Does Sen. Barrasso of Wyoming Really Want Science to Guide Him?

11/14/2009 03:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Todd Wilkinson Environmental journalist and author of 'Last Stand: Ted Turner's Quest to Save a Troubled Planet'

As any principled public servant should, U.S. Sen. John Barrasso was right to intensely grill President Barack Obama's cabinet minister Lisa Jackson about the consequences of regulating carbon dioxide emissions on the American economy.

Not long ago, the Republican lawmaker from Wyoming who sits on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and is, in his private life, a physician, uncovered what he called a "smoking gun" memo that he implies was concealed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where Ms. Jackson serves as chief administrator.

Barrasso says EPA is not being honest about the costs of regulating carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone and halocarbons.

In an opinion piece that appeared, interestingly enough, on the Heritage Foundation website immediately after Barrasso's interrogation of Jackson, the senator wrote that efforts to reduce emissions, using the federal Clean Air Act as a lever, are being driven by politics, not science.

"This misuse of the Clean Air Act will be a trigger for overwhelming regulation and lawsuits based on gases emitted from cars, schools, hospitals and small business," Barrasso asserts. "This will affect any number of other sources, including lawn mowers, snowmobiles and farms. This will be a disaster for the small businesses that drive America."

On the face of it, it is inspiring that Mr. Barrasso is declaring himself a lawmaker who champions science over crass politics.

It is also noble that the scientific process of rigorous peer review and scrutiny will be his lens for having a real public discussion about climate change, enforcement of the Clean Air Act (as it relates to, say, snowmobile pollution in Yellowstone National Park and ozone gathering over Wyoming's pristine Wind River Range linked to natural gas drilling), as well as to the impacts of federal regulation -- or lack of it -- on Main Street.

Let us set aside, for a moment, the fact that Mr. Barrasso's essay was published by the Heritage Foundation, a think tank that during the Bush Administration was part of a concerted effort backed by the coal and oil industries to foment a deliberate strategy of public misinformation about the causes and effects of a warming planet linked to the burning of fossil fuels. Those attempts continue.

And let us look past the Bush Administration's track record of suppressing science in the formulation of a national energy strategy and enforcement of environmental protection laws.

And let us try to forget the same arguments of alleged economic catastrophe used by Barrasso were invoked by the Heritage Foundation as a reason NOT to regulate Wall Street prior to the current meltdown. Assertions of alleged doom are again rationales for why Republicans, namely, are fighting universal health care and refusing to make hard, necessary -- and inevitably painful -- decisions about the future of Social Security.

Small business owners, local governments, public charities, land management agencies, senior citizens on fixed incomes, and parents who dreamed of sending their kids to college are today well versed in how the Heritage Foundation's anti-regulation agenda toward the financial markets has been a disaster of its own.

All of us are hurting, resentful of using hard-earned tax dollars to bail out banks, pay for executive compensation packages, and keeping two of the major three automakers -- that bucked better fuel efficiency standards -- on life support.

Senator Barrasso deserves praise for saying there should be transparency in government, and that any approach to regulate greenhouse gases ought to consider the impacts, all impacts, on citizens now and in the future.

Therefore, let us hope that, given his unexpected grandstanding for science, the next document senator Barrasso waves before Congress will be the new report compiled by the National Academies of Sciences, the most respected, non-partisan scientific body in the world.

The 24-page document is titled "Understanding and Responding To Climate Change" and it is available free to citizens at In fact, Senator Barrasso and his colleagues ought to order up copies for every citizen in the country.

The National Academies function as official advisors to Congress and federal agencies. The purpose of the report is to promote better understanding of a changing climate, document its impacts and help in "developing effective response strategies."

The report puts to rest the gobbledygook claims that climate change is caused by the sun, volcanoes, or hot air rising out of Washington. In arid rural states like Wyoming, senator Barrasso will find the predictions of impending water shortages to be compelling at a time when large distant urban areas are eyeing its liquid resources.

He will find the parts about future diminished mountain snowpack, and the implications for agriculture, fish, wildlife, drinking water, and recreation to be of keen interest to constituents, too.

Science should indeed be the foundation of public policy. To say so, but then to act otherwise, is political hypocrisy at its worst.

This column from Todd Wilkinson first appeared in the Jackson Hole News & Guide newspaper. Based in Montana, he writes about the environment for a number of national magazines and newspapers.