Energy Policy

Applying Science to Policy Issues


The application of science into policy decisions related to energy and climate is extremely important. Climate change is a hotly contested political issue at all scales of governance, but is perhaps most visible at the federal level. Generally, committees within the House and Senate hold hearings about issues they're considering for legislative action (like energy and climate policy) where they bring in a range of experts to testify about the issues and to inform their development of policy. Certainly the selection of those 'experts' is a calculated and choreographed exercise in strategy to ensure that the suggestions they offer align with other political goals.

In the House of Representatives, the following committees work on policy related to energy and climate:

The relevant committees in the Senate include:

If you look at Congress over any significant amount of time, you can feel like you are on a see saw! What we saw during the 116th Congress (2019-2021), which focused in part on climate change mitigation, was a dramatic departure from the 115th and 114th Congress. These Congresses were a step backwards in many ways to revisiting the issue of whether or not climate change is a) occurring at all and b) anthropogenic in nature (we also saw a lot of this in the 111th and 112th sessions). The most recently elected 117th Congress is unfortunately deprioritizing climate issues. 

This wasted time and effort disputing virtually unequivocal science could be used to produce meaningful energy legislation to create skilled labor jobs, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and propel us forward as a world leader in clean technologies. Clearly, the 2016 election drew a definitive line in the sand in terms of the direction energy and climate policy will take in the coming years. Things changed somewhat in 2018 and the 116th Congrss with the Democrats taking over the House, then dramatically in 2020 with the Biden Administration and a slim effective majority in the Senate (technically a 50/50 split, with the Vice President being the tie-breaking vote). It is difficult - okay impossible - to believe that the IRA or IIJA would have been feasible without this political dynamic. It is clear that who is in power matters significantly when it comes to policy priorities.

The recent IAC Report on the role of government seems particularly relevant to our discussion here, despite it being several years old now. What do we, and more importantly, what should we expect from our elected officials when it comes to integrating scientific understanding into our public policy?

While the later years of the Obama Administration brought forward such meaningful climate legislation progress like the Clean Power Plan and the US commitment to the Paris Agreements, prior to that, progress on large-scale environmental issues had waned considerably for several years, sparked in large part by the sharp economic downturn and recession. Environmental concerns became luxury issues, and were back-burnered for more immediately pressing needs in times of economic hardship. We can all understand and appreciate that to an extent but the challenge will be that the lines between immediate and future consequences of our environmental policies are becoming less clearly defined. Climate change is no longer a problem for future generations, it is our problem.

Have you watched much in the way of hearings and floor debates from Congress? It's as much a demonstration of theatrics and props as it is legislative concensus-building. Ylu may have heard about the infamous session during which JIm Imhoff famously throws a snowball as evidence that global warming is not occurring. That is the unfortunate reality of congressional hearings, and is something that impacts the political analysis of policies.

The theatrics come from both sides (though no Democrat has used a snowball as a prop), and I think it's important as we strive to be informed voters to observe how our elected officials on both sides of the aisle choose to conduct themselves in session and ensure it aligns with our own values.