By Michael Brooks
WASHINGTON — Having regained control of the House of Representatives after eight years in the minority, Democrats have put a lot on their plate, including investigating President Trump’s finances and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
But last week, House Democrats added climate change to their agenda, with two committees holding hearings on the topic simultaneously Wednesday, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (Mass.) introducing the “Green New Deal” on Thursday.
The hearings came the same day that NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that 2018 was the fourth hottest year on record, with the average global surface temperature for the year coming in only behind those of the previous three.
Since the 1880s, the average temperature has risen about 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit), according to climate scientists. A report released in October by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that catastrophic effects from climate change could occur as soon as 2040, when warming is expected to reach 1.5 C if the current rate continues. International efforts, such as the 2015 Paris Agreement, have so far focused on preventing only a 2-degree C increase. (See IPCC: Urgent Action Needed to Avoid Climate Trigger.)
The IPCC report said the impacts of climate change are already being felt in increased storm intensity, precipitation, wildfires and heat waves; rising sea levels from melting polar ice; and the nearing extinction of several species, including coral.
It was these effects that the hearings by the House Natural Resources Committee and the Energy and Commerce Committee, and their witnesses, focused on during Wednesday’s hearings.
“Our communities are paying the price for years of inaction on this issue,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chair of the Natural Resources Committee. “The massive and unprecedented storms, heat waves, fires and droughts we are experiencing are not normal. They are being made worse by climate change, and if we don’t take action now, we’re only at the beginning.”
Climate change “goes by many different names: Sandy, Harvey, Maria, Katrina, Camp Fire,” said Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), chair of the E&C Committee’s newly renamed Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change.
Many of the Democratic committee members used their allotted time to talk about the natural disasters unique to their states; Californians especially focused on the wildfires of the past few years.
Similarly, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) told the Natural Resources Committee about the challenges their states have faced.
“We’ve weathered two so-called 500-year floods in two years and three in fewer than 20 years,” Cooper said. “In the Western North Carolina mountains, volatile weather has caused mudslides, damaged infrastructure, cost apple growers valuable crops and forced ski areas to close mid-season, hurting local businesses and putting jobs in jeopardy.”
“Shortly after taking office in January of 2015, the snow started falling, hard, and it didn’t end until well into April,” Baker said. “What was different about those storms was the sheer volume of snowfall, with record-breaking amounts in Worcester and Boston.”
Most of the Natural Resources Committee’s witnesses after the governors were environmental and social activists, who spoke of how climate change would hit poor and minority communities the hardest.
“As a poor and working-class community, housing displacement and disruption of services due to storms and other severe weather affect our people much more acutely compared to resident of affluent communities with more resources,” said Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of UPROSE, an organization representing the Latino community in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood.
Only two scientists appeared on the panel, one of whom, Judith Curry, was invited by Republicans and downplayed the severity of the threat. “Both the problem and its solution have been vastly oversimplified,” said Curry, president of the Climate Forecast Applications Network and former chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Some Republicans at the hearings questioned the science of climate change, asking questions such as whether this was the hottest the planet has been, or whether extreme heat or extreme cold kills more people.
One GOP member of the Natural Resources Committee, Louis Gohmert (Texas), asked Curry, “Do you think we’re causing the polar ice caps on Mars to melt? … That’s probably the sun.”
The Republicans that did not question the science criticized the economic costs and job losses associated with closing down fossil fuel plants, said renewable resources are less reliable than baseload plants and rejected proposed solutions as infeasible.
“We want a healthy environment for our children, grandchildren and their children,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), ranking member of the E&C Committee. “But we also want the people who live in our districts and in this country today, right now, to have jobs and to be able to provide for their families. These are not mutually exclusive principles. Working together, we can develop the public policies to achieve these goals.”
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee, criticized Grijalva for even holding a hearing on climate change, saying it wasn’t in the committee’s jurisdiction. Instead, he said he wanted the committee to focus on issues such as wildfire management and National Parks maintenance.
