House Science Committee Debates How to Best Tackle Climate Change

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Publication date: 
23 May 2018

At a recent hearing, House Science Committee members and witnesses discussed the role of energy technology development in enabling effective mitigation and adaptation strategies to address climate change.

At a House Science Committee hearing on May 16, titled “Using Technology to Address Climate Change,” committee members quarreled over the legitimacy of mainstream climate science while witnesses weighed in on different approaches to assessing and addressing climate change impacts.

Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and other Republican committee members stressed that uncertainties remain in climate change science. Some also questioned certain fundamental conclusions of the field, citing erroneous or out-of-context arguments. A summary of those exchanges is available in an E&E News article on the hearing.

Committee Democrats accused the majority of using the hearing to reopen debate on the human role in climate change and pit mitigation and adaptation strategies against each other. Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) called it “a continuation of the majority’s seemingly unending attempts to call into question climate science and promote delay instead of action.”

However, the hearing also highlighted common ground among the witnesses. Testifying on behalf of the Republican majority were Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Oren Cass and Breakthrough Institute Executive Director Ted Nordhaus. The minority’s witness was Woods Hole Research Center President Philip Duffy. A fourth invited witness, Climate Forecast Applications Network President Judith Curry, was unable to attend due to travel complications.

Of note, all three witnesses present acknowledged the mainstream consensus on climate change, embraced both mitigation and adaptation strategies, and stressed the importance of continued federal investment in energy technology research, development, and demonstration.


House Science Committee hearing on role of technologies to address climate change

A panel of experts testifying on the role of energy technologies in addressing climate change before the House Science Committee on May 17. From left: Oren Cass, Tim Nordhaus, and Philip Duffy.

(Image credit: House Science Committee)

Republican leaders underscore scientific uncertainties, technological solutions

“To solve climate change challenges, we first need to acknowledge the uncertainties that exist,” said Smith in his opening statement. “Then we can have confidence that innovations and technology will enable us to mitigate any adverse consequences of climate change.”

Revisiting a claim he has made before about the validity of climate science, he said “there is legitimate concern that scientists are biased in favor of reaching predetermined conclusions.” As an example of an “alarmist prediction,” Smith said that the worst-case scenario presented in the latest UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment report used outdated assumptions of coal usage that do not account for emissions reduction associated with the U.S. shale gas revolution. He also entered into the record a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed written by physicist and longtime climate change skeptic Fred Singer that argues climate change is not the cause of rising sea levels.

Smith also criticized a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that found the economic impacts of extreme weather driven by climate change could reach as much as $112 billion annually by 2100. He said GAO used outdated heat mortality statistics that do not consider the prevalence of air conditioning. More generally, he repeated an assertion he first aired last year, saying that,

Predicting economic and environmental conditions hundreds of years from now while ignoring humans’ capacity to innovate and adapt is irresponsible. It is also intentionally misleading — the ultimate ‘fake’ news.

Similarly, Environment Subcommittee Chair Andy Biggs (R-AZ) criticized a recent U.S. Geological Survey study, funded in part by the Department of Defense, that concluded sea level rise will cause certain islands to become uninhabitable due to lack of access to drinking water. He argued the study’s predictions are “grossly irresponsible” in part because they do not account for potential advancements in water desalination technology.

Both Smith and Biggs argued that advancement in technology, not regulation, is the best way to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Smith outlined these views in a recent op-ed titled “Innovation is the solution to climate change.” Echoing his op-ed, he argued, Overreaching and costly regulations like the Obama Clean Power Plan do little to reduce emissions. Climate mitigating technologies are much more likely to benefit the environment. … Technology is what provides the solution.”

Smith has previously expressed support for technological solutions to climate change, including carbon capture and geoengineering, which he believes could have significant potential to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Geoengineering technologies were the subject of a recent hearing he convened.

Majority witnesses discuss best balance of adaptation and mitigation technologies

While Cass and Nordhaus said they agree that climate change is occurring and primarily human-caused, they stressed that there are uncertainties in the extent of its impacts and society’s capacity to adapt.

Cass said that economic analyses of the potential costs of climate change impacts often do not consider how humans might adapt as the climate changes. He argued that disregard for adaptation “has profound consequences for how people conceptualize climate change, leading to what I call ‘climate catastrophism.’” Cass called for more research on adaptation, identifying it as the “central question” to defining the future costs of climate change.

Nordhaus argued efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions have only “modestly tipped the scales” in the favor of lower carbon emission fuels and technologies. He emphasized that further emissions reductions will depend on the availability of cheap and scalable low-carbon technologies, such as advanced nuclear energy, carbon capture, advanced renewable energy, and long-term energy storage.

Arguing that climate policies have also commonly “emphasized mitigation at the expense of adaptation,” Nordhaus said mitigation efforts alone will not keep temperatures from rising.

Both also said more efforts are needed to accurately project the costs of future climate change. Pointing to the possibility of an onset of very rapid climate change in coming decades, Nordhaus also argued that further climate research may not help to precisely determine the costs and ability of society to adapt, but that that does not mean investment in the field should be curtailed. He explained,

I don’t think more climate science is more likely to help us better understand the likelihoods on the timeframes that we would need to take action to address [very rapid change]. That’s not an argument against climate science, but we should understand what sorts of uncertainties we’re likely to be able to resolve and which sort of uncertainties we’re unlikely to resolve.

Witnesses, Democrats stress importance of continued federal investment in technologies

Duffy said developing new energy technologies presents an opportunity for the U.S. research and business communities, and that the federal government should play a leading role. He warned that if the U.S. does not take advantage of this opportunity, “someone else will.” He noted that China is already the leading funder of renewable energy technologies and said there is risk of “brain drain” from the U.S. research enterprise.

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) asked Duffy whether regulation encourages the private sector and researchers to innovate. Duffy affirmed, “Regulation can be a stimulant for technological innovation,” citing the example of refrigerator costs decreasing after energy efficiency regulations were implemented. Nordhaus similarly remarked that “modest tax, regulatory, [and] pricing policies can help modestly move us in a cost-effective way towards lower carbon technologies.”

Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL) stressed the importance of better establishing how underinvestment in energy technologies will impact future generations. While acknowledging these economic opportunity costs are difficult to model, he argued that a rough estimate can still identify whether “mistakes” are being made. He asked if it is clear if the U.S. is underinvesting in technologies and whether the cuts proposed by the Trump administration to applied energy R&D are “a step in the wrong direction as a society.”

Nordhaus, Cass, and Duffy all emphasized the importance of continued federal energy research, development, and demonstration, with Nordhaus noting first-of-its-kind research requires public support because the private sector will not “do it alone.”

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