WASHINGTON (CN) – Earth as we know it will look far different in a generation because of climate change and the future is bleak without bipartisan action by lawmakers to slow greenhouse gas emissions and overhaul the nation’s energy infrastructure, environmental experts told Congress on Wednesday.
Wednesday marked the first time in six years the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s subcommittee for environment and climate change met to discuss global warming.
A similar hearing also unfolded in the Senate on Wednesday morning, but with the newly Democratic-controlled House of Representatives in power and a resolution for a Green New Deal looming in the House, the subcommittee’s hearing represented the first of many steps towards crafting climate change legislation that may one day land on the president’s desk.
“With climate change, the cost of failure is existential. It will result in death, devastation, destruction of our economy and our environment. That is not an exaggeration. This is an assured outcome if we should fail,” Subcommittee Chairman Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., said Wednesday.
The warning was received stoically and in a stark contrast to last year’s congressional session. Republicans and Democrats on the subcommittee both agreed: climate change is real.
With that debate put to rest - at least within the committee - Tonko and ranking Republican Representative Greg Walden of Oregon sought guidance from an array of climate experts who offered diverse perspectives and suggestions to legislators on what the U.S. must begin considering today to limit catastrophe tomorrow.
The window to deploy new policy or technology that meaningfully mitigates climate change is only 12 years, said Dr. Brenda Ekwurzel, director of climate science at the Union of Concerned Scientists and co-author of the Fourth National Climate Assessment Report.
To limit global warming to a 1.5-degree Celsius threshold, emissions must return to 2010 levels and then drop another 45 percent by 2030.
“Given the scale of the changes needed and the time to lay the framework, this is the make or break decade to make the capital investments which reduce carbon dioxide levels,” Ekwurzel said.
Even a half degree more, an increase of 2 degrees Celsius, would have “major consequences.”
“If we hit 1.5 degrees by 2040 and 2 degrees by 2065, at that rate, nearly all coral reefs will be destroyed,” she said. “To hold temperatures at 1.5 degrees alone requires rapid and far-reaching transitions for land, urban and other infrastructure at an unprecedented scale.”
Rick Duke, former deputy director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change under former President Barack Obama, also testified.
“This is a momentum game. The faster we act, the easier it gets,” Duke said, noting that the U.S. would give itself both an environmental and economic advantage if it poured more funding into climate research and development.
Greater investment in renewable forms of energy means costs come down, he said.
“Bigger markets open up, including to exports. The virtuous cycle spurs incredible progress...We need to scale out zero-carbon electricity, broadly electrify vehicles and buildings,” Duke said. “Solutions that remove carbon from the atmosphere directly will soon play a bigger role.”
The idea is similar to what is found in a draft proposal of the Green New Deal launched by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Senator Ed Markey, D-Mass.
Their bill, in addition to guaranteeing green jobs, health care, housing and a living wage, calls for reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. It noticeably leaves out an explicit ban on fossil fuels.
This could be seen as an olive branch to Republicans who balk at the idea of no fossil fuel consumption.
Representative John Shimkus, R-Ill., expressed skepticism about such an approach.
“What is driving the increased global demand for fossil fuels? Why is it projected to remain the dominant source?” Shimkus asked Barry Worthington, executive director for the U.S. Energy Association.
“There’s a 2 billion population increase by mid-century,” Worthington said. “Fossil fuel provides energy to 1 billion people who don’t have it now. Increasing availability of energy to citizens today who don’t have reliable or affordable access is a United Nations sustainability goal. There are countries in Africa and Asia where electricity may only be available just three to four hours a day and that renders their economy helpless.”
On energy production, Worthington said his experience working with members of the U.N. has taught him one thing about the world’s devotion to fossil fuels.
“I speak with people who operate energy systems in other countries – China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, South Africa, Columbia – they all tell us they have every intention of continuing to use domestic fossil fuel resources because they don’t have to be imported, they’re abundant and affordable,” he said. “They tell us, ‘Don’t pay attention to what our government leaders say about weaning ourselves off. We’re going to continue to use it.’”
To reduce emissions by the rates proposed in legislation like the Green New Deal, Worthington said the U.S. would have to “deploy every low carbon or no-carbon attempt that is possible.”
“Can we do that now?” Shimkus asked.
“No, we need advanced technology and nuclear systems, better energy storage and better renewable carbon capture,” Worthington said. “But if we can put a man on the moon, we can solve a climate problem.”
The Reverend Leo Woodberry, who toured more than a dozen cities severely impacted by environmental pollution last year, pleaded with lawmakers to consider climate change from a moral – and logistical – perspective.
Communities all over America are rife with unemployed people who could be put to work on green initiatives in a competitive market, he said.
“We can debate forever whether or not climate change is real, but the problem is here and the problem is now and we need to build a wall of protection around citizens of this country,” Woodberry said. “A wall of mitigation, a wall of adaptation and a wall of resilience because the science is clear: whether we’re looking at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or at our own national climate assessment, the storms are going to get worse.”
“We don’t have enough time to see whether or not some technologies may work,” he added.
Woodberry told lawmakers he aims to take a proactive approach to mitigating the damage of climate change while uplifting those in poverty.
Last year, his organization, New Alpha Community Development Corporation, trained low-income residents across four states in solar installation. A similar program will be launched in Buckingham, Virginia next week.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.