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A Changing Climate

Climate Change Discussions Back on the Hill Agenda as Democrats Begin Committee Work

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Governors Roy Cooper of North Carolina and Charles Baker of Massachusetts shared how climate change is negatively impacting their states with the House Natural Resources Committee. Photo: Natural Resources Democrats

At the first Congressional committee hearing in ten years to have the words climate change in the title, a Democrat and a Republican, perhaps surprisingly, stood side by side on the issue.

“We can’t afford not to take urgent action,” North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper told members of the House Natural Resources Committee this week in Washington.

Sitting next to him before the committee was Charles Baker, the Republican governor of Massachusetts. Both testified to the effects climate change has had on their states, including industries, like agriculture and tourism, that have taken a hit.

“Climate change is also warming our coastal waters and threatening some of the nation’s most important commercial fisheries off the coast of New England. Stretching from Cape Cod to Cape Sable Island in Nova Scotia, the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans. Warming waters have already led to 80 percent reduction of Atlantic cod habitat over the last decade,” Baker told the committee during his testimony,

Changes in federal policy, that are accompanied by long-term commitments, have addressed and solved environmental problems for Massachusetts in the past, Baker said, pointing to the ending of acid rain caused by power plant, industry and vehicle emissions and the healing of the ozone layer thanks to an international treaty phasing out the use of harmful chemicals around the world. Those problems became manageable because of reasonable, long-term legislative fixes, Baker said.

In North Carolina, Cooper is willing to forgo expansion in the fossil fuel industry through offshore drilling to protect what he called safer and more sustainable industries like commercial fishing and tourism that rely on healthy coastal environment.

The testimony from the governors, however, was the only show of bipartisan agreement on the issue of climate change, even as the two continued to point to similar challenges faced by communities across their states.

Chairman Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, opened the hearing by highlighting the dangers and challenges of climate change that the general public is most likely familiar with, if not from personal experience, then through the media, like rising sea levels, disappearing coastal communities, draughts and superstorms.

The House Natural Resources Committee, led by Chair Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), held the first hearing of their climate change series on February 6, 2019. Photo: Natural Resources Democrats

But instead of discussing climate change, the ranking Republican member of the committee, Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, met Grijalva’s remarks with a jocular response, an attitude that persisted through the length of the meeting and was reflected in the banter of the roughly four GOP members of the committee who were also in attendance.

The Republican members attempted to frame the conversation as public land management issues, in effect reducing the complex problem of a changing climate to one of government inefficiency and deflecting from the science of tracking climate change-induced natural disasters. California Republican Rep. Tom McClintock was among the most vocal supporters of the idea that privately-owned forests seem to be coping much better than the mismanaged public lands.

Gov. Cooper pushed back at the idea, though, that pervasive wildfires could be prevented by simply managing federal lands better, saying that any action designed to increase the resiliency of habitats must be accompanied and balanced with proper environmental protections that reduce the strains on those habitats.

Witnesses at the hearing didn’t just testify for the protection of lands, but also of vulnerable populations that are on the frontlines of climate change, whether on the coasts of North Carolina and Massachusetts or in the coalfields of central Appalachia.

Derrick Hollie, the president of the advocacy group Reaching America, said minorities suffer disproportionately from environmental injustice and are overburdened by high energy prices. Many black communities can’t afford cheap green solutions, because they have already suffered so many negative economic impacts, he said.

The hearing happened on the eve of New York Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Democratic Senator Ed Markey’s Green New Deal framework, which proposes the most ambitious climate change agenda in American history.

Released Thursday, it includes proposals to address the economic issues of historically underprivileged and oppressed populations, not just in fossil fuel dependent communities like central Appalachia, but across the country.

So far, the framework lacks clearly defined policies that would make its ambitious goals feasible. Ocasio-Cortez, Markey and other lawmakers supporting the initiative succeeded, however, long before the release of their Green New Deal proposal inputting climate change back in the national headlines, potentially creating at least some of the momentum necessary for major policy change.

You can watch the full hearing here.