Missing in action on climate change

Our nation faces numerous energy challenges, and we have examined many of them in the Energy and Commerce Committee. We have held hearings on topics from pipeline safety to gasoline prices to Arctic drilling.

But the biggest energy problem we face — by far — is climate change. And on this paramount issue, our committee has been missing in action.

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The energy policy decisions that we and other nations make today will determine whether we can prevent the worst impacts of climate change in the future. When we ignore the effects on climate, we risk locking in infrastructure that will produce carbon pollution for decades to come or creating stranded investments that must be shut down before they have served their useful life. Both are bad outcomes. 

The starting point for understanding the threat to our climate should be the science. At last week’s Energy and Power subcommittee hearing, one Republican member asked electric utility executives whether climate change was caused by human activity. It’s “reality,” said one. When the member pressed for a definitive answer, the executive confessed that he was not a climate scientist.

The question deserves a definitive answer and has, in fact, already been answered by researchers throughout the nation and around the world. But the committee will not hold hearings to understand the science. During the last Congress, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), the ranking member of the Energy and Power subcommittee, and I wrote 21 letters to Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) requesting hearings on climate change. We requested witnesses from the National Academy of Sciences, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the International Energy Agency, the World Bank, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and even the Vatican, all of whom had produced significant new reports or data. We requested to hear from researchers warning of harm to agriculture, national security, marine ecosystems, energy generation assets and communities affected by extreme weather and wildfires. 

We never even got a response to our letters. 

This Congress, when the committee considered its oversight plan to chart its course over the next two years, Democrats offered amendments to call for hearings with scientists so committee members would know the gravity of the threat we face. 

Every Republican on the committee voted against these hearings. 

As the respected science journal Nature wrote in an editorial last Congress, “Republicans on the House of Representatives’ energy and commerce committee have made clear their disdain for climate science. ... It has been an embarrassing display, not just for the Republican Party but also for Congress and the U.S. citizens it represents.”

We are abandoning our obligation to American families, future generations and our industries to govern responsibly. At last week’s hearing, several major utilities — American Electric Power, Xcel and Entergy — all testified that enacting climate change legislation was the best way to move forward. But the defining energy challenge of our time is not on our agenda.

One immediate consequence of the committee’s stance is that leadership on energy policy will default to the executive branch. President Obama is determined to protect Americans from the superstorms, floods, droughts and wildfires that are the consequence of carbon pollution. He and his administration need to act forcefully if Congress fails to do so.

I co-chair the Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change along with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). Earlier this year, we wrote to more than 300 diverse organizations — from the Sierra Club to Southern Co. — to ask for their best ideas for addressing climate change. We want to know what steps the administration can take to rein in carbon pollution and build communities that are more resilient to extreme weather events. We are already learning from the responses that the administration has many tools to act. 

But the U.S. response would be stronger and quicker if the political parties agreed on the basic goal of reducing our carbon pollution. 

The Republican Party was not always the party of science denial. There has been a long history of bipartisanship on environmental issues. When I worked on the Clean Air Act of 1990, my closest allies included Republicans like Reps. Jerry Lewis from California, Sherry Boehlert from New York and Ed Madigan from Illinois. Former President George H.W. Bush campaigned on strengthening the Clean Air Act. 

Ultimately, the Republican Party’s position on climate change is not sustainable. With each new storm, drought and wildfire, public opinion is shifting and demand for real solutions will grow. But the question is whether we will act in time to prevent catastrophic, irreversible impacts. Doing so is a moral imperative of our time.

Waxman is the ranking member on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.