With Democrats now in charge, two key committees in the U.S. House of Representatives used their first hearings of the year on Wednesday to press for more vigorous action on climate change, despite the political and practical hurdles.
Democrats and their witnesses, including governors, policy experts and scientists, argued that time is alarmingly short. But it became clear over the hours that if the stakes are high, the odds are long.
In the simultaneous hearings, the minority Republicans seized the moment to bash the so-called Green New Deal, a legislative platform that has been embraced by brash new Congress members as well as seasoned climate hawks. It seeks a rapid, wholesale transformation to a zero-carbon economy that would also be prosperous and equitable.
One hearing, held by a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, was the first in several years by that panel to consider prospective legislation on climate change. The House Natural Resources Committee said its hearing was the start of a month-long series by the full committee and its subcommittees.
Lawmakers noted that President Donald Trump made no mention of the climate crisis during his State of the Union address the night before and that he instead boasted of oil and gas production. They also mentioned that NOAA and NASA, home to much of the government's climate science expertise, had just officially pronounced 2018 the fourth-hottest year on record, reinforcing the evidence that the problems of global warming are worsening steadily.
Governors: Climate Change Is an Economic Risk
For Democrats, the emphasis was on urgency.
Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, opened the hearing with a story from a woman who had narrowly survived a wildfire in California last year, saying his committee would be guided by science and the experiences of Americans like her.
"Climate change is an urgent problem," he said. "It demands urgent action and a sense of purpose from Congress. This committee will offer both."
His committee heard a bipartisan message from Republican Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, about the high costs of climate change on communities in those states and the economic opportunities of building a new energy economy.
Cooper listed a string of weather disasters that have hit his state in recent years, including two so-called 500-year floods that caused mudslides and damaged infrastructure in the mountains and inundated coastal communities. He noted that extreme heat has damaged crops and killed livestock, and said that the federal government needed to do more than simply help the state rebuild.
"We need consistent federal action that meets the urgency of our global climate problem," he said. "Our communities, our economy and our future depend on it."
Baker stressed the steps his state has taken to reduce emissions and energy use while continuing economic growth. He said the expansion of an offshore wind industry presents an enormous opportunity for the state's economy.
Republicans Attack 'Green New Deal'
At Energy and Commerce, there was a lot of talk of bipartisanship. The committee has a long history of working that way, not totally eclipsed even in recent years.
"I implore you, now is the time to join us," said Rep. Paul Tonko of New York, head of the environment and climate change subcommittee. "We want to work together, but inaction is no longer an option."
"We will not be deterred," he added.
Again and again, Republicans on that committee said they, too, recognized the problem and wanted bipartisan solutions. But at both hearings, they spoke harshly of the prospects for a Green New Deal.
Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois, Tonko's predecessor as chairman and now the subcommittee's ranking Republican, called it "radical." He denounced "top down government requirements to rapidly decarbonize" as little more than "wealth transfer schemes." Republican Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia called it "delusional." Rep. Bill Flores of Texas denounced a "chaotic headlong rush into decarbonization." Rep. Billy Long of Missouri called it "a very worthy goal if it was anywhere near possible in the time they want to do it in."
Republicans also repeatedly warned against a heavy-handed approach driven by the federal government to reduce emissions.
Occasionally, Democrats referred obliquely to the possibility of a carbon tax; several of their invited witnesses urged that as part of any effective solution.
At the Natural Resources Committee hearing, Republican Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana told Gov. Baker that it is one thing to decarbonize the economy in Massachusetts, and quite another in Louisiana, an oil and gas center.
Republicans also focused on the risk of driving up energy costs. But Democrats argued that the costs of clean alternative fuels continue to come down.
Climate Solutions in an Infrastructure Bill?
But the hearings were less significant for what the witnesses said than as a way to compare the ebullience of the Democrats for action with the disposition of many Republicans, which tended between phlegmatic and choleric.
With the Senate and the White House held by Republicans, what House Democrats can achieve is less likely to be a law ushering in a new era than a platform for the next election.
The most plausible exception is the possibility that climate policy could inform a big bill on infrastructure, which might include upgrades to the electrical grid or other features that everyone can accept.