In a break from years of acrimony over basic science, House Budget Committee members on Tuesday tripped over each other to agree that climate change is not only real but caused by humans.
“The last decade has seen dramatic advances in our understanding of the economic value of the climate,” said Solomon Hsiang, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, a witness invited by the panel’s Democratic majority. “Crucially, we are now able to use real-world data to quantify how changes in the climate cause changes in the economy.”
Hsiang’s characterization of a stable global climate as an asset caught the attention of Representative Rob Woodall, a Republican who represents the district northeast of Atlanta.
“I did not expect to come and be inspired, but I really have been,” Woodall said. “Dr. Shiang, it was your testimony about managing the climate—managing the Earth—as an asset that got me started in the right place, because I think that’s something we can agree on, up and down the ideological spectrum. We all understand managing assets.”
The U.S. government faces three specific threats, according to the testimony of Alfredo Gomez, director of the Government Accountability Office’s natural resources and environment division:
- Disaster aid has been increasing at a rate that may be unsustainable, spurring a congressional reform to the Federal Emergency Management Administration last fall. The country has spent at least $450 billion on disasters since 2005.
- Federal agricultural and flood insurance plans are outmoded. They can shield the scale of modern risk from policyholders and consequently make the U.S. responsible for increasing damages.
- Federal property and land are at risk. Florida’s Tyndall Air Force Base, Gomez said, needs an estimated $3 billion in repairs since Hurricane Michael hit the Panhandle in October, the first Category 5 cyclone to hit the U.S. since 1992.
There, agreement stopped, replaced by traditional partisan divides. Democrats noted the rise in U.S. disaster spending, the communities at risk and the gradual embrace of climate-friendly approaches in the financial sector. Republicans took aim at the still-vague Green New Deal and promoted nuclear power, a carbon-free—if expensive and logistically complicated—power source.
Legislators were mostly united in their silence on carbon taxes, which Hsiang identified as the longtime favorite of economists. Pricing carbon fuels so that people burn fewer of them is a central element of many climate policies, but it’s largely missing from the proposals of many Democratic presidential candidates.
Oren Cass, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who was invited by committee Republicans, emphasized the importance of technological and other forms of adaptation to climate impacts. In some cases, that might mean air conditioning that protects vulnerable populations from the risks of excessive heat. In extreme cases, those adaptation efforts may fail.
Representative Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat who represents part of Chicago and its northern suburbs, asked how the U.S. could address climate refugees from home and abroad—people who’ve been forced to move because climate change has ended their livelihood. Woodall responded in a cheery tone, but his prediction was ominous for Schakowsky’s constituency on the shores of Lake Michigan: “Given that you have about 25% of the world’s freshwater close by, I can promise you we in the Deep South will be coming for your water one day.”
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