House Dems can take on climate change — if they don’t get distracted by Trump

Updated: Aug 7, 2019

This column was originally published at on November 13, 2018.

Nancy Pelosi has announced her intention to bring back a House Select Committee on climate change. Bracewell LLP’s Anna Burhop, who lobbies on behalf of energy giants Southern Company, DTE Energy and Duke Energy, mocked the announcement, telling Bloomberg that the committee can “have as many messaging hearings as their little hearts desire.”

Burhop’s barb implies a select committee is inconsequential. The record from the original House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, chaired by Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) from 2007 to 2010, tells a different story. Although the committee did not have powers to directly take up legislation, the committee convened 80 hearings and briefings and helped advance some of the most significant climate bills ever voted out of the House, including the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 and the American Clean Energy Security Act of 2009.

What the committee did not do, importantly, was get distracted by focusing on President Bush and his administration. Instead, in their first year, the committee held hearings on mayoral initiatives, green jobs and other topics that provided the informational clay with which they began to shape ideas and policy approaches.

Today, the political temptation to go after Trump as part of the new climate committee’s mandate may be too great for Democrats to resist. That would be a mistake.

Without question, aggressive House oversight of Trump’s climate change agenda is needed. Oversight is most effective, however, from permanent committees with the tools of confirmation, appropriations and subpoenas.

The select committee can instead provide a staging ground to plan and construct rather than react and block. By de-escalating the political posturing in favor of more focus on problem solving and collaboration, the committee could make much needed progress in four critical areas.

First, the committee should pursue new opportunities for creating jobs that provide middle-class, economic stability for workers and their families as part of the new clean tech economy.  Infrastructure is high on the list of Democratic priorities, and the new committee can provide added bandwidth to explore pathways to boost technology investments and innovation. Given the scale and urgency of the problem, no technology that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions should be off the table.  

Second, the committee needs to make public safety from climate disasters a government priority. Storms, floods, wildfires or droughts are affecting most congressional districts with increasing frequency and destruction. Waiting until after disaster strikes to respond is simply not good enough. How can we better prepare? How will Congress face growing fiscal demands of disaster response? And how will infuse spending decisions on new infrastructure with updated climate and sea level information so that taxpayer money isn’t wasted?

Third, the committee needs to identify appropriate emission reduction goals for the nation based on sound science and economics and track progress. It’s hard to solve a problem when nobody agrees what the goal is. Every nation in the world except Syria, Libya and the United States has set its own goal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. With President Trump disavowing the U.S. goal set in the Paris climate accord, and failing to provide any alternative, three critical questions fall to Congress to tackle: how much should the U.S. reduce greenhouse gas emissions? How fast? And how would different policy options – from energy R&D to tax policies – help or hinder progress toward those goals?  

Fourth, the committee needs to engage with other elected officials. To start, the committee should listen to mayors and governors to understand how to support states and local governments as they create jobs, improve public safety and reduce emissions with climate initiatives. This includes hearing from a diversity of communities that have inequitable means to deal with climate disasters and attract clean tech manufacturing industries. The committee should also engage other nations to maintain global dialogue on climate and help fill the vacuum of American participation left by the Trump Administration.

Ideally, we need political restraint from leaders of both parties in selecting problem solvers for this select committee. In 2007, Republican leaders packed the committee with hard-liners intent on mucking up the works of the committee. It’s up to GOP problem solvers such as Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) and Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) to push their leadership for seats on this committee this time around if they want to help the GOP explore pathways out of its climate bunker in the House.

My expectations for the upcoming congress to deliver policy ideas into law are understandably limited, given the heavy blocking powers of Trump and McConnell. But the climate threat is too serious and too urgent to keep waiting for politics to get better before getting to work. Fresh approaches and bold ideas need time to be heard, discussed and shaped in order to be ready for when a new president takes office if action is not possible sooner.

Thankfully, Pelosi is wasting no time.

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