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Congress just proved there is hope for honest discussion on climate

Congress just proved there is hope for honest discussion on climate
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This month the two of us — both climate scientists — testified about climate change and solutions before the science committee in the House of Representatives.

One of us was called to testify by the Democratic majority. One of us was called to testify by the Republican minority. In previous years, two witnesses in our roles would have been at odds, tasked with debating the severity or very existence of human-caused climate change. For a decade, congressional hearings on climate science were contentious and disconnected from physical reality. During a House Science Committee hearing just a year ago, Rep. Mo BrooksMorris (Mo) Jackson BrooksHillicon Valley: House votes to condemn QAnon | Americans worried about foreign election interference | DHS confirms request to tap protester phones House approves measure condemning QAnon, but 17 Republicans vote against it Overnight Defense: Trump hosts Israel, UAE, Bahrain for historic signing l Air Force reveals it secretly built and flew new fighter jet l Coronavirus creates delay in Pentagon research for alternative to 'forever chemicals' MORE of Alabama made headlines by suggesting that observed sea level rise is caused by erosion and rocks falling into the ocean — ignoring the real causes: melting ice and thermal expansion fueled by manmade global warming.

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But this time, instead of arguing, we agreed. We agreed that rising temperatures are being caused by industrial pollution, deforestation and other human activities. We agreed that the impacts on society are already occurring. And we agreed on the need for immediate action to avoid worse impacts. This shift is nothing short of a sea-change, long overdue. 

And our agreement was (largely) mirrored by the committee. We were thrilled that the vast majority of the committee’s questions focused on climate science, and how to address the impacts of climate change. An enormous amount of credit goes to House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairwoman Rep. Eddie Bernice JohnsonEddie Bernice JohnsonHillicon Valley: DOJ indicts Chinese, Malaysian hackers accused of targeting over 100 organizations | GOP senators raise concerns over Oracle-TikTok deal | QAnon awareness jumps in new poll House passes legislation to boost election security research Hillicon Valley: Twitter flags Trump campaign tweet of Biden clip as manipulated media | Democrats demand in-person election security briefings resume | Proposed rules to protect power grid raise concerns MORE (D-Texas) and Ranking Member Rep. Frank LucasFrank Dean LucasTrump administration signs AI research and development agreement with the UK OVERNIGHT ENERGY:  House passes sweeping clean energy bill | Pebble Mine CEO resigns over secretly recorded comments about government officials  | Corporations roll out climate goals amid growing pressure to deliver House passes sweeping clean energy bill MORE (R-Okla.). They set the tone for this civil, smart, and productive hearing. 

Our hearing wasn’t an outlier. Days before, Rep. Greg WaldenGregory (Greg) Paul WaldenHillicon Valley: Leadership changes at top cyber agency raise national security concerns | Snapchat launches in-app video platform 'Spotlight' | Uber, Lyft awarded federal transportation contract Lawmakers urge FCC to assist in effort to rip out, replace suspect network equipment OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee | Forest Service finalizes rule weakening environmental review of its projects | Biden to enlist Agriculture, Transportation agencies in climate fight MORE (R-Ore.), Rep. Fred UptonFrederick (Fred) Stephen UptonPressure grows from GOP for Trump to recognize Biden election win Republican Michigan congressman: 'The people have spoken' GOP lawmaker patience runs thin with Trump tactics MORE (R-MIich, and Rep. John ShimkusJohn Mondy ShimkusHere are the 17 GOP women newly elected to the House this year Asbestos ban stalls in Congress amid partisan fight Women rise on K Street — slowly MORE (R-Ill.) published an op-ed declaring, “Climate change is real, and as Republican Leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, we are focused on solutions.”

Also, the previous week, a House Natural Resources subcommittee hearing addressed how climate change hurts forests, public lands and national parks. According to E&E News, Rep. Jared HuffmanJared William HuffmanBickering Democrats return with divisions Lobbying world OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Democrats push expansion of offshore wind, block offshore drilling with ocean energy bill | Poll: Two-thirds of voters support Biden climate plan | Biden plan lags Green New Deal in fighting emissions from homes MORE (D-Cali.) applauded Republicans for calling a scientist to testify who "firmly reflects the mainstream of the global scientific community." 

It is still an open question as to whether Congress will commit the necessary resources, and put in place policies, to create the low-carbon future that science shows we need to stabilize our climate. If we have turned a corner, we recognize that our journey is not complete. There are a few dogged members of Congress, reflecting a shrinking segment of the public, who claim they understand climate change better than the scientific community.

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But refreshingly, in our committee hearing, we heard a return to a functional and honest discussion of climate science. We talked about an aggressive shift to low-carbon energy. We talked about the potential of technology to reduce emissions and capture carbon from the atmosphere. We talked about how there is no magic bullet for climate and plenty of room for compromise over how to move forward.

These are the debates and conversations that we should have been holding all along. And, to repurpose a well-known expression, the best time to start having serious conversations about climate change was 30 years ago. The second best time is now.

Jennifer Francis, Ph.D., is a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center.

Joseph Majkut, Ph.D., is director of climate policy at the Niskanen Center.