‘The existential threat of our time’: Pelosi elevates climate change on Day One
Democrats put climate change back on the forefront of their governing agenda Thursday, portraying the issue as an “existential threat” even as the caucus remains split over how forcefully to respond.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi brought up the issue in her opening address while touting a new select panel to come up with ideas on how to solve it, and the Energy and Commerce Committee announced that climate change would be the subject of its very first hearing this year.
hich the party picked up former GOP seats in places like Kansas and Oklahoma. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump and Republicans who control the Senate have shown no interest in pursuing dramatic reductions in carbon emissions — meaning no House bill is likely to become law — even as scientists warn that time is running out to get a handle on the situation.
The Democrats’ change in tone is evident in the name of the new panel. It is now called the “Select Committee on the Climate Crisis,” compared to a focus on “energy independence and global warming” when Democrats formed a similar panel was formed a decade ago.
“We must … face the existential threat of our time: the climate crisis,” Pelosi said in her opening address to Congress Thursday. “The entire Congress must work to put an end to the inaction and denial of science that threaten the planet and the future.”
Progressives, led in part by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), are tugging the caucus into a more urgent posture that they say best reflects what scientists have called for to avert climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned last year that the world has 12 years to put policies in place to avoid irreversible, catastrophic effects of climate change.
“At least come out as appearing the Democratic Party has an agenda on this issue. That would be the biggest win,” Greg Carlock, Green New Deal research director with progressive think tank Data for Progress, said of his hopes for the committee.
Still, some Democrats are cautious about what a panel devoted to climate change might entail. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who co-chairs the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, said he plans to speak with incoming select panel chairwoman Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) and Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) about the direction and scale of climate legislation.
“We’ve got to find a way that we can accommodate our goals and not be seen as anti-business,” Cuellar said. “A lot of the oil-and-gas state folks feel the same way.”
Moderate and establishment Democrats largely prevailed in their first showdown with liberals over the select committee. Whereas protesters, joined by Ocasio-Cortez, stormed Pelosi’s office last November demanding the panel be empowered to issue subpoenas and write legislation, the committee that Democrats will establish Thursday can do neither of those things. It is only authorized to conduct investigations and develop policy recommendations to reduce the effects of climate change. Any legislation would be drafted by standing committees such as Energy and Commerce.
Pallone said Thursday that progressives would be pleased with the actions of his panel, along with the Natural Resources and Science committees, and pledged to work with the incoming select panel.
“We’re all progressives,” Pallone said of Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Science Chairman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas). “I think they’ll be happy to see what we do because the chairs of the committees are progressive.”
He announced the first Energy and Commerce Committee hearing later this month would be on assessing the environmental and economic impacts of climate change. He also said he expected joint hearings on the issue with other committees of jurisdiction.
Pallone also said he was open to issuing subpoenas sought by the select committee, but only as “a last resort.”
Castor, a seven-term lawmaker from the Tampa area, will lead the climate select committee. It will consist of 15 members — nine Democrats and six Republicans determined by their respective leaders — and is tasked with submitting policy recommendations to the other committees by March 2020, according to the rules package expected to pass the chamber later Thursday.
“We need all voices. But make no mistake about it, we simply don’t have time to tread water,” Castor told POLITICO Thursday.
Several incoming members, including Reps. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) and Mike Levin (D-Calif.), have voiced interest in serving on it, though Pelosi has not given any indication to date on how she may fill out her side.
Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a Green New Deal supporter, told reporters he expected the select committee’s members would be named “as soon as humanly possible” and expressed confidence the caucus would eventually work as one on climate issues.
“You can make of these select committees what you want to make of them, and if we’re serious about dealing with the climate crisis then, you know what, let’s make this work and I think we can,” he said. “Rather than getting stuck up in the minute details, let’s make it work.”
Pelosi announced Castor’s selection to lead the climate select committee on Dec. 28, after weeks of jockeying behind the scenes over the structure and powers of the panel. Castor first came to Congress in 2007. She served as vice ranking member for the full Energy and Commerce Committee during the previous Congress and holds a 93 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters.
Progressives, led by the Sunrise Movement, were dismayed by the panel’s final structure and especially that it lacks a requirement that Democratic members pledge not to accept campaign contributions from fossil fuel companies.
“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,” said Varshini Prakash, the movement’s co-founder, in a statement. “This is deeply disappointing, but in losing this fight on the Select Committee, we have won the biggest breakthrough on climate change in my lifetime.”
Some lawmakers, like Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.), said such criticism came mostly from freshman members but expressed confidence the caucus would rise to the challenge.
“Progressives like me who understand how the system works have every confidence that we’ll be able to do it within the existing system,” he told POLITICO. “Energy and Commerce is my primary pick because that’s the committee that’s really going to dig in and do what these young progressives are looking for.”
Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), who is aiming to chair the Energy and Commerce’s environment subcommittee, said he encouraged Pelosi to coordinate the actions between existing panels and the new select committee.
“I’ve talked to the now Speaker about that and said that coordination is important and she agrees. We’re going to make certain that we pull in all the disciplines on the issue so that there is a full, holistic approach to transportation, to energy generation, to environmental stewardship,” he said. “There’s a good package that comes to play.”