Climate change on front burner after 8 years of GOP rule

Climate change on front burner after 8 years of GOP rule
© Greg Nash

For the first time in years, the House will hold two congressional hearings on fighting climate change this week, breaking with the skepticism that prevailed during the past eight years of GOP leadership.

The simultaneous 10 a.m. hearings Wednesday in neighboring Capitol Hill buildings represent an unprecedented push by the new Democratic majority to put climate front and center in their agenda after Republican resistance to policies that would regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

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The events in the Energy and Commerce and the Natural Resources committees — the panels that oversee the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Interior Department, respectively — will be the first hearing for both committees in the 116th Congress. 

Dan Lashof, U.S. director for the World Resources Institute, said the timing is notable, both for the messaging strategy and the policy implications.

“It is significant that these are some of the first hearings of the 116th Congress and that the focus is on solutions,” Lashof said. “The message is important, but more than that, Congress has an opportunity to make progress by enacting incremental bipartisan bills this year while laying the groundwork for more sweeping legislation.” 

The hearings will be a key indicator of where Democrats plan to go on climate, how they will integrate scientific studies such as last year’s United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and how aggressively they will move toward drafting legislation to cut greenhouse gas emissions and help communities adjust to the impacts.

The hearings won’t be the only climate effort by Democrats this week. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezFeminists should thank God for capitalism Progressive group comes out against Biden's White House bid Trump says Ocasio-Cortez is 'correct' in comments about VA MORE (D-N.Y.) is expected to introduced legislation soon with Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyHillicon Valley: Facebook expects up to B FTC fine | DHS face scanning at airports sparks alarm | New Twitter tool targets election misinformation | Lawmakers want answers on Google 'Sensorvault' Dems accuse White House of caving to Trump's 'ego' on Russian meddling The Hill's Morning Report - Will Joe Biden's unifying strategy work? MORE (D-Mass.) to put power behind her Green New Deal push.

The new bill is expected to focus on crafting a plan to bring the country to 100 percent renewable electricity and eliminating fossil fuels from industries such as transportation and manufacturing.

The environmental focus by Democrats, which began almost immediately after they won control of the House in November, includes aggressively fighting President TrumpDonald John TrumpForget the spin: Five unrefuted Mueller Report revelations Lara Trump: Merkel admitting migrants 'one of the worst things that ever happened to Germany' Financial satisfaction hits record high: survey MORE’s deregulatory policies, including rolling back climate change rules for power plants and vehicles.

The Energy and Commerce hearing, hosted by the subcommittee on environment and climate change, is labeled “Time for action” and will explore the environmental and economic repercussions from human-induced climate change. Leaders say it’s the first time the panel has broached the issue in six years.

“It is long past time for this committee to begin seriously examining how climate change is affecting our communities, environment and economy, and take action to reduce its harmful effects,” Rep. Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PalloneOvernight Health Care: Dem chairs to meet with progressives on drug pricing | Oregon judge says he will block Trump abortion rule | Trump vows to 'smash the grip' of drug addiction | US measles cases hit post-2000 record Hillicon Valley: Facebook expects up to B FTC fine | DHS face scanning at airports sparks alarm | New Twitter tool targets election misinformation | Lawmakers want answers on Google 'Sensorvault' House Dem chairmen to meet with progressives amid drug pricing divisions MORE (D-N.J.), the full committee’s chairman, and Rep. Paul TonkoPaul David TonkoAre 23 horse deaths enough to clean up the racing industry? Overnight Energy: Bernhardt confirmed as Interior chief | Dems probing if EPA officials broke ethics rules | Senators offer bipartisan carbon capture bill Dems probing whether EPA officials violated ethics rules MORE (D-N.Y.), the subcommittee chairman, said last week in a joint statement.

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“The science has been indisputably clear for years now — climate change is real and caused by human activity including burning fossil fuels. We are committed to combating climate change and standing up for those left to suffer in its wake,” the two lawmakers said, promising it would be “the first of many” hearings on climate change. 

To drive home their points, Democrats invited witnesses Brenda Ekwurzel, senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Michael Williams, deputy director of the BlueGreen Alliance.

Republicans, led by subcommittee ranking member Rep. John ShimkusJohn Mondy ShimkusA conservative climate plan will build on personal responsibility while reducing emissions Congress just proved there is hope for honest discussion on climate Dems slam EPA plan for fighting drinking water contaminants MORE (Ill.), are countering with Barry Worthington, executive director of the U.S. Energy Association, and Rich Powell, head of the conservative clean energy group ClearPath. 

The witness list suggests Republicans on that committee aim to highlight what businesses are doing to combat climate change, instead of trying to challenge the science behind the issue.

The Natural Resources Committee hearing will focus on the effect climate change has on communities. The event will feature Govs. Roy Cooper of North Carolina (D) and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts (R), as well as academics and advocates.

The GOP committee members, led by ranking member Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopStatehood bill could make Puerto Rico a state before 2020 Here's why Congress, not the president, should lead on environmental protection Overnight Energy: McConnell tees up vote on Green New Deal | Centrist Dems pitch alternative to plan | House Republican likens Green New Deal to genocide | Coca-Cola reveals it uses 3M tons of plastic every year MORE (Utah), have invited Derrick Hollie, president of the pro-fossil fuel group Reaching America, and retired climatologist Judith Curry, a popular voice in the climate change skeptic community who has argued that the science is less certain than popularly believed and that scientists are too hostile toward skeptics.

Notably, neither hearing will have any Trump administration officials testifying.

“Communities across the country have been feeling severe climate impacts for years and hoping for relief from Congress,” Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said in a statement Monday.

“Republicans and their industry allies told them it was all in their heads. Democrats on this Committee aren’t just acknowledging those communities — we want to put them front and center to tell their stories, inform the country, and help us take action in Washington,” Grijalva added. “The contrast couldn’t be any clearer.”

The two hearings will mark a significant departure from those run under Republican leadership that often focused on the benefits of fossil fuels and included witness testimony from climate skeptics and fossil fuel industry representatives. For exmaple, the Natural Resources panel held a hearing in July titled “Assessing innovative and alternative uses of coal.”

Both Grijalva and Pallone say they have long sought to put a magnifying glass on the industries that contribute to climate change and what the lawmakers described as the Trump administration’s failures to address the issue.

The hearings are coming shortly after the president doubled down on his climate change skepticism, tweeting during last week’s record low temperatures in the Midwest amid the polar vortex: “People can’t last outside even for minutes. What the hell is going on with Global Warming? Please come back fast, we need you!”