The Science of Climate Change and Closing Doors in Congress

12/02/2010 07:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On December 1, 2010, I provided oral and written testimony to a hearing of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming of the US Congress in Washington (Edward Markey, D-Mass, Chairman). It turns out this was the very last hearing of the Select Committee -- at the hearing, it was announced by the minority ranking member James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) that the committee would be killed by the next Congress, perhaps because of pressure from the Wall Street Journal and conservative Republicans in Congress (the Wall Street Journal published an editorial the same day calling for the Republican House to "kill" the committee, though Rep. Sensenbrenner had apparently wanted to keep it going). I guess that energy independence and global warming are no longer important, or more optimistically, perhaps the new Congress will find a way to effectively address both critical issues without the Select Committee. We'll see.

In any case, my testimony focused on the strength of climate science. I made the following six points, and my full testimony is available here.

1. The science of climate change is clear and convincing that climate change is happening, happening rapidly, and happening because of human activities.

Based on a combination of our understanding of basic laws, laboratory experiments, observations of nature, and mathematical and computer modeling, the science of climate change is compelling and strong. Emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities not only will change the climate, but are already changing the climate. The evidence is now incontrovertible.

2. Despite continued efforts on the part of a small group of climate skeptics and deniers to mislead, misrepresent, and misuse the science, our understanding of human-caused climate change continues to strengthen and improve.

There is nothing identified in recent efforts to discredit climate science that remotely changes these fundamental conclusions about climate change and no credible alternative explanation has ever been proposed that explains the science and what we observe around the world. A recent letter from 255 members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences also summarizes this issue.

3. Every major international scientific organization working in the areas of geophysics, climate, geology, biology, chemistry, physics, ecology, atmospheric sciences, human health, and meteorology, and every National Academy of Sciences (including our own) agrees that humans are changing the climate.

A list is attached to my written testimony. Conversely, no scientific body of national or international standing rejects the findings of human-induced climate change. Not one.

4. The nation now faces only three options -- mitigation (reducing emissions of climate-changing gases), adaptation (work to deal with unavoidable impacts), and suffering.

The only question is how much of each option we do. The simplistic argument that all we have to do is adapt is, well, simplistic. We will do some combination of all of these things.
We are now faced with unavoidable climate changes because we (the world) have delayed too long to implement policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, it appears that many of our estimates of the rate of climate change have been too low, not too high, and climate changes are happening faster than expected. This makes the arguments against taking actions against climate change not just wrong, but dangerous.

5. A wide range of impacts (ranging from sea level rise to changing water availability to altered food production to human health effects from heat and spreading tropical diseases, etc.) are already beginning to appear.

These impacts will be costly to society -- very costly. Indeed, probably far more costly than efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. I offer one example in my written testimony of the expected massive consequences of expected sea-level rise to populations and infrastructure along the California coast from research recently completed by the Pacific Institute for the State of California. The value of infrastructure at risk (including buildings, power plants, airports, roads, wastewater treatment plants, hospitals, schools, police stations, and much more) exceeds $100 billion, and many costs simply cannot be estimated economically. And this is just one small piece of the coming impacts for one small region of the country.

6. Finally, the good news is that there are smart and effective things that can be done immediately, with a focus on energy policy, land use policy, and water policy.

In particular, we need a national energy policy focused on non-carbon energy sources, with federal financing, tax credits, and loan guarantees. We need environmental standards for greenhouse gas emissions, including not just carbon dioxide but methane, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), and black carbon soot. And we need to begin the process of adapting to unavoidable impacts through smarter land-use and water-use planning.

If we act to slow climate change, and the impacts turn out to be less severe than we predict, we will still have reduced our emissions of pollutants, cut our economic dependence on fossil fuels from countries that fund extremism and terror, and boosted our economy with new green technologies and jobs. But if we do nothing, and climate changes are indeed more severe than we expect, we've made things far worse than they needed to be.

Congress should step up and do its job.