House Hears About Climate

by Bill Chameides | April 29th, 2013
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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Testifying on Capitol Hill, April 25, 2013
Testifying in front of the House Subcommittee on the Environment’s “Policy Relevant Climate Issues in Context” hearing on April 25.

Is last week’s hearing on climate the start of a thaw?

The word in the hallways of the Rayburn Building last week was that the Republican Party wants to rehabilitate its image on science — to show a willingness to engage with scientists on the basis of the evidence rather than ideology. Perhaps that’s what motivated the House Subcommittee on Environment to hold a hearing on climate science last Thursday — a rare event since the Republicans took control of the House in 2010.  (Download video of the hearing.)

The stated purpose of the “Policy Relevant Climate Issues in Context” hearing was to understand and explore uncertainties in climate science. The Republican agenda seemed pretty clear to me — to portray climate science as too uncertain to justify action. But, even so, I think the hearing represents progress.

It wasn’t the usual setup for pummeling climate scientists with diatribes that there’s no such thing as global warming or that human activities don’t send greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere thus warming the climate. The tone was more restrained: “OK, climate change is a problem but we just can’t afford to do anything about it.” Believe it or not, in today’s world of politics — that’s progress.

The Witnesses

Even my fellow witnesses reflected a more moderate approach.

One strange aspect of Congressional hearings, and a sad commentary on how science has become partisan, is that even when the topic is science, each party calls its own witnesses. The Republicans, being in the majority, got to call two: Judy Curry, a climate scientist from Georgia Tech, and Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg of the Copenhagen Consensus Center. In the universe of climate skeptics these two tend toward the reasonable side — another positive sign.

I was the witness called by the Democrats. (Watch my opening statement on youtube.) The gist of my testimony [pdf] went something like this:

The risks posed by human-caused climate change are significant and warrant timely action to minimize these risks. Such action must include efforts to lower carbon emissions, as soon as possible, and to mobilize for adaptation. Yes, there are uncertainties, but these uncertainties do not justify inaction; what they do suggest is that our response should be a flexible one that allows for course corrections as new information and knowledge comes available.

As it turns out, both Curry’s and Lomborg’s testimony had elements that were consistent with this message. We all stated that there has been significant warming due to human emissions of greenhouse gases and that additional emissions will lead to more warming. But it wasn’t singing from the same hymnbook.

Judith Curry

I’ve known Judy for about a decade. Back when I was at Georgia Tech, I helped recruit her to her current position as chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, where by all reports she has done an excellent job.

In 2005 Judy and her husband Peter Webster got way out in front of the climate science community when they published a series of controversial papers showing that tropical storms (e.g., hurricanes) were becoming more intense as a result of global warming. (See here and here.)

But at some point there was apparently a serious conversion and Judy’s climate views changed significantly. And around the time of the so-called climategate, she launched a blog that reflected that new view. A view that is quite critical of the climate science community and portrays it as intolerant of dissent and dismissive of discussing or even admitting to the existence of critical uncertainties in our understanding of the climate system. And Judy’s take on those uncertainties is that they suggest that climate change may ultimately not be such a bad thing. At least that’s my take on Judy’s take on climate science.

My argument with Judy is less of substance than of emphasis. We agree on this as I think almost any climate scientist would: there is still a lot to learn about the climate system and our ability to predict the future course of the climate is limited. But in general uncertainties tend to cut both ways — some suggest that the climate disruption will be less than currently predicted and some that it will be worse. However, in Judy’s blogosphere all uncertainties seem to point to small impacts from future warming. And that’s just not the case.

For example, on Thursday she cited three papers to back up the statement [pdf] that “there is increasing support for values of climate sensitivity around or below 2°C,” (i.e., the low end of the estimated range), but failed to mention any of the recently published papers (e.g., herehere and here) that concluded that the climate sensitivity is at the high end.

And there’s this [pdf] that I found rather curious:

“I have also learned how different types of decision makers make use of forecast uncertainty and confidence information. I have found that the worst forecast outcome is a forecast issued with a high level of confidence that turns out to be wrong; a close second is missing the possibility of an extreme event.”

