Action on climate change is crucial

This week we mark the 44th anniversary of Earth Day, when people from across the country and the world will come together in collective action to work toward a more sustainable and cleaner future.

Yet sadly, here in Congress, we will gavel in yet another week of inaction on one of our most pressing and serious challenges: climate change.

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I remember when the Republican Party was considered a responsible steward of the environment. But today, it’s moved far from its environmental leaders, like the great conservationist President Teddy Roosevelt, or even President Richard Nixon (hardly a liberal), who ushered in the first Earth Day and created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

How ironic that this same party now reviles the EPA, rejects overwhelming scientific evidence, votes repeatedly to gut Clean Air and Clean Water protections and willfully embraces broad anti-empiricism when it comes to sustainability.

Congressional intransigence cannot be an excuse for inaction. As co-chairman of the Sustainable Energy and Environmental Caucus, with Reps. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) and Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), we “Green Dogs” understand the urgency to act on climate change. Its effects are felt in every congressional district, whether it is the threat of sea-level rise on our coasts, the greater incidence of extreme weather events or extended periods of drought and longer wildfire seasons.

All told, in 2011 and 2012 there were 25 extreme weather events across our nation that caused more than $1 billion in damage. And between 2011 and 2013, the federal government spent $136 billion on disaster relief. That’s almost $400 per year for every household in the United States. Clearly, we can no longer afford inaction.

Responding to global climate change might appear to be a daunting task, but as elected leaders we can and must make strategic investments to reduce our own emissions and lead by example within our communities.

Prior to being elected to Congress, I was chairman of Fairfax County, Va., one of the largest counties in the country with a population of 1.1 million. With little prospect of the Bush administration tackling climate change, we decided to embark on an ambitious agenda to reduce our carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

We invested resources to increase energy and fuel efficiency in government and expanded recycling programs. We embraced green buildings, promoted wind power, encouraged rain gardens and pervious pavers to reduce storm water runoff, and we retrofitted our fleet of 3,600 vehicles with hybrids. We also practiced a robust program of protecting open space and increasing the tree canopy in the county.

Today, Fairfax County is well on its way to meet the goals we set.

But just as important as these investments were, we also educated our constituents that little things can add up to make a big difference. For example, did you know that if every electric utility customer in Northern Virginia switched 10 incandescent light bulbs to LED bulbs we would eliminate the need for another power plant in the state? This small act will have a huge impact in cutting our carbon footprint.

In many ways, at the local level, we saw ourselves as a laboratory on sustainability whose model could hopefully be replicated in local communities across the country. Today, more than 600 communities have adopted similar plans. But a problem as serious as climate change can’t only be solved at the local level. Pollution and smog know no state or local boundaries. These complex issues must be met with a broad and comprehensive strategy.

The president has helped in this effort and I support his climate action plan in setting a goal of 20 percent renewables by 2020, cutting carbon emissions from new power plants, and raising car efficiency standards to 35 miles per gallon with a goal of 54.5 miles per gallon in 2025. But Congress has to work with the president.

As a coalition, the Sustainable Energy and Environmental Caucus has consistently made the case that we must be willing to make strategic investments across the board in clean and renewable energy sources, in energy efficiency and resilient technology, and in research and development to find future energy sources and better ways to distribute that energy. This is why I have introduced legislation with Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) that would transition the U.S. Postal Service’s aging truck fleet to electric cars, and have supported efforts to expand energy efficiency in federal buildings.

But none of this can happen if Congress refuses to be a partner.

Great nations, great generations and great leaders are willing to do big and sometimes tough things. Past Congresses have demonstrated this leadership. So let’s not think small. It’s time Congress makes an investment in American ingenuity and promotes a bright and sustainable future.

Connolly has represented Virginia’s 11th Congressional District since 2009. He sits on the Foreign Affairs; and the Oversight and Government Reform committees, and is co-chairman of House Sustainable Energy and Environmental Caucus.