The Energy 202: House Science Committee turns new leaf on climate change with Democrats in charge

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Friday, February 15, 2019

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

For years, the Republican-led House Science Committee has tried to put global warming research on ice. It tried to slash government research into the warming globe and even launched investigations into scientists who produced a global warming study many conservatives despised.

But in January, Democrats took control of the House. And that committee’s former boss, Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), retired.

Now the panel is turning a new leaf: Its new leader, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.), is taking a stronger stance on climate change. She decided to make the topic the focus of the committee’s first full hearing this session and promised many more discussions about the science behind it in the coming two years.

“Rigorous scientific discourse can help enable the creation of a sound public policy,” Johnson (D-Tex.) said at the start of the committee’s first full hearing in the new Congress.

“We’re already feeling the impacts of this warming today,” she said Wednesday. “It has almost become a given that we can expect record-breaking temperatures every year.”

With that, many observers — like NASA climatologist Gavin Schmidt — saw the science panel returning to what they said it should be doing: taking science seriously.

W/o question, today’s @HouseScience hearing on climate science (& impacts/responses) w/@bobkopp Natalie Mahowald, Jennifer Francis, @JosephMajkut & Kristie Ebi, was the most serious & most constructive congressional hearing I’ve seen in a decade (at least).

It can be done!

— Gavin Schmidt (@ClimateOfGavin) February 13, 2019

After two years out of power from every branch of the federal government, Democrats are trying to send a message to voters that they will put a priority on the planet’s warming.

The most prominent effort to date on this front is the “Green New Deal” resolutionfrom Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

But that resolution is nonbinding and outlines only a broad progressive goal of driving down greenhouse gas emissions. The new Democratic committee chairs in the House, meanwhile, have actual bill-writing authority and are trying to set the stage for climate legislation by holding a series of hearings on climate change during the first few weeks of Congress.

Even if few if any of the bills they tee up pass the GOP-controlled Senate, Democrats hope to make climate change a marquee issue on which to campaign against President Trump and other Republicans in the 2020 election.

Smith, by contrast, used his perch atop of the science panel to become one of the fiercest and highest-profile critics of climate science in Congress.

Not only did the Texas lawmaker dismiss the broad scientific consensus that people are warming the planet, but he once suggested that additional carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was bringing “beneficial changes to the Earth’s geography.”

As such, he launched a probe into National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists who did a study refuting the idea that warming had “paused” and even started an investigation into state-level prosecutors investigating ExxonMobil over potential climate-related fraud.

During climate-related hearings, Smith made sure that a majority of expert witnesses were as skeptical as he was of the consensus on climate change. Many scientists said that the composition of those panels greatly misrepresented the state of climate science.

But on Wednesday, all the witnesses called to testify acknowledged not only the reality but the severity of climate change, emphasizing the deleterious effects it is poised to have on the health and economic well being of the nation.

“Climate change is real, it is happening now and humans are responsible for it,” said Rutgers professor Robert Kopp, who is the lead author of major climate reports for both the U.S. government and United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Even a witness brought in by Republicans — Joseph Majkut, director of climate policy at the Niskanen Center, which pushes market-based solutions to environmental problems — called climate change real.

“We promote a mainstream understanding of climate science,” he said. “Nothing to be afraid of.”

The committee hearing was notable for its lack of rancor. At one point, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) asked the witnesses if they thought the world’s nations should participate in the global climate agreement.

“We’re all in agreement on that?” Cohen asked as each one of the panelists nodded yes. “Kumbaya.”

While some Republican committee members, like Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), used their time to advance the idea that humans are not the cause of current rising sea levels, the new top Republican on the committee, Frank Lucas (Okla.), took a tone on climate change markedly different from Smith’s by pointing out the impact man-made climate change is having in his rural Oklahoma district.

Just as fracking revolutionized energy production in this own state, Lucas said he hoped new technologies like battery storage and the next generation of nuclear reactors could advance emissions reductions elsewhere in the United States.

“As any farmer can tell you, we are especially dependent on the weather,” Lucas said. “Drought, heat waves come and go naturally, but the changing climate has intensified their impacts.”