A congressional committee that for years served as a platform for one of Washington’s most stalwart climate change deniers to peddle his own anti-science views held a hearing Wednesday to discuss the urgent threat of climate change.
“It is clear that we are responsible for our planet warming at an alarming rate,” Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), the new chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, said in her opening statement announcing the first of many such hearings. ”And we’re already feeling the impact of this warming today.”
Johnson takes over the chair from now-retired Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the 14th-longest-serving member of the U.S. House, who led the committee for the last six years. The San Antonio native left behind a long history of harassing federal climate scientists, dismissing the threat of climate change and stacking hearings with industry lobbyists and like-minded skeptics. He promoted a fake scandal about climate scientists manipulating data, subpoenaed those who investigated oil giant Exxon Mobil’s suppression of climate change research and, toward the end of his tenure, went as far as to claim that pumping Earth’s atmosphere full of carbon dioxide is “beneficial” to crop production and overall planetary lushness.
In a December editorial in the Austin American-Statesman, Smith appeared to defend himself against negative media coverage of his tenure: “Headlines claiming that Congress is making a ‘return to science’ are ignoring years of progress on policies advancing research, STEM education, and space exploration,” he wrote.
But for anyone who has followed the committee over the last several years, Wednesday was ― aside from a few moments ― a clear return to science.
The event was “the most serious & most constructive congressional hearing I’ve seen in a decade (at least),” Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist and director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said on Twitter.
Not a single skeptic of climate science testified ― a grand departure from Smith’s time as chair. The committee’s Republican minority invited Joseph Majkut, an atmospheric scientist and director of climate policy at the libertarian-leaning Niskanen Center, as its witness.
“Climate change is real and global emissions of greenhouse gases are driving latter day global warming,” Majkut said “As climate change continues, more severe and perverse effects will manifest themselves, causing economic harms and damages to individuals, ecosystems and other things that we tend to be concerned about.”
The discussion largely focused on a pair of sobering recent climate assessments. In October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, published a report warning world governments that they must cut global emissions in half over the next 12 years to avoid catastrophic warming that would bring $54 trillion in damages. The following month, the federal government’s National Climate Assessment concluded that without drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, warming in the United States “could increase by 9°F (5°C) or more by the end of this century.”
The Earth “is running a fever” that is already driving heat waves, extreme rainfall events and coastal flooding, Dr. Robert Kopp, director of Rutgers University’s Institute of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and a lead author of the National Climate Assessment, told the panel.
“To stabilize the global climate, net global carbon dioxide emissions must be brought to zero,” Kopp said. “The faster we reduce our emissions, the less severe the effects and the lower the risk of unwelcome surprises.”
In 2017, more than a dozen major climate- and weather-related disasters in the U.S. caused a record $306.2 billion in damages and killed more than 300 people. Last year’s hurricanes, wildfires and other disasters caused an additional $91 billion in damages, according to an annual federal analysis.
Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill. ) thanked the Republican minority for inviting Majkut, someone whose views align with mainstream science. For years, the committee found itself “wasting time arguing with non-technical witnesses” about, for example, whether it would be a positive thing if the Greenland ice sheet were to melt, Foster said.
“The climate challenges facing humanity are large,” he said. “Unfortunately, serious debate about the best path forward has often been stifled by the politicization of this issue, at least in this committee.”
The event was not without Republicans trying to downplay and dismiss the all-but-irrefutable body of scientific research that shows human carbon emissions are driving climate change. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), who famously claimed that falling rocks were responsible for rising sea levels, pointed to previous warming periods in Earth’s history in an attempt to prove that humans are not to blame for today’s rising seas.
Republicans also used the hearing to further their attack on Democrats’ push for a so-called Green New Deal. The non-binding climate resolution, introduced last week by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), outlines lofty goals of slashing global greenhouse gas emissions 40 to 60 percent by 2030, building climate-resilient infrastructure and reversing income inequality by creating high-wage green jobs.
“We won’t succeed with pie-in-the-sky policies that demand 100 renewable energy at the expense of reliable power from nuclear and fossil fuels, and raise energy prices for businesses and consumers,” Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) said. Instead, he argued the solution lies in innovations in technologies like carbon capture and advanced nuclear energy.
But the scientific community has stressed that the world is rapidly running out of time to stave off potentially irreversible global warming. And the Green New Deal, as ambitious as it is, is the only proposal floated by lawmakers that is on par with the extent of that threat.
“I think it’s important that it puts attention on the dangers to our planet at this time and the urgency of our actions,” Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), a co-sponsor of the resolution, said.