Don Beyer wants to make the House Science Committee great again

The Virginia representative campaigned with climate change at the center — now he’s trying to take climate action to Congress.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Lamar Smith was at it again.

The Texas Republican and avowed climate science denier had already spent years using the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, which he has chaired since 2013, as a vehicle for his own agenda: attacking climate science, decrying regulatory overreach, and issuing subpoenas against environmental groups and climate scientists. And so, bolstered by the ascendance of a fellow climate science denier to the White House — and tantalized by the possibility of an administration that views the Environmental Protection Agency as suspiciously as he does — Smith decided to kick of the committee’s 2017 session by convening a hearing titled “Making the EPA Great Again.”

Ostensibly, the hearing was aimed at examining how the EPA evaluates and uses science in its regulatory judgments. Four witnesses were called to provide testimony; only one, the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, did not represent the fossil fuel industry.

About an hour and a half into the hearing, Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), a second-term congressman representing northern Virginia, had an opportunity to question the witnesses. Addressing the panel broadly, Beyer first praised the legacy of the EPA, and admonished the Republican side of the committee for disputing climate science with articles from Breitbart and the Daily Mail.

“The Science Committee’s contribution now is like that of Emperor Nero, fiddling while Rome burned down around him,” Beyer said. “This is irresponsible and dangerous. It is not leadership, and it will not make the EPA, or America, great.”

But he felt he needed to do something to make a bigger splash during the hearing. And so Beyer pulled out a red baseball cap with the words “Keep EPA Great” emblazoned in white and, donning the cap, suggested that the name of the hearing should be changed to better reflect the dangers posed to the EPA, and the environment, by the current political climate.

The moment punctuated a hearing otherwise defined by a string of ad-hoc attacks on the EPA and environmental regulations of the Obama administration, many lobbed by Smith, who himself has taken more than $600,000 in campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry. And the media took notice, with a few outlets offering Beyer outright praise for his defense of the EPA and science. A Gizmodo article proclaiming it as “the best response to the House Science Committee’s attacks on the EPA” was shared over 162,000 times.

“The Science Committee’s contribution now is like that of Emperor Nero, fiddling while Rome burned down around him.”

But for Beyer, whose district represents areas of northern Virginia home to thousands of federal workers, the committee’s attacks on the EPA were personal. He felt they were leveled not just at the agency, but at his constituents, career employees that, in Beyer’s estimation, do profoundly important work regardless of the political machinations of the administration they work under.

“Frankly, I’m tired of members of Congress bad-mouthing my constituents,” Beyer said a month after the House Science Committee’s EPA hearing, on the floor of the House. This time, he was speaking in opposition of the HONEST Act, written by Smith, which would severely limit the kind of scientific data the EPA could use when justifying regulations.

In late March, the House voted by a margin of 228 to 194 to pass the HONEST Act. Only seven Republicans voted against the bill.

On the wall of his Washington, D.C. office, right above photographs of former presidents and a letter from Barack Obama, Beyer has a cartoon proudly displayed in a gleaming gold frame.

Originally published in the Richmond Times Dispatch, it shows Beyer —who owned several car dealerships before entering into politics — standing with Al Gore and a banner screaming “Don Beyer Volvo Clearance Sale.” Both men are grinning widely, and Gore is brandishing two tickets in his left hand, a nod to a stunt that Beyer ran at his dealerships in response to Gore’s blockbuster 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. For a few months, Beyer — who had been so taken with the movie that he credits it with inspiring his interest in climate change — gave anyone who bought a car either a bike or a tree, enough carbon offsets to neutralize the carbon footprint of the car, and two tickets to the film.

The stunt earned Beyer some flack in the local press. But Beyer shrugged it off — and displayed the cartoon prominently in his office.

“They were making fun of me, but that was okay,” Beyer said, gesturing to the cartoon. “I was happy to be made fun of over that.”

Beyer applies that same affable attitude to his newfound role as defender of science and the environment against an increasingly hostile White House and Republican-controlled Congress. It’s certainly not a role he asked for — until a few months ago, Beyer was probably best known for serving as Virginia’s lieutenant governor, from 1990 to 1998, and as ambassador to Switzerland and Lichtenstein. He ran for Congress in 2014, with climate change at the center of his campaign, and when he won, joined both the House Science Committee and House Natural Resources Committee.

For the first part of his congressional career, he watched his Republican colleagues push bill after bill aimed at dismantling environmental regulations and hampering climate science, only to be stymied by an Obama White House intent on maintaining forward progress on climate change. Beyer — like most other Democrats in Congress — assumed the same pattern would continue when Hillary Clinton won the presidential election.

But then Donald Trump was elected president, and Republican lawmakers, emboldened by an ally in the White House, began to press for a rapid rollback of Obama-era policies — with a special focus on gutting nearly every environmental and climate regulation created over the last eight years.

“While Obama was president, no other country in the world made as much progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions as the United States, without the Congress, due to executive action and action at the state-level,” Beyer said. “With Trump, it is much scarier.”

