Congressional Hearing Focuses on Earth’s Changing Cryosphere

On January 15, a panel of earth science and environmental communicators addressed the House Committee on Science, Space, & Technology in Washington. Among the experts advising how the United States should be addressing the climate crisis were Heidi Steltzer, a professor at Fort Lewis College in Colorado and a lead author of the IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, and Pamela McElwee, a professor at Rutgers University and a lead author of the IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land.

The hearing presented a major opportunity for the scientific community to communicate their research and their concerns to Congress. In the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, climate hearings occur with regularity, however, the attention given to the cryosphere and mountain regions during this set of presentations was particularly noteworthy.

Heidi Steltzer (center) and Pamela McElwee (first from left) testifying in front of the House Committee on Science, Space, & Technology (Source: Heidi Steltzer)

The IPCC report, which Steltzer co-authored, highlights the consequences of climate change for the ocean and cryosphere––Earth’s frozen areas. Climate change is increasing the vulnerability of high mountain and coastal communities. Despite the growing threats posed by the climate crisis, the IPCC projects these populations, which number in the hundreds of millions, to continue to grow over the next few decades.

According to the IPCC report Steltzer was involved with, ice sheets and glaciers globally have shrunk within recent decades. The world’s oceans have continued to warm since the 1970s and increased absorption of CO2 has caused ocean acidification. Within the last few decades, warming, melting glaciers, and ice loss from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have caused an increase in global mean sea level rise.

Adaptation activities in high mountain regions (Source: IPCC\SROCC)

Steltzer and her fellow panelists presented the findings of the IPCC Climate Change and Land Report as well as related research and climate change concerns. The experts testifying included Steltzer and McElwee, Richard Murray, Deputy Director of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Michael Shellenberger, founder of Environmental Progress, and Taryn Fransen, senior fellow at the Global Climate Program, World Resources Institute.

During her testimony, Steltzer communicated the observed changes to Earth’s cryosphere and commented on climate tipping points. In an interview with GlacierHub, Steltzer explained that the global community largely acknowledges the threat of climate change and there are experts working to address these concerns. However, she cautioned, “we have to recognize that it will take time for the political will to get there and the corporate will to get there too.”

Steltzer emphasized resilience during her testimony, describing how the US can increase its resilience to cope with, adapt to, and reduce the effects of climate change. In an increasingly polarized political landscape, she aimed to make her testimony relatable by advocating for climate resilience. “There was more common ground than I realized,” she told GlacierHub.

Steltzer also drew attention to the “good neighbors” principle––the idea that nations should practice sustainability and enact climate change policies not only for their own benefit, but for neighboring countries and the entire global community. “We should model the behaviors we want to see in the world,” she said.

McElwee, who presented on the IPCC Climate Change and Land Report, also addressed climate change policies in today’s political climate, offering a different perspective than Steltzer’s. Leveling blame at Republicans in Congress for undermining the urgency of climate legislation, she said “One political party wants to do nothing, or at the most, spend money on specific “solutions” like nuclear or carbon capture and storage, funding that would benefit large industries that may support them politically.” McElwee urged the public to read the written statements submitted to Congress, in addition to viewing the recorded testimony, which, she says, will reveal which of the witnesses held to facts and backed their statements with peer-reviewed evidence.

A meeting of the High Mountains chapter of the Special Report on Oceans and Cryosphere in Lanzhou, China (Source: Ben Orlove)

McElwee hoped her testimony would highlight the need for mitigation and adaptation based climate change solutions. McElwee presented the findings of the IPCC report to show that climate change has already impacted land in significant ways. A key takeaway she wanted representatives to absorb from her testimony was that “land-based solutions can be cost-effective, but they are not a panacea for failing to reduce fuel emissions.”

Steltzer also left the congressional hearing with a feeling of hope, though of a different sort than McElwee’s. She explained to GlacierHub that many of the representatives spoke about sponsoring some sort of climate policy. Steltzer said that she felt honored to contribute directly to these discussions and to represent not only her scientific field, but also her local community. Many of Steltzer’s friends and neighbors in her rural Colorado neighborhood watched the hearing and thanked her for her contribution. She found that it was meaningful to connect the climate change conversation to her community.

Heidi Steltzer front row, left) at a lead author’s meeting for the Special Report on Oceans and Cryosphere in Kazan, Russia (Source: Ben Orlove)

Steltzer and McElwee concurred on the great value of having scientists speak directly to the public. McElwee emphasized the importance of communicating climate science to government representatives. Explaining why researchers should continue to testify in front of Congress, she said, “I think scientists asked to play this role need to step up and do it, even if it’s not clear how it might advance a science agenda or move the needle on climate change.”

To improve science communication, Steltzer would like to create more speaking opportunities for people who live near glaciers, in high mountain regions, and people whose water source comes from glaciers can speak to their experiences. “I want to see us create a space for people who are living in glacier-dominated regions to speak to their concerns of culture and the changing impacts to their water supply.”

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