“You can’t have a serious conversation about the health of our oceans and coastal communities without acknowledging the growing impacts of climate change,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) said at the outset of Thursday’s hearing on oceans and climate change convened by the House of Representatives’ Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife.
“Ocean health is critical for people and the planet, and it’s time to prepare and adapt our coasts for the future that has already arrived,” Huffman said. With the Democrats winning the House in last November’s election, this was Huffman’s first hearing as subcommittee chair. It was the second in a series of climate change hearings conducted by the Natural Resources Committee.
In an interview with Eos after the hearing, Huffman said that he wants the subcommittee hearings to help reset a baseline of scientific facts and priorities and that he hopes to find bipartisan allies to tackle issues that come before the subcommittee.
The Greatest Pollution Challenge Ever
Among the witnesses testifying at the hearing was former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Carol Browner, who called climate change the “greatest pollution challenge ever.” She said that climate change is having major negative impacts on the world’s oceans and marine fisheries that include warming and acidifying the oceans.
“Why should we care about oceans and climate change?” she asked. “Because failing to do so threatens every life on the planet.”
Browner called on Congress to support measures to protect the oceans from the effects of climate change. These measures include supporting more funding for coastal and marine habitat restoration programs, implementation of the Federal Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring Act, and monitoring of harmful algal blooms, among other measures.
Time to Act
Also calling for action by Congress was Deborah Bronk, president and CEO of the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, Maine. Bronk said that vast numbers of scientists “have come together to speak with one voice” through scientific reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other reports about the urgency of dealing with climate change.
“If this were a medical epidemic and the medical community spoke with this sense of unity and urgency, every single one of us in this room would have taken the treatment prescribed by now,” said Bronk, whose testimony described in detail the threats from climate change to oceans, fisheries, and coastal regions.
Bronk said that she is disappointed in the political process on this issue. “The economic pressure to keep the status quo is too intense. And I do not believe we as a country or as a global community will make the societal changes in time to ward off the extreme climate disruptions, disruptions that will most harm those that are least able to respond to [them],” she said.
However, Bronk noted that she still hopes that meaningful measures can be taken to lessen the problems. “I believe that in science there is always hope. Climate change is a problem that ironically science created, and I believe it is through science that we will solve it.”
She called for more investment in studying the oceans and the planet and added that more funding for social sciences to study human behavior and economics is “important in charting a sustainable way forward.” She also said that the country’s investment in science education “is grossly inadequate considering the brainpower we will need to power our global recovery.”
Bronk noted that Congress, if it has the will, could change this. “We need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to capture the carbon we’ve already emitted, and to do this we need to empower scientists and engineers,” she testified. “I believe we can do this, but we need to start now, because we are out of time.”
Some Testimony Dismissive of Climate Change
Several witnesses at the hearing who were invited by Republicans to testify dismissed the urgency of climate change and denied that human activity was the main culprit. For example, David Legates, professor of climatology at the University of Delaware in Newark, said that data he cited at the hearing “indicate that increasing CO2 [carbon dioxide] concentrations are not significantly affecting the rate of sea level rise” and that “the lack of a significant change in the rate of increase”—from before the industrial age to now— “implies that sea level rise is not responding to changes in greenhouse gas concentrations.”
Huffman, however, questioned the testimony by Legates and by Kevin Dayaratna, a senior statistician and research programmer with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington, D.C.–based think tank. Dayaratna said that policies aimed at “decarbonizing” the American economy will result in “devastating economic impacts. On the other hand, policies that are aimed at taking advantage of fossil-based fuels have tremendous potential to grow the economy.”
“Years ago, of course, we had scientists and doctors telling us that smoking was completely beneficial,” Huffman said. “History has rendered judgment on what they said. And I have to wonder if we haven’t heard some similar testimony here today.”