Beyer pointed to Trump’s appointment of Scott Pruitt — who sued the EPA more than a dozen times as Oklahoma’s attorney general —as EPA administrator, as well as the Trump administration’s proposed skinny budget — which would cut the EPA by 31 percent — as evidence of the administration’s antagonism towards the agency. “Even if it’s [brought down to] a 10 percent cut, it’s a step in the wrong direction,” Beyer said.

But even if Congress can soften the budgetary blow to the EPA, it’s easy to think of the Trump doctrine of environmental deregulation as death by a thousand cuts. The EPA budget is just the beginning — if Trump gets his way, environmental regulations dealing with everything from leaking methane to dangerous ozone pollution will face review and potential rollback. The Clean Power Plan, the cornerstone of the Obama administration’s domestic climate policy, is already under review by the Trump EPA. And the historic Paris agreement — widely considered the first step in getting the world on a path to limiting warming well below 2°C— is on shaky ground, at risk of a U.S. withdrawal, or, perhaps worse, a participating United States that uses the agreement to further fossil fuel interests around the globe.

All of this comes at a time when the consequences of climate change are observed on a daily basis. Last year was the hottest year on record, crushing the previous record set in 2015, which broke the previous record set in 2014. The world has not seen a three-year stretch of such record temperatures in 136 years of record-keeping. All told, 16 of the 17 hottest years on record have occurred in the 21st century.

According to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) analysis, climate change made the occurrence of dozens of floods, heatwaves, and droughts last year more likely. Some have even connected the ongoing Syrian Civil War, at least in part, to a climate change-fueled drought that began in 2007 and lasted through the beginning of the conflict in 2011.

Beyer understands the urgency. He calls climate change “the existential crisis of our generation and our century,” and likens it to the threat of nuclear war some 30 or 40 years ago. During another recent House Science Committee hearing— this one on the assumptions and policy implications of climate science — Beyer ticked off some of the devastating impacts scientists foresee in the absence of substantial reductions in carbon emissions: 55 million people in Bangladesh displaced by rising seas, entire island nations in the Pacific Ocean inundated by sea level rise, droughts and shifting agricultural patterns that threaten food security, an increase and shift in disease patterns and vectors worldwide.

So sitting on a committee chaired by a man who said Science magazine was not an “objective” source — while at the same time acting as a contributing writer for Breitbart.com — is, as Beyer put it, “really discouraging.” While Beyer considers Smith a friend, he also considers him one of the “most extreme” climate deniers in Congress, likening him to Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), the lawmaker who once brought a snowball onto the floor of the Senate to purportedly disprove global warming.

Despite the grim prospects for climate action in the near term, Beyer sees a few reasons to be optimistic. For starters, he points to the growing, bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, which now boasts 36 members. One of those new members is Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) — a longtime climate denier whose participation in the caucus marks a stunning reversal in personal policy.

Beyer is also “thrilled” about the 17 Republicans who recently teamed up to introduce a resolution calling on Congress to address climate change. And he’s “very fond” of the Republican idea that someone can only chair a committee for six years, meaning Smith’s tenure on the House Science Committee would end in two years — a change Beyer thinks would free some Republicans on the committee to take less ideologically-motivated stances on climate change and climate science.

“We can’t despair along the way that we have run out of time, because later is still better than never.”

“Many, many of the Republicans that you talk to individually are much more enlightened than they feel that they can be, publicly, on that committee, especially with him as the chair,” Beyer said. “So I really think it could be in a much better place two years from now.”

Two years from now, Beyer hopes everything will be in a better place. He hopes Democrats take back the House in 2018, and that the party can retake the White House in 2020. But he knows lawmakers need to be putting in work now to prepare for that possibility. He doesn’t want climate action to be the Democratic equivalent of repealing Obamacare, something the minority party talks about for years without having an actual plan to implement when they regain power.

Even though it’s wildly unlikely to pass the 115th Congress, or be signed by President Trump, Beyer is plans to follow his own advice and work on shoring up support in the House for a carbon tax and dividend, a policy that would put a price on carbon emissions and give the revenue earned from that tax back to American taxpayers.

“You have to have a vision and an agenda, and just keep pursuing it.”

“This is the right solution, and it may take two years or six years or 10 years, but we can’t despair along the way that we have run out of time, because later is still better than never,” Beyer said. “You have to have a vision and an agenda, and just keep pursuing it.”

Pursuing that vision will mean convincing more than 17 Republicans that it’s imperative to take action to slow climate change and adapt to its consequences — something Republicans have been hesitant to embrace, especially since the 2010 Supreme Court Citizen’s United decision unleashed a torrent of fossil fuel money into Congress. Even though he sits on a House Science Committee that seems to be drifting further and further from the subject in its title, Beyer still believes that appealing to the facts can help lawmakers reach their colleagues across the aisle.

“Let’s not get into who is right and who’s wrong, who’s a good person and who’s a bad person. It’s not a religious belief. It’s just like, what is the science,” Beyer said. “The thing about science is that it is always contingent on what you know, and what you learn next. But in the meantime, we need to act on what we think we know right now.”