WASHINGTON -- As scientists and activists warned of the catastrophic effects that they said higher ocean temperatures and rising sea levels would have on the Chesapeake Bay, the governors of Maryland and Virginia called on lawmakers yesterday to formulate a federal response to global warming.
Speaking before a Senate panel yesterday, Gov. Martin O'Malley said the time has come for national programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, automobiles and other sources.
"We must transition from a carbon-based economy to a green, sustainable economy," O'Malley told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
O'Malley joined Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, and Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican, at a hearing devoted to the impact of climate change on the bay.
"The coastal senators are already seeing and feeling this problem," said Mikulski, who had asked the committee chairwoman, Barbara Boxer, to schedule the hearing.
"Our sea levels are rising, our wetlands are disappearing and our islands are underwater. We're looking at the possibility that our agriculture will be wiped out and there won't be a Baltimore harbor," Mikulski said.
Her comments echoed the findings of a report released in July by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation that said rising sea levels threaten hundreds of thousands of people living in low-lying coastal or river valley areas along the bay.
William C. Baker, president of the foundation, told the panel that warming oceans are likely to increase storm intensity in the bay and might expand the size and duration of oxygen-deprived "dead zones."
He asked lawmakers to support agricultural practices such as covering winter crops, rotational grazing and no-till farming, which a Yale study has estimated would sequester about 4.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, the equivalent of taking 786,000 Hummers of the road.
"Fossil fuels burning in Indianapolis or India, as well as a host of other greenhouse gas-producing activities, will negatively affect the people and creatures of the Chesapeake Bay just as toxics and other well-known pollutants do," he said.
"The policy choices you and your counterparts in other nations make will determine how severe those negative effects will be and how long they may last," Baker said.
Two committee members are developing legislation that would introduce a "cap and trade" approach to reducing emissions of the greenhouse gases that scientists say cause global warming.
Boxer, a California Democrat, and others expressed interest in the bill to be introduced by Republican Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia and Democratic Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, which would create a market for emissions permits that could be bought and sold.
O'Malley detailed efforts by the state to cut down on greenhouse gases, including participation in a multistate agreements to reduce emissions from power plants and plans to expand electricity from solar energy.
Maryland is among a dozen states waiting for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to approve new greenhouse gas emission standards for automobiles.
"Maryland will continue to be a leader," O'Malley said, but "we need our federal government to act. State-by-state reductions simply don't make sense for this global problem, and the time is now for federal action."
Former State Department analyst Dennis T. Avery, author of Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1500 Years, disputed the value of government intervention.
Avery said climate change is more likely the effect of a long natural cycle of cooling and warming than of any human activity.
"You are headed for enormous anguish, frustration and misspent capital in this effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," Avery told the lawmakers. "It will not halt the temperature cycle."
His comments echoed those of Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the senior Republican on the panel and Congress' leading skeptic about climate change caused by human activity.
Inhofe objected to Boxer's decision to allow Mikulski to join the panel for the hearing. Mikulski is not a member of the committee but is chairwoman of the appropriations subcommittee that controls 85 percent of the funding for the nation's climate change science. Boxer overruled Inhofe.
Baker told the skeptics that even if global warming didn't exist, reducing reliance on fossil fuels and other strategies to counter climate change would "make great environmental sense."
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, who joined Boxer and Mikulski on a recent trip to Greenland to see the impact of warming ocean temperatures, called climate change "a threat to public safety, a threat to key bay species such as blue crabs and rockfish and a threat to the fragile lands that surround the Chesapeake."
"Global warming threatens all of us and it's time that we work together to develop effective solutions," he said.