras, microphones, large dollops of cash and an axe to grind. Government should be helping to equalize that contest. After all, the fundamental purpose of government is to protect its citizens -- to help manage the common welfare and security of the public."

Congressional action

Government, he added, must then "build implementation plans that contain specific and concrete steps for reducing emissions." But Wirth, who noted that it was he and the late Sen. John Heinz who conceived the idea of "cap-and-trade" systems for curbing pollution, is not optimistic about strong action by the current Congress. The Waxman-Markey Bill, a weak variant of cap-and-trade, barely passed the House last year, and only after huge concessions were made to the coal industry, he noted.

He expects some meaningful regulation of coal-fired utility plants to emerge from a current law-drafting collaboration between Senators John Kerry, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham. (In an aside, Wirth noted the ironic continuing presence of a coal-burning power plant in Boulder.)

Wirth also wants President Obama to take a strong stand in rallying Congress on climate-change legislation. And he thinks there's a lot the Environmental Protection Agency, under Lisa Jackson, can do even without new legislation.

Wirth said he'd be heading back to Washington Monday to help "mount the counterattack to protect and defend the IPCC," adding, "If we can't win this one, and can't sustain and maintain the integrity of the science and respect for the science ... then everything else is gonna slide away."

Wirth represented Colorado's 2nd Congressional District, including Boulder, from 1975 to 1987, then served one term in the U.S. Senate from 1987 to 1992, when he cited the growing role of money in politics as his main reason for not seeking Senate reelection.

He then co-chaired the Clinton-Gore presidential election campaign and served four years in the State Department before being asked by media magnate Ted Turner to head the United Nations Foundation, which oversees a $1 billion fund Turner established to assist the United Nations.

An MP3 audio version of Sen. Wirth's talk is available for play or downloading on BoulderReporter.com.