With Democrats in Charge, House Science Committee Actually Talks About Climate Science

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) replaced an ardent climate denier, former Republican Rep. Lamar Smith, as chair of the House Science Committee this year as Democrats took control of the chamber. (Congress)

The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology devoted its first hearing of the 116th Congress to exploring the wide-ranging effects of climate change and explaining the science fueling them, a discussion that revealed a subtle shift among key Republicans toward accepting the prevailing research that points to human-driven global warming.

In her opening comments, committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) said that the hearing is one of multiple sessions on climate change the new Congress plans to hold in order to develop policies to address it. The committee's move to highlight mainstream climate science is a marked break from the last six years when it was led by Republican Rep. Lamar Smith, an ardent climate denier from Texas who retired.

The committee's new top Republican, Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, staked out a more pragmatic and less provocative position than Smith and many other conservatives in Congress had.

"Droughts and heat waves come and go naturally, but the changing climate has intensified their impacts," Lucas said in his opening remarks. "We know the climate is changing and that global industrial activity has played a role in this phenomenon. But our communities, like the farmers and ranchers in my district, need to know more about the extent to which a changing climate affects short- and long-term weather patterns."

Under Lucas, the committee's minority side invited as its expert Joseph Majkut, who holds a doctorate in atmospheric science and is director of climate policy at the bipartisan Niskanen Center. Majkut adheres to broadly accepted climate science, unlike some GOP-invited speakers in the past. During the question-and-answer period, Majkut quashed fringe theories that a few members floated about climate change as handily as the scientists invited by the Democrats did.

Democrats on the committee welcomed the change in approach by the ranking GOP member.

"For years, too often we found ourselves wasting time with non-technical witnesses about whether it's a matter of scientific debate whether or not it would be a good thing if the Greenland Ice Sheet melted," said Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), a physicist. "I was really thrilled to see some of the changes appearing in this committee. I'd also like to thank Ranking Member Lucas and my Republican colleagues for selecting Dr. Majkut as their witness for this hearing. He's someone with a Ph.D. in a relevant science and someone with views which are inside the scientific mainstream and that's refreshing."

Old (and Odd) Arguments Batted Down

Not every minority member on the committee followed Lucas's lead. Some of the older members, such as Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), relied on the old climate denying argument that, because other factors besides human activity caused warming 21,000 years ago, those are the factors driving changes now. (They're not.) Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) brought up a period of warming in Greenland that was followed by a harsh freeze about 1,000 years ago, in an effort to prompt the expert panel to say that global warming might be a good thing.

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

In her written testimony, Kristie Ebi, an expert witness and director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at University of Washington, highlighted the vulnerability some populations have to heat by mentioning that more than 700 children died from 1990 to 2014 because they were left in hot cars. Rep. Jim Baird (R-Ind.) suggested they may have perished because vehicles now are built "tighter" than before, allowing less air in.

Baird also speculated that species might adapt swiftly enough to climate change to avoid mass extinctions, despite vast scientific evidence to the contrary.

"The climate now is changing faster than it has been in 10,000 years, so it has to be a challenge for many of our plants and other species to try to evolve fast enough in the face of this rapid rate of change," Ebi responded.

Republicans Attacked the Green New Deal

Younger GOP members on the panel, such as Rep. Mike Waltz of Florida, opened their questioning by saying they accepted climate change and, unlike their older colleagues, did not offer alternative theories.

But nearly all the GOP members used the hearing as an opportunity to bash the Green New Deal, a job creation and climate plan whose outlines were unveiled last week by Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

Ocasio-Cortez's office bungled the rollout of the project when it posted a meandering draft document with "Frequently Asked Questions" that said, among other things, that its goal was net-zero emissions rather than absolutely zero because "we aren't sure that we'll be able to fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes that fast."

The GOP members of the Science Committee seized on elements of the FAQ to allege that the Democrats' solution to climate change was a socialist takeover of industries. Republican members also alleged that gasoline and electricity prices would skyrocket. The GOP has used such doomsday scenarios to great effect in the past, including to derail Senate ratification of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill in 2010, the last two times Congress was tasked with reining in greenhouse gases.

Democratic members did not address the apocalyptic predictions of their GOP colleagues. But Majkut, who described the Green New Deal as a broad progressive agenda with some climate policies attached to it, rebuffed the idea that broad-based efforts to cut emissions would throttle the economy.

"I think the intent is not to overly punish any particular class of people or any particular technology. It's to put in place a system we're all going to benefit from in the long term," Majkut said. "Frankly, I don't know if it will be too costly." 

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