I can think of plenty of instances when I would prefer to plan for an extreme event and be wrong than to not plan for one and be wrong.

As is her practice, Judy’s testimony largely stuck to the science and avoided making any direct connections between the uncertainties she highlighted and specific policy recommendations. She did recommend adopting “flexible policy strategies that account for uncertainty, ignorance and dissent,” and in that regard I would say we are in agreement.

Bjorn Lomborg

Bjorn’s an interesting phenomenon. You just gotta like the guy — he’s friendly, warm and without affectation. On Thursday, when he breezed into the anteroom for the hearing in jeans, a polo shirt, and a big smile, Republican aides treated him as a semi-celebrity; one even asked him to autograph a copy of his The Skeptical Environmentalist.

As for Bjorn’s views on climate, let’s just say his position has evolved since his Skeptical Environmentalist days. Gone is the argument that the problem is too small to worry about so we should address other global problems.

In his testimony last week, Bjorn stated right up front that global temperatures are rising, human activities are driving the warming, and this presents humanity with a huge problem.

His main point — and the general point of departure with most advocates on climate — is that he doesn’t believe that current carbon-lowering efforts can work.

As evidence, he cited the world’s failure to lower global emissions despite Kyoto. He argued that the slight decrease in the European Union’s emissions is misleading since they simply import more carbon embedded in the products they buy from other countries. (Using Kyoto as a whipping boy for policies designed to lower carbon emissions is perhaps not a fair argument as without U.S. participation, Kyoto was arguably doomed to fail.)

Bjorn argued that market-based mechanisms or regulations to lower carbon emissions will never work, that we need carbon-intensive fuels to generate the energy and products that people demand. The solution instead is to develop new technologies that can replace fossil fuels and do it more cheaply. And to do that, we need a massive program in research and innovation. In his testimony Bjorn recommended sinking a major infusion of dollars (~$40 billion) into research and innovation. When Donna Edwards (D-MD) asked Lomborg to confirm that sum he thought necessary, she pointed to the Republican side of the room and wished him luck in getting that appropriated.

I don’t quite agree. A standalone policy like that is unlikely to get us to where we need to be. We need a portfolio of policies, and those policies will be most effective if they are anchored by a comprehensive, nationally uniform price on carbon dioxide emissions. Complementary policies, such as fuel economy standards, building codes and renewable portfolio standards, as well as funds for research and innovation will also be needed to ensure progress where market failures and institutional barriers limit the effectiveness of a carbon-pricing system.

Theater in the House

Congressional hearings have a sort of theatrical quality to them. Members are there ostensibly to gather information and advice, but really they mostly stake out their own positions and make points against the opposition. Thursday’s was no exception.   (Witness the majority’s press release and the minority’s press release.)

The hearing began routinely, with five minutes of opening remarks by subcommittee chairman Chris Stewart (R-UT), ranking member Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), and the Republican chair of the  Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Lamar Smith (TX) — remarks that encapsulated each representative’s position on climate. Such a beginning struck this academic as odd. Why, if positions are already determined, hold a hearing?

Following the opening remarks, each witness had five minutes to speak. Then each subcommittee member got five minutes to query the witnesses. You might expect that the purpose of the questions would be to get additional information or to clarify a technical point. Hardly. The questions tended to have one of two objectives: undercutting the other party’s witness(es) or using the friendly witnesses to highlight a point the member wanted put on the record. I’ll highlight a few of the more interesting exchanges in TheGreenGrok’s Climate Chatter post this Friday.

Could the Cup Be Half Full After All?

It’s easy to leave hearings like this depressed and cynical — highly doubtful that anybody’s mind was open never mind changed. But there is just the tiniest chance that this hearing had an epilogue with an optimistic little peep.

Following the hearing, Bjorn and I were chatting with two subcommittee members, one Republican, one Democrat, when an idea on how Congress might move the climate ball down the field came up. It was pointed out the to two these good members of Congress that this idea could conceivably get bipartisan support. One member turned to the other and said: “Have your office contact me and let’s talk about this.” Bjorn and I looked at each other. Could this actually lead to something? Talk about uncertainty.

filed under: climate change, faculty, global warming, policy, politics, science


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