On Wednesday, a little bit of climate science snuck its way back into the House Science Committee, better known under Republican leadership as being a mockery of its name and a place where good science goes to die, especially when it comes to climate change.
Despite this reputation, the environment and energy subcommittees called four honest-to-God climate scientists to testify about one of the most controversial solutions to climate change: geoengineering. These technofixes, which could reflect sun back into space or draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, all with the intent to cool the planet, were front and center. Committee members were actually eager to hear about it and where the federal government could spend to help prop up research.
There was just one tiny problem: None of the Republicans could bring themselves to acknowledge that carbon dioxide is the root cause of climate change. Nor could they bring up that reducing carbon emissions is a way more proven and cost-effective avenue to address climate change. It was at once comical and damn terrifying.
The mental gymnastics required to hold the hearing and then spend the entire time ignoring the driving reason for discussing geoengineering was truly something else. Here’s how Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Environment Subcommittee, set the tone in his opening remarks:
“The hearing is not a platform to further the debate about climate change. Instead its aim is to explore approaches and technologies that have been discussed in the scientific community and to assess the basic research needed to understand the merits of these ideas.”
Um, what!? First off, there’s no debate on global warming. Human carbon pollution is responsible for all of it.
Second, how can you discuss on the merits of geoengineering without discussing climate change? The whole reason geoengineering is even being considered is because of climate change. You literally can’t talk about it or its merits without talking about climate change, the risks it poses, and the carbon pollution that’s causing it.
And yet Republicans tried to do just that, mentioning carbon dioxide in the general vicinity of climate change but never letting the two touch. Apparently their belief in abstinence-only education extends to atmosphere as well.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) is the retiring head of the Science Committee who has argued very wrongly that the public should ignore the “hysteria over carbon dioxide” and hounded climate scientists for years from his powerful position. Of the Republicans, he also got the closest to linking climate change and carbon dioxide:
“Generally we know that the technologies associated with geoengineering could have positive effects on the Earth’s atmosphere. These innovations could help reduce global temperature or pull excess greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.”
Not surprisingly, witnesses and Democratic committee members spoke broadly about the connection between the two. And though they didn’t call out Republicans directly, their statements made it clear we wouldn’t be talking about geoengineering if climate change weren’t a problem.
“Sunlight reflection methods are an interim solution that allows some breathing space while mitigation and adaptation measures take place,” Phil Rasch, the chief climate scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, said during his testimony.
Rasch and others also explained that cutting carbon emissions should be humanity’s first order of business even as we work to understand if geoengineering can buy us time. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), the ranking member on the Environment Subcommittee, even implored Biggs at one point to hold mitigation hearings to discuss solutions that are less risky than geoengineering.
And the risks are many. Reflecting sunlight back into space either using an array of space mirrors or injecting particles into the atmosphere would cool the planet. But they’d also dim the sky, affecting how crops grow. Even more alarmingly, they could alter rainfall patterns around the globe. It would also fail to address ocean acidification, which has been caused by rising carbon emissions.
The idea of sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere holds broader appeal but isn’t without risks either. It’s currently incredibly energy intensive and not feasible at a scale anywhere close to what we need yet. There’s also the issue of storage and if we’ll be able to safely sequester the carbon somewhere without it sneaking back into the atmosphere.
Here’s the thing with all of this. It’s amusing to watch Republicans contort themselves trying to discuss geoengineering without talking climate change. But it’s also deeply worrisome.
Under Lamar Smith, the Science Committee has been weaponized against climate change and making decisions based on sound science. The fact that Republicans on the committee instantly sound like they’re PhD candidates who want to know more about unproven, risky techniques while refusing to hold hearings on renewables is a big red flag. The fossil fuel companies that fund a lot of these Republicans are also very interested in carbon storage, which would allow them to continue with their current extraction-based business model.
Then there’s the bigger political landscape. Congressional Republicans have consistently fought climate action and are considering drilling for oil everywhere they can. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has rolled back climate regulations while populating appointee positions and advisory boards with fossil fuel industry shills and advocates.
“Drill baby drill” is the policy of the land as Republicans attempt to squeeze every last bit of oil, gas, and coal out of the ground. Their interest in geoengineering looks a lot more suspect in this light. It’s a sign they want to preserve the system that’s allowed the carbon bubble to build and are betting they’ll be well-positioned enough to be insulated when it finally pops.
And make no mistake, that bubble is going to pop. When it does, we’re going to wish Republicans had shown as much interest in the underlying drivers of climate change as the riskiest solutions.