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After delay, House Democrats to begin climate push

The hearings will build a foundation for legislation, although the party has yet to unify around an approach to tackle global warming

Rep. Paul Tonko is chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Paul Tonko is chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The partial government shutdown stalled House Democrats’ plan to address climate change out of the gate, but they’ll turn their attention to the issue this week with hearings in the two main energy and environment committees as pressure mounts from the party’s progressive wing to confront what it considers an urgent crisis.

Two committees will hold hearings Wednesday focusing on warming global temperatures and how to mitigate the catastrophe scientists are predicting.

“It threatens to undermine the health of our families, the security of our nation and indeed America’s economic future, and its consequences will be felt for generations,” Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, said in video announcing his panel’s hearing.

The hearings will take place against the backdrop of nationwide demonstrations as activists across the country plan calls and visits to the district offices of Democratic leaders. The demonstrators will deliver petitions with 100,000 signatures demanding adoption of the so-called Green New Deal, an ambitious plan to overhaul the economy, including by transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy.

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With the first Energy and Commerce climate change hearing in six years, according to Tonko, Democrats have an opportunity to build a “powerful record” in Congress on the cost of federal inaction on pollution and provide a better understanding of what it takes to transition to a clean energy economy.

“Year after year, politicians have ignored this threat and denied the science,” Tonko said. “We can’t afford to let them stand in the way any longer.”

House Democratic leaders have been driven to push climate change to the top of their agenda after demands from young activists and newly elected progressive members. The new fervor follows years of a Republican-controlled Congress that dismissed climate action and questioned the science and federal regulations aimed at controlling earth-warming greenhouse gases.

Kim Cobb, a climate scientist at Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, will testify before the House Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday. She plans to make “a strong case” that the country needs to reduce the use of fossil fuels, and present options for a low carbon future, she said.

Comprehensive policy

“This is information that has been out there for a very, very long time, yet has not been translated into comprehensive policy,” Cobb told CQ in a phone interview.

“I think that continued delays in developing a comprehensive federal level policy around climate change . . . we can’t endure them anymore,” Cobb said, adding that she hopes that lawmakers will follow the hearings with a variety of bills on the House floor and engaging Senate Republicans and the White House.

Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., the ranking member on the Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on his expectations for the climate hearings and whether he can find areas of bipartisan agreement with Democrats.

But Cobb said energy efficiency is an area where Republicans and Democrats can work together to reduce consumption, emissions and the cost of energy.

“It’s not all about shutting down coal and putting up solar,” Cobb said.

Democrats have been divided on how to pursue their climate change goals, and it is not yet clear what kind of comprehensive legislation will follow the hearings.

Different options have been offered, including a carbon dividend bill by Florida Reps. Ted Deutch, a Democrat, and Francis Rooney, a Republican. Another bill by Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., aims to reduce carbon emissions by gradually transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035 and creating a national energy efficiency standard. Lieu’s bill would also direct the EPA to write regulations to cut U.S. carbon emissions by 2050 to at least 80 percent below 1990 levels.

The more progressive section of the party is focused on that Green New Deal, recently popularized by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. It calls for a speedy transition to renewable energy, massive investment in green infrastructure and jobs, and social and environmental justice overhauls.

Ocasio-Cortez has been working with Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., on a resolution related to the Green New Deal, according to a spokesman for Markey’s office, who said the measure could be introduced this week.

Politico reported Monday evening that the resolution would not set a specific timetable for the elimination of climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions and would embrace the use of still-unproven technology to reduce or eliminate carbon from some fossil-fuel emissions.

Democrats face a challenge in devising legislative language to support that proposal in a way that pleases various constituencies, including labor groups worried that rapid decarbonization of the economy could hurt members in carbon-dependent industries, on the one hand, and climate activists pushing for the fastest possible transformation on the other.

“We can’t wait around for some magic bullet. . . . We can’t play games,” said Nicole Ghio, fossil fuels program manager at Friends of the Earth U.S., who will be participating in a “week of action” this week planned by activists around the country to push for the Green New Deal.

Tonko has not publicly endorsed the Green New Deal, and although an increasing number of Democrats have signaled their support, there remains some apprehension about the cost involved with the scale of overhauls the plan would require. Progressive climate activists have a launched a petition to demand he support the plan.

“The problem with this version of the Green New Deal is that any serious attempt to pursue it would wreck the economy,” Bipartisan Policy Center founder Jason Grumet wrote in an opinion piece published in Roll Call on Monday. “As a result, lawmakers are forced to choose between offering disingenuous support or dismissing it out of hand.”

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