House Science Committee Democrats Hold Roundtable on Climate Science and Policy

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Publication date: 
22 June 2017

This week, the leading Democrats on the House Science Committee convened a roundtable forum of experts to explore the science and policy of climate change. Participants spotlighted pressing scientific problems and the economic benefits of participation in the Paris Climate Agreement, including those presented by the transition to low-carbon technology.

On June 20, House Science Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) convened a roundtable to discuss the science and policy of climate change, saying she hoped it would be the first in a series of such events.

In her opening remarks, Johnson billed the roundtable as an exploration of climate challenges, and noted that both Democrats and Republicans were invited to attend. Nevertheless, the roundtable also served as a way of circumventing the partisanship marking the Science Committee’s work on the subject. At the committee’s most recent climate science hearing in March, Johnson had lamented that Republican committee members “consistently ignore the thousands of scientists around the world who maintain mainstream climate science views, instead repeatedly calling a handful of preferred witnesses over and over again to testify.”

Free to invite whatever panelists they chose, Johnson and Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), the committee’s vice ranking member, showcased perspectives in line with those represented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Paris Climate Agreement.

Scientists address new directions, old controversies

The first of two panels at the roundtable comprised scientific experts: Benjamin Santer, an atmospheric scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and a prominent figure in the climate science community; Philip Duffy, president of Woods Hole Research Center and a former senior official in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; and Bernard Goldstein, an emeritus professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh.


House Science Committee minority roundtable witnesses

The first panel of experts at the House Science Committee Democrats’ climate change roundtable. Left to right: Bernard Goldstein, Philip Duffy, and Benjamin Santer.

 (Image credit – House Science Committee Democrats)

Public domain

In his opening remarks, Santer recalled his work as lead author of the chapter of the 1996 IPCC assessment report that affirmed a “discernable human influence” on the climate. He reflected that that work was subjected to a congressional investigation and that he spent years defending it. He said that at that time there had not been enough evidence to establish the relative sizes of human and natural contributions to climate change but that it is now clear that human contributions dominate.

In his remarks, Duffy emphasized that there are still important uncertainties remaining in climate science that should be addressed. Among these are the regional effects of global climate shifts and understanding precisely which shifts would trigger different outcomes such as ice sheet disintegration and the uncontrolled thawing of permafrost. He also said that there should be research into climate engineering options and their effects, though he refrained from saying that any such options should necessarily be implemented.

Although the roundtable aspired to spotlight the most pressing problems of climate science, common criticisms of the scientific consensus also figured into the discussion. Panel members disputed claims such as that satellite readings of tropospheric temperatures are inconsistent with the IPCC’s accepted rate of climatic warming and that greenhouse gas reduction commitments made through the Paris agreement would only negligibly slow the rate of sea level rise.

Asked by Johnson about the suggestion currently in circulation to include a skeptical “red team” perspective on climate science assessments, the panel rejected the rationale for it. Santer said that the proposal “elevates ignorance and tries to give that ignorance the same status as scientific understanding.”  He and Duffy argued that objections to accepted conclusions are already seriously considered within the climate science community as part of peer review, scientific assessments, and less formal deliberations, and that they have ultimately been judged untenable.

Policy experts make economic case for low-carbon energy

The second panel comprised policy experts who back the Paris agreement: Christiana Figueres, the former executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; David O’Sullivan, the European Union’s ambassador to the U.S.; Jonathan Elkind, who served as the Department of Energy’s assistant secretary for international affairs under President Obama; and Manish Bapna, the managing director of the World Resources Institute think tank.

This panel argued that the transition to clean energy is, in O’Sullivan’s words, “frankly unstoppable,” and emphasized the economic case for participation in the Paris agreement. They also underscored the simplicity and flexibility of the agreement, noting that every nation has the power to establish and revise its commitments.

A crucial part of wealthier nations’ commitment to participating in the Paris agreement is the R&D necessary to achieve a low-carbon economy, which the panel agreed would pay major economic dividends to the nations conducting it. O’Sullivan noted that the EU is stepping up its own R&D investment toward this goal to more than €1.1 billion per year.

Elkind stressed that U.S. innovation strategy should distinguish between near-term and long-term goals, saying,

It’s not just a question of coming up with the new, whiz-bang technology that’s going to allow us to do things we never thought that we could do. It’s also about pushing down costs progressively.

He remarked that, at present, the dramatic cost reductions already seen in technologies such as solar power, LED lamps, and batteries should be extended to other technologies. He suggested that work on “breakthroughs” should concentrate on “suites of technologies that we may not even see today but could emerge into commercial production around 2025 to 2030.”

Amid partisan divides, participants hope for bipartisan action

As the Trump administration has worked to reverse President Obama’s climate policies, many proponents of climate change mitigation have decided to proceed on their own. Most notably, after President Trump announced the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris agreement, many state and local governments, corporations, and individuals announced they would continue to pursue its goals. Just yesterday, former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz launched a new Washington, D.C.-based think tank dedicated to developing policies and facilitating collaborations that will aid the transition to a low-carbon economy.

The Democrats’ decision to hold their own roundtable reflected the go-it-alone spirit of the moment, but Johnson and the roundtable participants also expressed a desire to forge national climate policies through bipartisan agreements. Members of the second panel, in particular, urged that piecemeal efforts are no substitute for a coordinated national policy and international leadership the U.S. can provide. Bapna added that it would become particularly difficult for states to carry the burden once commitments become more aggressive in the post-2025 timeframe.

Johnson asked both panels for their views on how to move beyond current partisan divides. This was a problem on which Goldstein focused most of his remarks, urging that “righteous indignation” should be avoided and that alliances be cultivated with conservative-leaning individuals in agriculture and the military who have a clear stake in climate policy. Figueres recommended stressing the short-term economic and health benefits that will accompany action toward the decarbonization of energy regardless of one’s concerns about climate change.

Although the partisan divide over climate change is as stark as it has ever been, there have recently been signs that some of the old battle lines could be fading. For instance, while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s climate-related actions during his time as CEO of ExxonMobil are currently under scrutiny as part of a state fraud investigation, he has publicly disagreed with President Trump on the decision to exit the Paris agreement. Meanwhile, in Congress, the House’s Climate Solutions Caucus, which only accepts new members in bipartisan pairs, has grown to 21 members from each party.

As far as the House Science Committee is concerned, though, bipartisan cooperation on climate issues is likely to prove elusive for the foreseeable future.

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