Former EPA chiefs say it's time to act on climate change

Federal government has responsibility, authority, they say

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WASHINGTON — Four former administrators of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who served under Republican presidents told a Senate panel Wednesday that climate change is real and the federal government has the responsibility and the legal authority to combat it.

While saying they might differ on the details of how U.S. officials should react, the former administrators said the cost of delay ­— or of doing nothing — was high.

In a hearing before a Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee, William Ruckelshaus told the lawmakers that “the four former EPA administrators sitting in front of you found we were convinced by the overwhelming verdict of scientists that the Earth was warming and that we humans were the only controllable contributor to this phenomenon.”

Ruckelshaus was the nation’s first EPA administrator, a job he held under Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. He said the four administrators “believe there is legitimate scientific debate over the pace and effects of climate change, but no legitimate debate over the fact of the Earth’s warming or over man’s contribution.”

The hearing comes two weeks after the Obama administration proposed new rules to substantially reduce carbon pollution in the nation, a process that could shutter older coal-fired power plants and spur development of more wind and other alternative energy sources. The rules, which are still in the works, face considerable push -back from industry sources and Republicans on Capitol Hill.

The four former administrators were met by senators who generally sparred over familiar terrain and repeated their usual talking points.

Republican members of the Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety sought to poke holes in the scientific consensus on climate change and its effects, and to talk about how they think the Obama administration overreached in its recent rules and that Americans’ energy bills would rise if new carbon rules go into effect.

Democrats responded with exasperation that issues that used to have bipartisan consensus had turned bitterly political, and said the prevailing view among scientists about the nature of climate change couldn’t be ignored. More than one Democrat turned to comparisons of doctor-patient relationships: “When doctors tell us we need a heart bypass or cancer treatment, we listen,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

The former administrators generally said that all scientific issues presented complexities as well as costs. And there are always forces pushing back, saying the costs far outweigh the benefits.