This month the two of us — both climate scientists — testified about climate change and solutions before the science committee in the House of Representatives.
One of us was called to testify by the Democratic majority. One of us was called to testify by the Republican minority. In previous years, two witnesses in our roles would have been at odds, tasked with debating the severity or very existence of human-caused climate change. For a decade, congressional hearings on climate science were contentious and disconnected from physical reality. During a House Science Committee hearing just a year ago, Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama made headlines by suggesting that observed sea level rise is caused by erosion and rocks falling into the ocean — ignoring the real causes: melting ice and thermal expansion fueled by manmade global warming.
But this time, instead of arguing, we agreed. We agreed that rising temperatures are being caused by industrial pollution, deforestation and other human activities. We agreed that the impacts on society are already occurring. And we agreed on the need for immediate action to avoid worse impacts. This shift is nothing short of a sea-change, long overdue.
And our agreement was (largely) mirrored by the committee. We were thrilled that the vast majority of the committee’s questions focused on climate science, and how to address the impacts of climate change. An enormous amount of credit goes to House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairwoman Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) and Ranking Member Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.). They set the tone for this civil, smart, and productive hearing.
Our hearing wasn’t an outlier. Days before, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), Rep. Fred Upton (R-MIich, and Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) published an op-ed declaring, “Climate change is real, and as Republican Leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, we are focused on solutions.”
Also, the previous week, a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing addressed how climate change hurts forests, public lands and national parks. According to E&E News, Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Cali.) applauded Republicans for calling a scientist to testify who “firmly reflects the mainstream of the global scientific community.”
It is still an open question as to whether Congress will commit the necessary resources, and put in place policies, to create the low-carbon future that science shows we need to stabilize our climate. If we have turned a corner, we recognize that our journey is not complete. There are a few dogged members of Congress, reflecting a shrinking segment of the public, who claim they understand climate change better than the scientific community.
But refreshingly, in our committee hearing, we heard a return to a functional and honest discussion of climate science. We talked about an aggressive shift to low-carbon energy. We talked about the potential of technology to reduce emissions and capture carbon from the atmosphere. We talked about how there is no magic bullet for climate and plenty of room for compromise over how to move forward.
These are the debates and conversations that we should have been holding all along. And, to repurpose a well-known expression, the best time to start having serious conversations about climate change was 30 years ago. The second best time is now.
Jennifer Francis, Ph.D., is a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center.
Joseph Majkut, Ph.D., is director of climate policy at the Niskanen Center.