FAIRMONT, W.Va. -- A Republican congressman sought common ground in the climate change debate Thursday but found the same clash of science and ideology that paralyzes Washington had followed him to West Virginia, a state long built on fossil fuel production.
For more than three hours, U.S. Rep. David McKinley quizzed a panel of national experts -- only about half of them scientists -- about the causes of global warming and what to do about it. McKinley has long questioned the science behind global warming. He now acknowledges climate change is occurring but is not convinced human activity is to blame.
What is clear, he said, is that a state rich in coal, oil, natural gas and timber will be affected by any federal policies that attempt to curb greenhouse gases. Equally clear is that carbon dioxide limits in the U.S. won't prevent growing air pollution from developing nations like China and India.
"We tried to get an answer: What is the end game?'' McKinley said. "And we couldn't get an end game.''
There were plenty of opinions and recommendations, though, from professors, attorneys, free-market activists and authors. They ranged from taxation strategies and carbon-capture technology investment to the blunt prescription from climate science denier Marc Morano: Do nothing.
Morano, a former aide to climate skeptic and Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, calls global warming debates a "silly display of politics'' built on "sub-prime science.'' The suggestion that carbon dioxide in particular is fueling climate change "is absolutely not holding up,'' he argued.
"We must have the courage to do nothing when it comes to regulating CO2 emissions,'' Morano declared, calling carbon-based energy like coal "one of the greatest liberators in the history of mankind.''
But doing nothing isn't the right answer, McKinley said later. Something will have to be done, perhaps tariffs or fees on countries that don't meet U.S. standards. Whatever Congress considers, he said, "we have to move in a very cautious manner.''
But Annie Petsonk, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, said government must lead, and the time for change is long overdue. The late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., first called for action in 1997.
"To hear that global warming is happening -- or if it is happening, we shouldn't do anything about it -- is not leadership,'' Petsonk said, adding that forests, farms, watersheds and human health are at risk.
"A rate of warming of roughly a tenth of a degree Celsius per decade ... is the rate at which trees can't run fast enough to get away from higher stress,'' she said. "We've got to start reducing emissions globally. We've got to start in the United States, and we've got to start globally.''
That drew an immediate retort from Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute, who said things need not remain unchanged for trees, plants and animals to survive.
"Every organism on the planet is proving they can withstand a 16-degree change,'' he said, "because they've done it.''
"Including the dinosaurs?'' Petsonk shot back.
Richard Thomas, biology professor at West Virginia University, has been studying the impact of carbon emissions on forests for years and said the damage is clear.
When the scientific community found consensus that sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from power plants were creating acid rain, Thomas said, they helped get Congress to pass the 1970 Clean Air Act.
"It shows that Congress can work together with the president,'' he said, and it paid off big for the Eastern U.S.
"And it's time we recognize there is consensus on climate change as well,'' Thomas said.
But economist Myron Ebell, director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, says consensus is limited to this: Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, more is going into the atmosphere, and it will affect climate.
"Everything else beyond that consensus is politics,'' he said, including how much it will warm the planet and whether that warming is harmful or even significant.
Limiting energy production and use are tactics for solving what he calls "a very speculative problem.''
"The policies being promoted are insane,'' Ebell said. "If you believe energy poverty is a good thing, you should support controls on carbon emissions. But most of the world disagrees with that.''
Like-minded professor John Christy, director of the Earth System Science Center at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, called affordable energy "the basis of our standard of living today.''
While reducing CO2 emissions may or may not affect climate change, Christy said he's certain it would raise energy costs.
"I've lived in Africa, and I can assure you that without energy, life is brutal and short,'' Christy said. "...We are not bad people because we produce carbon dioxide.''
But Scott Denning, a professor at Colorado State University's department of atmospheric science, said the anti-regulation camp should stop telling "scary stories.'' Our ancestors once used candles and horses but adopted new technologies like oil and electricity even when they were more expensive.
"I think when people tell scary stories about how our society can't adapt to a changing environment, they do a disservice to the power of the free market,'' he said. "I have faith in our descendants being as ingenious, as creative, as hardworking, as industrious as our ancestors were.
"I believe they can solve this problem,'' Denning said, "and it won't bankrupt our society.''