“Are these hearings simply for those of us around the horseshoe who are going to be making legislation, or are these hearings simply for those who sit around that table in the corner so they can write cute stories?” Bishop asked, pointing to the table of reporters seated next to the witness table.
He noted that Grijalva had dubbed February “climate change month.”
“I appreciate the fact you picked the shortest month of the year to do that,” Bishop said.
Ironically, between the two governors at the hearing, Baker received most of the Republicans’ criticism. Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) cited the failure of two wind turbines in Falmouth, Mass. The town spent about $10 million to build the turbines in 2009 and 2011. Last month, the town’s Board of Selectmen voted to shut down the turbines and potentially spend millions more dismantling them after residents continually complained of noise.
Baker responded by saying, “My father always used to say that there’s two things: There’s doing the right thing, and then there’s doing the thing right. And doing the right thing but doing it wrong doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. There were a whole series of issues with a well-intended effort in Falmouth that in many respects failed because they didn’t make a lot of the decisions with respect to where they sited them and how they sited them that would have made sense. …
“I think sometimes when something doesn’t go the way it should go, everybody blames the concept. Well sometimes we actually just screw up the way we implement it, and it makes the concept looks bad.”
Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) noted that his state was one of the top oil and gas producers in the country, while Massachusetts was one of the top oil and gas consumers. “How do you reconcile what you’re able to do based on your economy versus the challenges in Louisiana based on what our economy is founded on?” he asked Baker.
The governor began to explain how despite productivity and population growth, the state has reduced its emissions. Graves interrupted him, saying, “I do appreciate that you all have taken steps, I do. But I also think it’s important to recognize that states in some cases are fundamentally different.” He pointed out that Massachusetts’ electricity prices are among the highest in the U.S.
Green New Deal
Republicans at the hearings also criticized the so-called “Green New Deal,” a set of goals floated by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party after last year’s midterm elections.
On Thursday, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, with 60 co-sponsors, formally introduced the idea in the House as a nonbinding resolution, with Sen. Markey introducing an identical resolution in the Senate.
The 14-page document calls for “a 10-year national mobilization… to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.”
The resolution also contains a hodge-podge of goals, including achieving “maximum energy efficiency” from all existing buildings and “spurring massive growth in clean manufacturing in the United States and removing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing and industry.”
“A new national, social, industrial and economic mobilization on a scale not seen since World War II and the New Deal era is a historic opportunity to create millions of good, high-wage jobs in the United States; to provide unprecedented levels of prosperity and economic security for all people of the United States; and to counteract systemic injustices,” the resolution says.
Specific policy proposals to achieve these goals, however, are absent from the document. And with Republicans still in control of the Senate and the White House, any legislation attempting to codify them is almost guaranteed to fail for the next two years.
Rather, many analysts last week saw the document — and the focus on climate change among Democrats this month in general — as more of a political rallying cry for the party ahead of the 2020 elections.
“It actually will be impossible to enact a Green New Deal while Trump is in the White House, but the resolution still has two useful purposes,” Michael Grunwald wrote in Politico Magazine last week. “It’s primarily a political manifesto, a messaging device designed to commit the Democratic Party to treating the climate crisis like a real crisis, pressuring its presidential candidates to support radical transformation of the fossil-fueled economy. At the same time, the Green New Deal is a policy proposal — or at least a sketch of one, a way to launch a substantive debate over how Democrats will attack the crisis if they do regain the White House.”
“In an increasingly social-media-driven political culture, the bill’s sponsors may be looking to generate ‘likes’ … rather than votes,” ClearView Energy Partners said.
Several Democratic contenders for president endorsed the Green New Deal on Twitter last week, including Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.).
Republicans predictably lambasted the document.
“It’s a socialist manifesto that lays out a laundry list of government giveaways, including guaranteed food, housing, college, and economic security even for those who refuse to work,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement. “As Democrats take a hard left turn, this radical proposal would take our growing economy off the cliff and our nation into bankruptcy. It’s the first step down a dark path to socialism.”