WASHINGTON, D.C. — Walking into a wood-paneled hearing room on Thursday morning, University President Richard Levin turned to a reporter who had traveled here to observe his testimony before a Senate panel. We’ll be lucky if there’s more than one senator in attendance, he said. Don’t expect too much.
Little did he know what Sen. Larry Craig had in store for him.
Indeed, the hearing did progress routinely for about 40 minutes, as Levin predicted. But then Craig — who earlier had complained that the hearing had been reduced to nothing more than “an alumni gathering for Yale,” referencing the fact that four of the Environment and Public Works Committee’s members are University graduates — had his turn to ask questions of the committee’s three witnesses, Levin among them.
“Let me have some fun with you for a moment,” the senator said ominously.
Suddenly, an aide emerged, gripping a giant dry-erase board, which he propped up behind the Idaho Republican. Scrawled in marker, it read, “College Climate Challenge Final Four.”
“Let us turn to this weekend and March Madness, and put our colleges and universities and our alumni to a test,” Craig declared, as the few dozen onlookers laughed nervously. “Can we do that?”
For the University of California, Berkeley, with 210,000 metric tons of carbon dixode emissions in 2006 and 33,558 students, the school’s carbon footprint stood at about 6.3 metric tons per student-year, Craig explained. For the University of Minnesota, Morris, that calculation worked out to 7.1 metric tons per student-year, he said.
“Now, Dr. Levin, your footprint today is roughly the same as Cal Berkeley’s, is it not?” Craig asked.
“That’s right, about 220,000 metric tons,” Levin responded.
“However, your institution has one-third as many students.”
“Alright,” Craig said, dripping with glee as he prepared to pounce. “So,” he added, “your carbon footprint is three times as large as Cal Berkeley’s. Is that correct?”
All eyes turned to Levin, who sat grinning ear-to-ear for much of the spectacle. “That is true,” he admitted. “We’re in a harsher climate, and we have …”
Craig would have none of it. “No excuses!” he shouted. “No excuses!”
The senator proceeded to attack environmentalists who had disparaged the United States up until last year when it was overtaken by China as the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide. They should attack Yale, too, for it has the same place among universities — at least in his own crack study, Craig joked.
“You’re losing,” the senator told Levin, who still wore his smile. Bitingly, Craig added: “That’s why I’m so pleased to have you ‘get with it’.”
That wasn’t even the senator’s punch-line. Obviously, there still was one outstanding question: How does Idaho’s own Boise State University stand when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions?
Two-point-seven metric tons per student-year, it turns out, through the use of clean energy sources.
“My point here is really quite simple,” he continued. “Our universities,” he explained, “are going to do what will really solve the climate-change problem.”
It was not immediately clear how thrashing Yale fit into that point. But the senator explained that the development of new energy technologies — like those that have helped the schools in his March Madness scenario reduce their carbon emissions — holds the best solution to the problem of climate change, in his opinion. Federal legislation offering economic penalties to force industry to comply with new regulations would not.
Craig’s stunt was clearly in jest — he made sure to say so at the end, and praised all three schools for their work on sustainability — but there was no shortage of tension between Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar ’82 and Craig, who accused the Democratic majority on the panel of throwing the hearing together at the spur of the moment and not allowing the Republican members of the committee nearly enough time to prepare — or to seek out other witnesses to testify.
“This has reduced me to suggesting that this is an alumni gathering for Yale,” he quipped, reciting the names of all the Environment Committee members who graduated from Yale. “And probably that in itself is worth turning on the lights and assembling the staff,” he added, “so, congratulations.”
None of the Elis on the committee — Klobuchar, Joseph Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67 of Connecticut, Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 of New York and Sheldon Whitehouse ’78 of Rhode Island — are Republicans, something not lost on Craig in his teasing.
But as far as the University is concerned, Klobuchar had the last word: “I’d also note for the record,” she told Craig, “that President Bush also went to Yale.”