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Ron Johnson (copy)

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis.

A Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the Keystone XL pipeline Thursday erupted into a spirited showdown between U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and climatologist James Hansen, director of the Program on Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions at the Columbia University Earth Institute.

The two sparred over climate science and energy costs when it was Johnson's turn behind the microphone at the hearing to consider whether approval of the proposed 1,600-mile pipeline is in the U.S. national interest.

Hansen, the former director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, advocated to Johnson for an "economically sensible" approach to energy costs, by putting a flat fee on carbon. Earlier in the hearing, Hansen called tar sands oil — the kind that would flow through the proposed pipeline — "the dirtiest fuel on earth," urging against the Keystone development, which he said would lead to further development of Alberta's tar sands.

"I think we’re all environmentalists," Johnson said during a disagreement with Hansen. "I like a pristine environment. I get my water out of a well. I love to fish, I love the outdoors. So we’re all environmentalists."

The exchanges between Johnson and Hansen grew increasingly heated, as the two spoke over one another. 

Karen Harbert, president and CEO of the Institute for 21st Century Energy, and Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club — seated at the table with Hansen — went largely ignored by the senator, save for a few questions.

It all led up to this fiery back-and-forth, followed by Johnson's paraphrase of an assertion that while it is certain that the climate is changing, it is uncertain how it will change.

Johnson: "I live in Wisconsin. There were 200-foot-thick glaciers in Wisconsin. How do you explain change before man ever had a carbon footprint?"

Hansen: "The statement that you just made is blatantly false—"

Johnson: "How do you explain—"

Hansen: "We do know."

Johnson: "How do you explain climate change that occurred 10,000 years ago before man had a carbon print?"

Hansen: "There are variations in the earth’s orbital elements. The eccentricity of the earth’s orbit, the time in the season in which it’s closest to the sun."

Johnson: "Those variations just end right now, so now it’s all man-made?"

Hansen: "No one has said it is all man-made. However, the man-made effect is now dominant, And we can measure that, because we can measure the energy balance of the planet, and we can see that there’s more energy coming in than there is going out. So therefore, the planet is going to continue to get warmer. It doesn't mean each year is going to get warmer, because there are natural fluctuations. But this decade is going to be warmer than the last one, and the following one will be still warmer."

Johnson: "I agree with Ms. Harbert, I think the science is far from settled."

You can watch the entire hearing here. The exchange with Sen. Johnson begins just before the 1:20:00 mark.


Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.