Climate science, like evolution before, a Kansas legislative controversy

03/01/2013 6:25 AM

08/08/2014 10:14 AM

Almost a decade after Kansas wrestled with the merits of evolution, the Legislature now grapples with the politics of environmental science.

As they move to ease often expensive renewable energy mandates, lawmakers also debate the climate-change worries that help motivate such regulations.

Bills look not just to set aside the concerns about greenhouse gases spewed to generate energy. Some would also require schools to teach challenges to mainstream climate science. Others aim to prevent public money from being used to promote development policies intended to ease strains on the environment.

“There’s an effort to just try to cast doubt on any scientific research that’s out there,” said Rep. Ed Trimmer, D-Winfield.

The debate over rolling renewable-energy standards for utilities focuses on balancing the environmental impact of generating kilowatts against easing financial pain for power companies and their ratepayers.

Kansas and Missouri are among 38 states with renewable energy requirements on the books, although more than a dozen are now working to peel them back.

Some of the measures geared to softening environmental regulations are fueled by skepticism about the scientific consensus that increasing greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere warm the planet and critically alter climate patterns.

Republican Rep. Dennis Hedke of Wichita is a geophysicist who counts at least 18 energy companies as clients. He also heads the House Energy and Environment Committee. As the panel’s chairman, he can control which bills are heard and which ones get a vote.

Hedke is a decided nonbeliever of man-made global warming. He thinks those claims have been used to impose strict environmental regulations, such as renewable energy standards, that ultimately dig into consumers’ wallets.

“This is costly,” Hedke said. “It’s already hurt people around the world.”

The notion that carbon dioxide should be regulated as a dangerous gas that’s wreaking havoc on the environment, he said, is a “flat-out lie.”

Experts on both sides of the issue have testified before Hedke’s committee in recent weeks as a prelude to considering a bill that would ease the renewable energy standards.

One of the experts, Willie Soon of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, wrote a controversial report about 10 years ago that cast doubt on global warming. It concluded that the Earth’s temperature during the 20th century wasn’t unusually high.

Hedke, referred to by critics as the state’s “premier climate skeptic,” has publicly fought what has been generally accepted scientifically about global warming.

“If we can take some steps at a minimum to reconsider what the real data show and get the real debate out there ... then we’ll maybe have a chance to come to some senses here and not go overboard with policies, which are very expensive,” Hedke said.

“The people who get hurt the most are the people in the middle and lower class.”

The notion that global warming is even a debate in Kansas defies what is generally accepted in the scientific community, said one climatologist.

“We’ve known for over a century about the greenhouse effect and how humans might change it. This is nothing new from a science perspective,” said Johannes J. Feddema of the University of Kansas, who also testified before the House energy committee.

“If you were to contact 100 climate scientists ... how many would say there was global warming and it’s caused by humans? Ninety-eight percent.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists has posted more than a half-dozen letters from scientific groups on its website to demonstrate that there is agreement on global warming.

“There is now an overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming is indeed happening,” the organization said, “and humans are contributing to it.”

In the Kansas Senate, the debate over loosening renewable energy standards has not been draped in the debate over global warming.

“We are 100 percent focused on the ratepayers of the state of Kansas,” said Utilities Committee Chairman Sen. Pat Apple, R-Louisburg. “We’re not going to settle the debate of global warming in the Kansas Legislature.”

The argument over renewable resources is not unique to Kansas. In the last year, at least 13 states tried to delay or reduce their renewable energy laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. So far, none of the bills has passed.

States have been moving to renewable energy standards for utilities in response to adverse implications of fossil fuels – including air and water pollution.

The Kansas standards grew from a deal to build a new coal-fired power plant in southwest Kansas. Enacted in 2009, the law required utilities to generate a certain amount of their power from renewable resources like wind.

That law required utilities to generate 10 percent of their power from renewable resources by 2011, eventually increasing to 20 percent by 2020. The bills pending in the Legislature would push back those deadlines, but they ran into trouble Thursday.

The Senate voted down one bill 23-17 while the House agreed to send another one back to committee, leaving a lot of doubt about whether the Legislature will agree to ease the standards this year.

In Missouri, lawmakers have been trying to chip away at a 2008 ballot measure in which voters ordered the state’s four investor-owned electric utilities to draw 15 percent of their electric generation from renewable sources by 2021.

The Kansas environmental bills don’t stop with renewable energy, however.

They also reach into education and sustainable development, which is broadly designed to protect the environment by conserving resources with parks, bike trails and energy-efficient buildings.

One bill awaiting action in the House energy committee blocks public money from being spent on “sustainability.”

Hedke said the measure was motivated by complaints from constituents who think there is an insidious attempt to create new layers of government through groups like the Regional Economic Area Partnership in Wichita.

Two years ago, the group received a $1.5 million federal grant for planning sustainable communities.

The grant became a sore spot for critics who believed it would open the door for the federal government to impose its will on local officials.

Opponents of the grant compared it to United Nations Agenda 21, a nonbinding measure encouraging the protection of natural resources that’s seen in some quarters as a threat to state and federal sovereignty.

The Kansas House, in a resolution it passed last year, denounced the U.N. initiative.

Another bill, backed by Republican Rep. Ron Highland of Wamego, would require schools to teach scientific controversies in an “objective” manner so that both sides of an issue are covered. His bill specifically mentions the teaching of “climate science” as a topic that might be controversial.

Highland, who sits on the House energy and education committees, said the bill is intended to help students “learn how to ask scientific questions and go after those answers.”

“It has nothing to do with pushing one theory or another theory,” said Highland, who like Hedke does not believe there is evidence to back up claims that carbon emissions lead to climate change.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the students we’re running into don’t recognize anything anymore as factual or nonfactual and don’t ask questions,” he said, “and that bothers me.”

Some environmentalists see the climate measures as an example of the influence of outside conservative think tanks trying to affect state environmental policy.

“It’s a focused effort by a small group of people,” said Rabbi Moti Rieber, director of Kansas Interfaith Power and Light, a faith-based environmental group in Lawrence. “(They) not only don’t believe in climate change but want to prevent the state, or even the country, to deal with its causes and effects.”

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