House Democrats offered an indicator of what their approach to environmental and climate accountability might look like in a series of initial hearings on Wednesday that ranged from tackling climate change to probing the Trump administration’s actions during the partial government shutdown.
House lawmakers hosted three competing hearings on Feb. 6, part of an ambitious slate of meetings to address pressing environmental issues. Two of those meetings centered climate change — one hosted by the Energy and Commerce Committee to address the economic cost of global warming, and one by the Natural Resources Committee focused on climate impacts. A third Appropriations Committee scrutinized the Interior Department’s shutdown decisions.
“[This is] the issue of our time, the challenge of our time, the opportunity of our time,” said Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY), who chairs the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on the environment.
Testimony followed from scientists and economic experts, who helped to lay out a “green transition” — an eventual decarbonization of the economy coupled with the creation of new jobs in sectors like renewable energy.
At the same time, a second hearing on Capitol Hill, chaired by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), also took aim at climate change. “In 2018, there were 14 weather and climate disasters, each with damages over $1 billion, total cost $91 billion,” Grijalva said, pointing to new figures released Wednesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Despite attendance from only a few Republicans, that hearing featured a bipartisan showing, with North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) both testifying about the impacts climate change has had on their coastal states.
“As governor of North Carolina… I have a responsibility to keep all our people safe,” said Cooper, who noted that his state is pursuing “unprecedented” measures in an effort to recover from Hurricane Florence and safeguard against future tragedies.
Baker similarly called for increased resiliency measures, speaking to the impact global warming is having on his state’s economy.
“In Massachusetts, climate change is not a partisan issue,” Baker said, going on to single out several specific sectors. “If you have farmers or fishermen or resort operators or foresters in your communities or your districts, I promise you they are worrying about climate change all the time.”
At the Energy and Commerce meeting, conversations similarly took on bipartisan tones, with lawmakers largely acknowledging climate change to be a prevalent threat. While there remained differences over how to best address the issue, Democrats indicated that they will be seeking immediate action.
“We hope to have our Republican colleagues as partners in these efforts,” said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ).
A third hearing also coincided with both climate change hearings and offered a starker contrast in partisan leanings. Rep. Betty McCollum (DFW-MN) chaired an Appropriations Committee meeting specifically probing the Trump administration’s actions during the shutdown.
National parks featured prominently during this hearing. In a break with historical precedent, the parks were kept open during the 35-day shutdown. In mid-January, Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signed off on using park entry fees and other separate funding to pay for keeping the parks running. That decision came in step with moves to bring back Interior employees to work on fossil fuels projects, including offshore drilling, despite such workers initially being deemed non-essential.
“I’m concerned about potential violations that may have occurred during the shutdown,” McCollum said, even as Republican colleagues moved to assert the legality of the department’s actions.
That hearing concluded in the morning with a decisive action. The Minnesota lawmaker indicated that she will request a formal legal assessment from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) as she presses forward with probing actions taken by the Interior Department. The other dueling hearings continued into the afternoon, awash with testimony and debate over how best to proceed on climate action.
Democrats themselves notably have different visions of what that action could look like — only some have signed on to the “Green New Deal” economic decarbonization blueprint proposed by the nonprofit Sunrise Movement and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and backed by progressive groups. A number of Democratic 2020 presidential contenders have moreover indicated support for the “idea” of the deal without fully committing to anything official.
Still, the hearings indicated that the issue is likely to be at the forefront of policy conversations for lawmakers. And on Tuesday night, Tonko told ThinkProgress that climate action will continue to be a priority for the party, marking a dramatic shift from both Democratic and Republican administrations alike. He also indicated that the initial hearings will be the first of many.
“Our freshman class is passionate about this issue, they’ve brought great public consciousness and awareness to it,” Tonko said, sounding an upbeat note as he predicted that various committees would work together on the issue.
“The public needs that,” he said, of the commitment by lawmakers to act on climate change. “They deserve it.”