Committee Chair Voices Concerns and Some Optimism
“I’m a little disappointed that instead of focusing on the health of our oceans and some of the seemingly obvious things we need to acknowledge and work on together, that we got this thick denialism,” Huffman told Eos after the hearing. “It’s sort of the last gasp of a certain type of politics that is starting to give way to reality and to science. But we’ll continue to see it from time to time.”
“There are specific communities feeling real pain because of these climate change impacts right now, whether it is the folks in low-lying South Carolina or the 7th Ward of New Orleans or the lobstermen in the Gulf of Maine,” Huffman said, referring to the communities represented by three of the witnesses testifying at the hearing. “This is a here and now problem, and wishing it away or dickering over climate models that over 90% of the world’s scientists agree on is probably not helping these people and not a responsible option.”
He added, “It is cold comfort to the lobstermen that a statistician from the Heritage Foundation hypothesizes that there may be beneficial aspects to CO2 concentrations. They’re losing their industry because of ocean acidification, and I don’t think they’re interested in these intellectual games that right-wing institutes want to play on this issue.”
Seeing a Path Forward Despite Climate Denialism
Despite the climate denialism expressed by some at the hearing, Huffman said, “This is my first hearing [as chair]. I’m just going to keep trying and I hope many of them will come along.” He pointed to Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), who represents part of southern Louisiana, as a potential bipartisan ally on some issues. “He’s from a district where nobody is stupid enough to deny climate change or sea level rise, and he gets it. He was respectful and thoughtful, and he wants to work on coastal restoration and other things for resiliency,” Huffman said.
“That’s an example of the partnerships that we’ll try to foster as we go forward. It’s not going to be everybody in the Republican caucus, but we will find allies, I’m convinced, on all of these issues because the science and the facts are just too obvious,” he said.
Huffman told Eos that even if Democrats and Republicans approach issues from different perspectives, there could be many other areas for bipartisanship, including forest resiliency and wildfires.
Bipartisan Efforts on Wildfires and Rangeland Management?
At the hearing, Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), the ranking minority member of the subcommittee, suggested some areas of bipartisanship, including dealing with wildfires. McClintock said that wildfires in the United States last year “pumped 290 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, making a mockery of our carbon dioxide restrictions.”
“Catastrophic wildfires are a huge carbon emitter, it’s true,” he said. “We’ve got to do something about that. It’s a public safety issue too, and I represent a lot of forestland. I’m going to be developing ideas to reduce the frequency and severity of those fires while also protecting habitat and environmental standards. If we are creative, we can find ways to work together on that.”
Huffman said that rangeland management is another area of potential bipartisan agreement. “Responsible grazing, coupled with some other best practices, might be able to start sequestering carbon in our rangelands. Healthy soils is something where we can work together on,” he said. “These are potential issues or areas of collaboration. We’ll push those and we’ll take those opportunities where we find them.”
Questioning Whether Nuclear Power Is Part of the Answer
At the hearing, McClintock suggested that building new nuclear power plants could be one response to dealing with climate change.
However, Huffman told Eos that he is not convinced that building new nuclear power plants is the best way forward. “You know, you find a community that actually wants to have new [plants] in their neighborhood and we can talk. But I’ve never met one, and I’ve never seen a project proposed that’s viable without massive subsidies,” he said.
“There are obvious dangers and risks to nuclear power that most of us think are too great, especially when we have other alternatives,” he added. “If there is a state or a community that wants to contribute to climate solutions that way, I’m not going to categorically say, ‘that’s off the table.’ But holding that up as the only way we can address this is just not going to work. It’s not a solution.”
Resetting the Facts and the Science
Huffman said that because he chairs the Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife, he’s taking advantage of its acronym. “I call this the WOW 101 phase, where we are trying to set a baseline of science and facts and priorities,” he told Eos. He said that some areas the committee will be looking into include coastal and marine habitat, sustainable fisheries, coral reef conservation, ocean monitoring, offshore drilling, and marine plastics.
“We’ve got five or six or seven of these sorts of baseline priorities that we’ll be going through in hearings, much like today, to try to reset the facts and the science before we start diving into specific bills,” he said.
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer