EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy (R) confers with Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) (L) before the start of a hearing Jan. 16, 2014 in Washington, DC.
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Senate committee again debates existence of climate change

Updated

The Senate Environment Committee was supposed to discuss the details of President Obama’s environmental policy and the issue of man-made climate change. But the four-hour discussion was once again sidelined by an argument over whether or not humans are disrupting the global environment in the first place.

The infighting started early, during opening statements. Committee chair Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, attempted to preempt denialism from her Republican colleagues by opening with a brief statement in which she said catastrophic climate change is already “unfolding before our very eyes.”

“Future generations are going to look back on this moment and judge each of us—each of us—on whether we started to act on this issue,” she said.

Much of the committee’s Republican minority disagreed. Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, one of the party’s most prominent climate deniers, accused the president and the EPA of denying “the truth.” Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker suggested that the science on the issue was not yet settled.

“I think we should be able to talk openly about climate science issues, such as the link between climate change and human activity,” said Wicker. He was implying that the causal link is an open question; in fact, 97% of climate scientists belive that climate change is caused by humans.

In his opening statement, Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat, expressed frustration with the position taken by many of his Republican colleagues.

“Let me just briefly welcome our witnesses to this chamber, one in which reality is so often suspended, ” he said, prompting a snicker from Sen. Boxer. “One in which science is so often twisted and mocked, and one in which the power of special interests to manipulate American democracy is often so nakedly revealed.”

EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, there to defend the president’s environmental policies, insisted that “both the economy and the environment must provide for current and future generations.” But Republicans on the committee accused the president of overreaching in his use of executive authority to impose new environmental regulations.

“I fear members of our current administration are anointing themselves as both legislators and administrators with this climate action plan,” said Wicker.

Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, a Republican, said the “avalanche of regulatory actions” being unveiled by the EPA and the White House would “frustrate our already struggling economy” and “clearly damage our ability to utilize our abundant energy resources.”

President Obama has indicated that he intends to put climate change near the top of his agenda during his remaining years in office. To that end, he added Center for American Progress founder and former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta to his administration. Podesta has been an advocate of using executive authority to reduce climate emissions in those cases when Congress will not act on its own.

Environmental issues have been making a minor comeback in Washington and the news this month, thanks in part to a record cold snap which blanketed most of the country in freezing temperatures a week and a half ago. In the midst of the polar vortex, Sen. Inhofe called arguments for the existence of anthropogenic climate change “almost laughable.”

More recently, an ecological disaster in West Virginia involving the coal treatment and processing compound MCHM left hundreds of hundreds of thousands of people without access to safe drinking water. Nobody present at Thursday’s Senate Environment Committee hearing mentioned the incident, although though the situation is ongoing.

A recent study by the liberal group Media Matters for America found that Sunday news shows dedicated less than 27 minutes to climate change issues in the whole of 2013. A group of senators, including Boxer and Whitehouse, sent an open letter to several television executives (including the president of NBC News) expressing their disappointment.

NOW With Alex Wagner, 1/7/14, 2:44 PM ET

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Environment, EPA, Global Warming and Senate

Senate committee again debates existence of climate change

Updated