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New House climate committee even weaker than panel from more than a decade ago

Democratic House leadership opts to repeat old formula for fighting climate change.

House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) greets Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) at the U.S. Capitol on January 3, 2019 in Washington, D.C. CREDIT: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) greets Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) at the U.S. Capitol on January 3, 2019 in Washington, D.C. CREDIT: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Many environmental activists hoped House Democrats would immediately commit to bold climate action once they took control of the House of Representatives. Since the November midterm elections, though, the House Democratic leadership has demonstrated a lack of urgency on the issue, environmentalists argue, despite a wealth of scientific information showing the climate crisis is growing worse at a faster rate than previously thought.

A clear sign of the Democratic leadership’s direction on climate action came on Thursday when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) — who reclaimed the House leadership position in the new Congress — introduced a select climate committee that will be almost identical to the one she created a dozen years ago.

In her first address as House Speaker on January 3, Pelosi highlighted the creation of the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. “The American people understand the urgency. The people are ahead of the Congress. The Congress must join them. That is why we have created the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. The entire Congress must work to put an end to the inaction and denial of science that threaten the planet and the future,” Pelosi told the House chamber.

In December, Pelosi pledged to revive her previous climate change committee. At the same time, a wave of momentum has built among House Democrats, and a few Democratic senators, in support of a select committee for a Green New Deal — a committee that would have the authority to create a “detailed national, industrial, economic mobilization plan” allowing the United States to swiftly become carbon-neutral within a decade as proposed under the Green New Deal.

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The Green New Deal was popularized by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and championed by the youth-led progressive campaign group the Sunrise Movement. Supporters of the deal had hoped Pelosi’s proposed committee would incorporate the strong climate proposals captured under the draft Green New Deal. Instead, supporters argue Pelosi’s newly introduce committee does not live up to the challenge science is warning about.

Climate science has evolved over the past 12 years. While the science on human-caused climate change has long been settled, over the past decade, scientists have amplified their warnings about a rapidly warming planet based on new research. Scientists are now warning policymakers that the window of opportunity to forestall or mitigate climate catastrophe is rapidly closing.

Most recently, for instance, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), warned in October there are only a dozen years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5°C (2.7°F) above pre-industrial times to avoid significantly worse droughts, floods, extreme heat, and poverty. A month later, the U.S. government released its own report that emphasized the Earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization.

But despite the mounting urgency, Pelosi’s select committee will not be updated from its 2007 version in its structure and mandate to reflect the worsening crisis. In fact, Pelosi’s select climate committee will have fewer powers — not more, as most climate activists expected — than the committee she created during her first stint as House Speaker.

The new select committee will have 15 members, six of whom will be appointed on the recommendation of the House minority leader. All policy recommendations must be submitted to the “relevant standing committees” — such as the House Energy and Commerce Committee and House Natural Resources Committee — no later than March 31, 2020. Any reports produced by the select committee must be submitted to the House leadership by December 31, 2020.

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But as the Sunrise Movement highlighted, the committee will allow its members to accept political donations from fossil fuel companies, will have no mandate to lead the writing of a comprehensive bill to fight climate change, and will have no language on economic and racial justice — all key elements of the proposed Green New Deal.

The Green New Deal aims to rapidly move the country away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy, such as a solar, wind, and electric cars, within a decade. Along with its climate action elements, the Green New Deal would guarantee that working class and marginalized populations in the U.S. benefit from the transition to a carbon-free economy.

“Democratic leaders had an opportunity to embrace young people’s energy and back the Green New Deal, but they failed us once again,” Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakash said in a statement. “This committee is toothless and weaker than the first climate select committee from a decade ago, and it does not get us meaningfully closer to solving the climate crisis or fixing our broken economy.”

The rules for the 2019 select committee were taken almost word-for-word from the 2007 select committee. “The select committee shall not have legislative jurisdiction and shall have no authority to take legislative action on any bill or resolution,” the rules for both select committees state.

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The creation of a select climate committee was included in a rules package adopted on Thursday in a vote by House members.

While almost identical, there will, however, be one major difference between the 2007 and 2019 select climate committees.

Unlike the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming chaired by then-Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) between 2007 and 2011, the new climate committee, to be chaired Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL), will not have subpoena power.

Under the previous incarnation of the select committee, the subpoena power was used at least once in 2008 to force the Environmental Protection Agency under former President George W. Bush to disclose its progress in crafting climate change rules for automobiles.

Without subpoena power, the panel will have trouble developing the most robust legislation or recommendations to fight climate change, according to supporters of the Green New Deal.

Subpoena powers would allow committee members to force government agency heads to testify on economic and environmental issues, thereby providing information that would aide them in crafting comprehensive legislation to fight climate change. Committee members also could use subpoena powers to force fossil fuel industry officials to provide documents or testify in hearings.

“I’m disappointed and think the select committee needs to go further. It’s not as strong as it was in 2007,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) told ThinkProgress. “It needs to have legislative authority. It needs to have subpoena power.”

Khanna supported the creation of a select committee for a Green New Deal, a proposal that was rejected by the Democratic leadership. Despite his concerns about the new select committee, though, he does view the creation of the climate committee as a step forward because of the absence of a legislative focus on climate issues over the past eight years while the Republicans controlled the House.

Khanna also noted that the 2007 select committee proved successful in helping to craft the Waxman-Markey climate bill — even though the select committee did not have legislative authority — due largely to the leadership of Markey.

Markey worked very closely with former Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, to craft the legislation that passed the House but failed in the Senate.

“Markey was one of the great legislators in modern time. He really carried that committee on his shoulders even though it was weak,” Khanna said. “The difference here is that it’s not clear if Rep. Castor is going to have the same clout to do the legislation. So, I think having formal legislative authority would be better.”

But environmental activists remain disappointed. “That the select committee today is weaker than its counterpart in 2007 is a disgrace,” Stephen O’Hanlon, spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement, told ThinkProgress, adding that the new select committee “is radically out of touch with where our country and climate are at.”