Front and Center

Pamela McElwee testifies to Congress about climate change’s impact on land

By Craig Winston

Pamela McElwee testifies to Congress about climate change’s impact on land
Pamela McElwee

Pamela McElwee is an associate professor in the Department of Human Ecology in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences and on the faculty of the Rutgers Institute of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. Her research focuses on biodiversity conservation, ecosystem services, and climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Last month, she was a witness before the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology for a hearing entitled “An Update on the Climate Crisis: From Science to Solutions.” Her remarks were based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Climate Change and Land, of which she was a lead author. She addressed the findings of the report, including recommended steps that Congress could take toward possible solutions. EOAS staff writer Craig Winston asked her some questions about her experience testifying before Congress. 

What was your role on the IPCC report?

I served as a lead author for Chapter 6 of the report, a contributing author for Chapter 7, and as a drafting author of the Summary for Policymakers. That meant that I got to go to the plenary adoption in Geneva in August 2019 to be available for questions from government delegations. I sat on the podium taking questions for several of the last days of the plenary, including one marathon 33-hour session at the end that I had to stay up all night for.  

What did you talk about to the committee in your testimony?

I primarily wanted to emphasize in my oral testimony and answers to questions that climate solutions for the land sector need to include both mitigation and adaptation, that these land-based solutions can be cost-effective (but they are not a panacea for failing to reduce fossil fuel emissions), and that climate impacts on land are already real and significant. My written testimony was a more in-depth summary of the key findings of the SRCCL (Special Report on Climate Change and Land) report that land is under growing pressure, and that land can be part of the climate solution, but that land cannot do it all. 

Among the many dire predictions in the report, food security and water resources certainly stand out. When might those effects become increasingly evident?

Climate change is going to make food production for a growing global population even more challenging. Our food systems are both vulnerable to climate impacts, and a source of emissions that increase our climate risks. Crop and livestock production is going to be negatively impacted both by direct and indirect climate impacts, namely increasing temperatures that cause heat stress in plants and animals; changes in rainfall that can cause droughts and floods, making it harder to grow crops in certain seasons and certain places; and reduced crop quality, such as a decline in micronutrients in some staple crops as a result of CO2 fertilization. How serious these impacts will be depend on our ability to adapt, and how emissions levels and high temperature increases get. One important point of our report is that many of these challenges are already here; we are already seeing yield reductions in some crops in the low-latitudes, and regional food production declines and food price instability following extreme events, like the heat and droughts in southern Europe last summer.

How rigorous was it helping to prepare your testimony? 

I spent nearly a week writing the written submission and preparing for the hearing with fellow IPCC authors who quizzed me on likely questions. I also did some background research on the various members of the committee so I could answer questions related to their districts where possible. It was time-consuming and took away from my own personal research and work. But 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 policy. Maybe we were able to convey the urgency of the problem to some members, and hopefully that will help the majority pass a comprehensive climate bill this session. 

What feedback did you receive from the Representatives after the hearing or feedback in general from anyone who may have seen the proceedings? 

I did not really get much feedback. There was a lot happening in D.C. with the impeachment; the House voted to send the articles to the Senate the exact morning the climate hearing was going on, so it got drowned out a bit. However, some other IPCC authors who watched the hearing said they thought the parts where we explained the state of the science were a good representation of the reports we worked on, and I got the key messages of our land report across effectively.

All of your questions directed to you came from Democrats on the committee. How would you characterize the questions of the Republicans on the committee?

I received one question from a Republican about how to force other countries to undertake emissions cuts (which is not a science question related to the report). I was surprised more Republicans who represent agricultural states weren’t interested in talking about how their farmers are going to be impacted by climate change, and what they can do to mitigate and adapt to it. All the Republicans were primarily focused on energy use, rather than the state of climate science, which was the supposed focus of the hearing. The witness that they called was a pro-nuclear writer, and so they primarily wanted to discuss nuclear energy with him in their questions. I think it was a missed opportunity for many of them to engage more with some of the most recent climate science assessments that have real consequences for their districts back home. 

You’re spending time on research leave this year as a 2019 Andrew Carnegie Fellow. What have you been working on?

I spent time in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., earlier this year related to a new book I am writing [tentatively titled “Rivers of Blood, Mountains of Bone: An Environmental History of the Vietnam War and After”] on the long-term environmental effects of the Vietnam War, a country I have spent considerable time doing research in. I will be heading to Vietnam for several months more work later this spring.