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The House Science Committee Just Held a Helpful Hearing on Climate Science for the First Time in Years

Once most members could agree that climate change is real, they could start talking about the real question of what to do.
Emissions spew out of a large stack at the coal-fired Morgantown Generating Station in Newburg, Maryland.

At the hearing, some Republicans worried about the costs of zeroing greenhouse gas emissions.

In recent years, the House of Representatives' Science, Space, and Technology Committee has become infamous for its unscientific climate change hearings. During one 2017 hearing, three warming-denying researchers testified alongside just one mainstream researcher, who had to represent the views of the vast majority of the climate science community. During a 2016 hearing, then-committee chair Lamar Smith (R-Texas) offered misleading statements about the international Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which the United States had just entered. The Trump administration pulled out of the agreement in 2017.

Now, with Democrats holding the majority in the House, things are looking a little different. The Science Committee hosted its first climate hearing of 2019 on Wednesday, after two other House committees had already held theirs. In sharp contrast to recent past Science Committee climate hearings, there was bipartisan agreement that climate change is real, human-caused, and harmful. The hearing brought up a number of possible policies to help America reduce and prepare for global warming, and participants aired their differences regarding the best way forward.

As a longtime committee member Bill Foster (D-Illinois) noted, just having basic agreement on the science helped make time for more sophisticated, important questions. "For years, too often we found ourselves wasting time [on] arguing with non-technical witnesses," he said. "The question here is not whether or not this problem is real, but what is the most cost-effective way of solving it?"

Scientists invited by the Democrats offered their thoughts on what should be done. Kristie Ebi, who studies the health risks of climate change at the University of Washington, suggested localities develop early response plans for what to do in case of intense heat waves, and that the country better monitor infectious disease that are expected to worsen with a warmer climate. Mosquito-borne and water-borne diseases, such as malaria, West Nile virus, and cholera, are thought to be sensitive to climate. Rutgers University climate scientist Bob Kopp advocated for bringing the net global emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, to zero. "The sooner we do this, the smaller the risks to our economy, health, infrastructure, and security that we will have to manage," he said. He also suggested decision-makers—in private companies and in government at the local, state, and federal levels—always keep climate change in mind.

Meanwhile, some Republican members of the committee expressed support for nuclear power, an energy source that doesn't produce greenhouse gases, but that some more liberal lawmakers oppose because of the risk of nuclear accidents. Republicans also worried about the costs of zeroing greenhouse gas emissions. Representative Randy Weber of Texas asked every witness what percent increase in energy prices they felt would be worth mitigating climate change. None had an exact answer. A couple said that electricity does not necessarily have to be more expensive than it is now, which I also found when examining research on the question, although there's a lot of uncertainty in those projections.

Finally, Republicans worried about America losing its economic dominance if it were to commit to reducing greenhouse gases while other countries continued to rely on fossil fuels. Various witnesses argued that investing in green technology could be a boon to the American economy. Witness Natalie Mahowald, an engineer at Cornell University, pointed out that many countries have already pledged to reduce greenhouse gases under the Paris Agreement.

That's not to say there wasn't any climate change denial during the hearing. Representative Brian Babin (R-Texas) tried to suggest that, because scientists are still researching what caused the Little Ice Age, which extended from the 14th to the mid-19th century, perhaps they are unsure about the causes of climate change now. He also suggested some global warming can be beneficial at times. For people living during the Little Ice Age, he said, "I would say it would have been more advantageous for the climate to be a little bit warmer."

He didn't elaborate on how the experience of people during the Little Ice Age is relevant to people today. And he got pushback even from the one Republican-invited witness to the hearing. "The way I think about it is that it's not that there's a temperature where human flourishing is maximal. Science can't really tell us that," said Joseph Majkut, the climate policy director at the non-profit Niskanen Center. The center supports mainstream climate science and endorses market-based solutions, Majkut told representatives earlier in the hearing.

"What we do know is that we've built our society around temperatures that we've encountered over the last 200, 300 years," Majkut said. "We're fixing to change it quite a bit and that rapid transition is a cause for concern."

Michael Mann, a famed climate researcher at Pennsylvania State University who had previously served as the only mainstream scientist witness for various House hearings on the issue, was heartened by the move from "Is it real?" to "What to do?" as evidenced in Wednesday's hearing. "That's what we should be debating in Congress," he wrote in an email. "I think that these latest hearings under Democratic leadership are clearly a step in the right direction."