Using Technology to Address Climate Change

Oral Testimony to the House Science Committee

Thank you for having me. It is an honor to testify before this committee. My name is Ted Nordhaus, and I’m the Founder and Executive Director of The Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank located in Oakland, California. My think tank counts among its senior fellows a number of prominent climate scientists, technologists, and social scientists. My testimony today will draw upon this work to present a synthesis — reflecting our assessment of the nature of climate risk, the uncertainties associated with action and inaction, and pragmatic steps that we might take today to address those risks.

Climate Science, Risk, and Uncertainty
To begin, let me offer a few observations about climate science and climate risk. First, there is a well-established scientific consensus regarding anthropogenic climate change. Global temperatures are rising, and that rise has been caused in significant part by greenhouse gas emissions emitted through combustion of fossil fuels. Second, and to the best of my knowledge, none of the witnesses called today, for either the majority or the minority, contest these well-established facts. Third, there are a range of uncertainties beyond this consensus, about the sensitivity of the climate, the likelihood of specific climate impacts, the capacity for adaptation, and the cost of mitigation that provide ample justification for either far-reaching and immediate action or no action whatsoever.

Climate Mitigation and Uncertainty
How, then, should policymakers respond? Let me first address climate mitigation policies. Efforts to cap, price, and regulate greenhouse gases have not much affected the trajectory of emissions anywhere. Under the best of circumstances, they have modestly tipped the scales toward lower carbon fuels and technologies. For this reason, the success of efforts to substantially drive decarbonization to levels that diverge from business as usual trajectories will depend primarily upon the availability of low-carbon technologies that are cheap and scalable.

Presently, there are important short term steps that federal policy-makers can take to ensure that America continues to see declining emissions at little cost to the American economy. Most important among these are measures to keep America’s existing fleet of nuclear reactors on-line. We should also abandon misguided efforts to bail out the coal industry. Reducing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases to levels sufficient to alter the trajectory of climate change, however, will require a concerted and collaborative effort between the public and private sectors to develop a range of low-cost, low-carbon technologies for the 70% of emissions in the United States that emanate from outside of the power sector – in the industrial, transportation, and agricultural sectors. These include advanced nuclear energy, carbon capture, advanced renewable and geothermal energy, and long-term energy storage capabilities. Even in the best case, however, decarbonization efforts alone are unlikely to limit global temperatures to two degrees Celsius.

Adaptation for a Hotter World
For this reason, climate adaptation will play a large role in determining how well human societies weather a changing climate over the coming decades and centuries. Infrastructure — sea walls and flood channels, modern housing and transportation networks, water and sewage systems, and similar — is what makes us resilient to extreme climatic events. As such, there are few things more impactful that this Congress could do to substantially improve our long-term prospects of adapting to climate change than agreeing to raise national investment in infrastructure substantially. So too recommitting ourselves to ensuring a comprehensive federal response to all natural disasters for all of America’s citizens.

In summary, climate policy debates have too often overemphasized mitigation at the expense of adaptation, focused on decarbonization at the expense of other mitigation pathways, attempted to make dirty energy expensive rather than clean energy cheap, and focused heavily upon renewable energy technologies to the exclusion of the broad suite of low-carbon technologies that will likely be necessary to deeply decarbonize the global economy.

Climate change is real, its origins are primarily anthropogenic, and it presents risks that are difficult to quantify but could be catastrophic. For this reason, reasonable measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change are prudent. Let me close then on a personal note. After two decades of working on this issue, I’ve concluded that America and the world would be much better served if all parties to the climate debate made an effort to turn down the rhetoric. Moderation, humility, and pragmatism will serve us better than bombast, alarmism, and denial in the face of the irresolvable uncertainties that the issue presents. I am committed to doing so. I invite all of you will join me in that resolve as well.

You can find my full written testimony here, and a video of the event here.