On Capitol Hill, new calls for rapid action on climate change

President Donald Trump did not mention climate change or any efforts to help the environment during his State of the Union address Tuesday, but members of the US House of Representatives held two hearings Wednesday on Capitol Hill to take a closer look at the threat of climate change.

The chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee said that hearing is the first to focus on climate change in eight years.

“Today, we turn the page on this committee from climate change denial to climate action,” said Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Arizona.

In the leadup to the hearing, Grijalva criticized the President for his failure to prioritize climate change in his State of the Union address.

Last year was the fourth-hottest year ever recorded, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA. That means the past five years have been the warmest years in modern record.

Trump has often expressed doubts that climate change is real or largely created by humans, despite decades of science that say it’s both. However, in Tuesday’s address, the President talked about the growth of the oil and gas industry, a major contributor to greenhouse gases that cause climate change.

“We have unleashed a revolution in American energy. The United States is now the number one producer of oil and natural gas in the world. And now, for the first time in 65 years, we are a net exporter of energy,” Trump said.

However, Grijalva said in opening the hearing, “putting our heads in the sand puts people’s lives at risk and our nation safety in jeopardy.”

Testifying in front of the Natural Resources Committee, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker broke with many powerful Republicans, calling for federal action to be more proactive in planning for climate change.

“Many federal initiatives are only available after a disaster occurs,” Baker said. He urged the federal government to make more funding available to improve infrastructure and research, to work on more public-private partnerships and to set targets for emission reductions that can vary by state.

“In Massachusetts, climate change is not a partisan issue. While we sometimes disagree on specific policies, we understand the science and know the impacts are real because we are experience them firsthand,” Baker said.

Extreme weather events have become more frequent and more damaging, he said. Last year, his state experienced four major Nor’easters, with record flooding that damaged property and natural resources. Rising temperatures affect farming and skiing in the state, and climate change has raised the temperature of coastal waters, threatening fisheries, he said.

“This is not a challenge any one of us can solve alone. We need collective action from federal, state and local governments working with the private sector to aggressively reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the changes that are already in motion,” Baker said.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, testified about seeing the devastating impact of climate change on his state. He said mudslides, flooding, torrential rains and forest fires have “decimated” mountain and coastal communities, cost apple growers, hurt poultry farmers, “crushed” fisheries, threatened military bases and put countless lives at risk.

“We have weathered two so-called 500-year floods within two years and three of them within 20 years,” Cooper said. Hurricane Florence alone did $17 billion of damage and took 43 lives, he said. For North Carolina residents, “the true cost is incalculable,” and climate change has forever changed their lives.

“When storms are becoming more fierce, it is not enough to pick up the pieces. We must take action to prevent this kind of devastation in the future,” Cooper said. “I urge Congress and all of our federal partners to match the level of determination brought to recovery efforts to fight the effects of climate change.”

At the Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change hearing, experts also testified about the urgent need for “rapid,” “far-reaching” action at an “unprecedented scale.”

“Given the scale of changes needed and the time to lay the framework, this is the make-or-break decade to make the capital investments needed to reduce carbon dioxide levels, or the Paris climate goals are unlikely to be achieved,” testified Brenda Ekwurzeldirector of climate science at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit scientific advocacy group.

Ekwurzel is a co-author of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, released in November, which predicted that climate change will damage the US economy to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars or, in the worst-case scenario, more than 10% of its gross domestic product by the end of the century, as well as killing hundreds of thousands of people.

“Rapid climate action is strategic for both our economy and our national security, and we urgently need strong federal policy to make that happen,” testified Richard Duke, who served as special assistant to President Obama. He helped craft the 2013 Climate Action Plan, which set lower emissions goals for the United States.

He asked the subcommittee to create legislation that would invest in zero-carbon electricity technology, to create regulations and incentives to drive down industrial and agricultural sources of pollution, and to invest in land restoration that could curb climate change.

Although clean technologies are cheaper, he said, “federal climate policy is shifting into reverse.” US carbon dioxide emissions were up 3.4% in 2018 after falling 1.6% per year on average from 2007 to 2016, Duke said.

In opening the hearing, Rep. John Shimkus, R-Illinois, agreed that climate change is a threat to the globe but cautioned against “amped-up partisan rhetoric.”

While wind and solar are becoming a larger part of our resources, fossil fuel energy will remain the dominant source of energy, he said, warning against raising the costs on fossil fuel and objecting to plans, like the Green New Deal, that may call for more regulations.

“We should be willing to accept that affordable and abundant energy is a key ingredient for economic growth. After all, economic growth and economic resources, coupled with sound planning infrastructure and governance, increase local capabilities to minimize impacts of future extreme events,” Shimkus said. “These are realities we should explore today and in future hearings if we want to develop sound environmental and energy policies if we want to reduce climate risk.”

Rich Powell, executive director of ClearPath, a conservative nonprofit advocating for clean energy innovation, said the issue is “too important to be a partisan punching bag” and deserves a pragmatic and technology-inclusive approach.

Powell highlighted heavy industry efforts to reduce emissions; for example, Shell Oil aims to cut emissions by 2050, he said. He encouraged the government to work with industry to continue these efforts, pushed for more investment in technology and asked Congress to remove regulatory barriers.

Climate change is a global problem, he noted, and despite significant investment in renewable energy, “clean development is only just keeping up with economic development.”

For example, coal power use quadrupled in China, he said, and expected emissions growth from developing countries by 2050 alone would offset complete decarbonization of the US economy. “Clean tech available today is simply not up to the task of decarbonization,” he said.

Duke pointed out that the United States could do better investing in low-carbon technology and said it is lagging far behind other countries. He also cited China, saying it was already investing $127 billion in renewable power and fuels by 2017, more than triple related US investments that year. China also accounts for well over half of electrical vehicle sales.

This global interest has driven down the price of low-carbon technology.

“It’s never been easier to cut greenhouse gas pollution,” Duke said. Renewable energy has become cheaper, and even states with a large fossil fuel industry such as Texas are pushing ahead with carbon capture and storage solutions that cut the industry’s contributions to climate change. But much more needs to be done.

“This is a momentum game. The faster we act, the easier it gets,” Duke testified. “Unfortunately, we are not moving fast enough.”

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