My Opening Statement Before the Senate Banking Committee Today

Below, please find my opening statement. You can find my full written testimony here in PDF.

Chairman Brown, Ranking Member Toomey and the entire committee,

Thank you for the opportunity to share my perspectives today remotely.

I am a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and I have studied the use of science in policy for more than 25 years, including a long-term focus on climate.

Unfortunately, key scientific guidance on climate that informs policy– including central bank climate stress testing and U.S. government estimates of the social cost of carbon – has departed from basic standards of scientific integrity.

A main reason for this departure is that climate science has increasingly been enlisted in support of policy advocacy rather than to inform policy debates and decisions.

Today I Have Five Points to Make

FIRST, I emphasize that human-caused climate change is real, it poses significant risks, and policy responses in mitigation and adaptation are necessary and make good sense.

SECOND, the reality and importance of climate change does not excuse failures to provide up-to-date and accurate scientific advice to policy makers.

In 1990, the U.S. Congress established the interagency U.S. Global Change Research Program to provide “usable information on which to base policy decisions relating to global change” – with a key product being the U.S. National Climate Assessment every four years.

In practice, however, the National Climate Assessment has been politicized in varying degrees by both Democratic and Republican administrations. It has been used less as a mechanism of science advice than as a tool for promoting the climate policy agenda of the president.

THIRD, shortfalls in scientific integrity matter because right now policy makers are being badly misled in a number of crucial areas. Here I will briefly cite two examples:

  1. Climate scenarios that underlie much of research on climate, its impacts and policy responses are badly outdated and no longer offer insight to plausible futures. It is analogous to focusing our nation’s current foreign policy on the Soviet Union – once that made sense but now it would just be out of date. The out-of-date climate scenarios are not off by just a little – for instance they assume the dramatic expansion of coal energy to a level 6 times that of today, such that it becomes our primary energy source, and we decide to use coal to fuel our cars. No one believes this is plausible. Yet, there it is at the center of our most widely used climate scenarios.
  2. Economic losses associated with extreme events are routinely attributed to changes in climate, while changes in society and its exposure and vulnerability – which also profoundly influence future risks — are largely deemphasized. Every day, somewhere on planet earth extreme weather events are happening. With 21st century communication technology and platforms we are all able to witness disasters in ways that in earlier times just wasn’t possible. But the visceral appreciation of extremes and their impacts is no substitute for data and evidence. These data and evidence indicate that since at least 1990 when data first became reliable economic damages associated with extreme weather have in fact decreased when measured in the context of global GDP. This pattern has occurred in countries of all income levels. It is good news and we want it to continue.

In contrast, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – one of the nation’s leading science agencies with a strong staff and important mission – routinely promotes a “billion dollar disaster” list of events since 1980 to suggest that disasters and their costs are increasing dramatically due to climate change. What the dataset really indicates is growing wealth in locations exposed to loss. We should always use climate data to document climate trends, not economic data. Every time you see economic damage invoked as evidence of human-caused climate change you should think instead about the state of scientific integrity in climate.

FOURTH, shortfalls in robust science advice on climate are more than just an academic issue – they also show up in important policy contexts. Here I will briefly cite just two, which are discussed in more detail and with data in my written testimony:

  1. Proposals for “climate stress testing” in the global and national financial systems are grounded in the use of outdated scenarios. These scenarios include those of the Network for Greening the Financial System and the International Monetary Fund. If the baseline scenarios used to project policy futures are out of date, so too will be any guidance that results from their use.
  • The estimated “social cost of carbon” of the Biden, Trump and Obama administrations each has similarly relied on outdated scenarios with roots decades ago. Again, following guidance from impossible futures is not a good recipe for useful science advice. Worse, it can mislead.

These are a problems that require immediate fixing.

FIFTH and finally, Climate change is too important to allow shortfalls of scientific integrity in science advice to persist. Congress should enhance its oversight of the U.S. Global Change Research Program and its National Climate Assessment to ensure that the scientific advice that it receives is up-to-date and accurate. The mechanisms are in place – they need to be matched by a bipartisan commitment to securing robust science advice.

The bottom line?

At present there are troubling signs that Congress and the federal agencies are not receiving the high-quality advice necessary to inform decision making on climate mitigation and adaptation policies.

Thank you very much.

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