By William S. Becker
With Democrats organizing to take over the House of Representatives in January, there are already reports of a kerfuffle about who will be in charge of energy and climate issues. Intra-party power struggles are neither unusual nor all that interesting outside of Washington, D.C., but this one involves an area of growing national and international urgency.
That latest report from the world’s climate scientists if that human civilization is closer to a collision with the biosphere than we thought. That warning came last month from a working group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It estimates that nations have 12 years to make “rapid and far-reaching” changes in nearly every aspect of human society if we hope to avoid long-lasting and irreversible changes in the Earth’s weather. According to the group’s co-chair, “The next few years are probably the most important in our history.”
We have heard similar warnings before, but now it is obvious that climate change has arrived and it’s getting destructive and deadly more quickly than scientists thought it would.
Polling over many years that Americans want environmental protection, renewable energy and controls on the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming. Polling two months ago found that 74% of registered voters are concerned about climate change and 80% want Congress to do so something about it.
In other words, there is an enormous gap between what the American people want and what Congress and President Trump are willing to deliver. Fossil fuels provide about 90% of America’s energy today. The federal government gives tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to oil, gas and coal companies each year to encourage more production. Rather than easing away from these fuels, President Trump wants the U.S. to become the world’s dominant source. At the same time, he is relaxing or abolishing federal regulations to control their pollution.
While there are Republicans in Congress who support climate action, the positions of the Republican Party and President Trump are that climate change is not real, human-caused, worth worrying about. Voters won’t have a chance to change that until the 2020 presidential and congressional elections. In the meantime, no significant climate or energy legislation would survive once it left the House.
There are many things the House can do, however, to increase the nation’s sense of urgency for climate action, to show what kind of action can be taken and to verify the multiple and overlapping benefits of non-polluting energy for public health, job creation, economic security, energy price stability, business development, international competitiveness and so on.
This is where the leadership struggle in the House comes in. Nancy Pelosi plans to reconstitute the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Climate Change, a panel she founded in 2007 to explore what Congress could do about global warming. It held some 80 hearings before it was disbanded in 2011 when Republicans took over the House.
The rub is that there already are several standing committees in the House with jurisdiction over various aspects of energy policy. The prospective chairman of one of them objects that Pelosi’s Select Committee would be duplicative.
But that need not been the case if the Select Committee’s mission is carefully designed to support rather than duplicate the work of the standing committees. With its single focus on energy and climate the Select Committee could:
- Evaluate the evolving recommendations of groups such as the U.S. Climate Alliance for possible national legislation and assistance to states.
- Explore whether the several current proposals for a carbon fee on fossil fuels can be synthesized into a consensus bill. The proposals put forward so far disagree on what the fee should be and how its revenues should be allocated.
- Design a path and timetable for the United States to decarbonize its economy by switching to zero-carbon domestic renewable energy resources. A key issue would be how to phase out fossil energy subsidies with a minimum of economic and social disruption, perhaps with a down-ramp similar to the one Congress established for renewable energy subsidies. Today, the U.S. provides more taxpayer money to oil, gas and coal companies than the world’s seven richest nations combined.
- Produce an authoritative report on the multiple benefits of transitioning to clean energy.
- Conduct public hearings on guidelines that other House committees would consider to ensure that infrastructure modernization includes resilience to extreme weather, cyber-attack and other threats, and that the restoration and preservation of ecosystem services are one of the nation’s infrastructure priorities.
- Conduct informal hearings on how states and universities can localize the regional climate impacts described by the National Climate Assessment.
- Conduct additional hearings on the adverse consequences of President Trump’s plan to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord, including negative impacts of the U.S. economy, clean energy jobs, energy innovation, and global competitiveness.
In short, there’s no need to quibble over recreation of the Select Committee on energy and climate change. With a properly defined mission, it can support and add value to the other committees working on energy and climate issues in the House.