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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

CRS Issue Statement on Climate Change: Science and Emerging Technologies

Jane A. Leggett, Coordinator
Specialist in Energy and Environmental Policy

Without radical changes globally from current policies and economic trajectories, experts uniformly expect that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will continue to grow and lead to continued warming of the Earth's climate. Experts disagree, however, on the timing, magnitude and patterns of future climate changes. While important uncertainties remain concerning future climate change and its impacts, many experts are convinced that the evidence calls for U.S. action to abate GHG emissions. The economic stakes are potentially large—with both the costs of controls and the "costs of inaction" ranging, by some estimates, into trillions of dollars over several decades. 

Most in Congress support continued research on climate change science, both to expand knowledge and to support decision-making. Many have concluded that the scientific foundation for policy decisions regarding climate change is robust. Some support reassessment of the utility of various lines of inquiry and of priorities within the research program, with greater inclusion of private and public users of the science in priority-setting. One challenge is how to transition research activities into on-going programmatic operations, such as for Earth observations. Another is improving coherence and accessibility of research and observations, as might be accomplished through proposed national climate services (akin to the National Weather Service). Data archiving and management has been a growing priority as information accumulates and attention to the climate change issue increases demand for access to data from a wide array of users. 

In recent years, research has expanded rapidly on technologies that may help to mitigate greenhouse gases and slow climate change. This also helps to address one significant obstacle to consensus—concern about the potential costs of abating GHG emissions, since deep reductions would require extraordinary changes in energy use and technologies. Many in Congress are interested in existing and innovative mitigation technologies, such as solar and wind generation; biochar and other methods of biological sequestration; biofuels; carbon capture and sequestration; methane capture and reuse; etc. As climate change progresses and threatens to accelerate or cause catastrophic impacts, more interest is being given to "geo-engineering" solutions, that may manipulate massive parts of Earth's systems, such as the balance of incoming and outgoing radiation, or large-scale vegetation change, with benefits and ancillary implications that have yet to be explored. Some technologies may present opportunities to expand manufacturing and employment; some may also be subject to significant international trade and competition. Many efforts in technology development, deployment and cost reductions would also benefit from targeted international efforts. 

Congress appropriations several billion dollars for science and technology relating to climate change, and President Obama has proposed to raise these investments by an order of magnitude. Difficult policy questions include appropriate government versus private roles; which policy tools may be most efficient and effective in stimulating desired change; how much and under what conditions to collaborate internationally on advancing technologies; and the interactions between GHG reduction policies and rates of technological advance.

Date of Report: January 8, 2010
Number of Pages: 3
Order Number: IS41021
Price: $19.95

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