Climate change is back on the table in Congress—at least in the House of Representatives, where Democrats took control earlier this month. As part of an effort to focus more on combating global warming, Democrats have revived a special House committee on climate that Republicans had previously eliminated.
But the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis (pdf) already faces big obstacles. The Trump administration has rolled back numerous environmental initiatives, even declaring it is pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement. The Republican-controlled Senate has placed little emphasis on tackling warming. Democrats are arguing over the committee’s focus; some even question the need for such a panel. The committee also lacks legislative authority (meaning it cannot move bills) and cannot issue subpoenas that would compel people to testify.
Still, some Democrats are optimistic about the committee’s chances of pushing the national conversation on climate change forward. Its new leader, Rep. Kathy Castor, says that along with other projects the committee will start shaping a climate change policy roadmap that can be used when Congress finally decides to act on global warming.
Scientific American spoke with Castor, the U.S. representative for Florida’s 14th district, about her plans for addressing climate change through the committee.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
What is the House Democrats’ vision for addressing climate change? Does the party have a clear idea yet of what that might look like?
That is one of the purposes of the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. Fortunately, we have a new class of members who have come to Congress energized. They’re smart, they’re passionate and they are unified in the need for Congress to set new national policies when it comes to climate change. We kind of feel like we’ve been freed to finally get to work. [Since] the GOP took over Congress [in the 2014 midterm elections] we have been stymied in our ability to have hearings and pass legislation to address the climate crisis. So we’re behind and we know that action is more urgent than ever.
You have said that the committee is going to be very action-oriented. What exactly do you hope the panel can accomplish?
The select committee will press all of the [permanent Congressional standing committees] to take action immediately—to address the impacts of climate and to press for bold action on reducing greenhouse gases. So we’re kind of the quarterback for a number of these committees, and will press to accomplish what we currently can. That’s with the understanding that the GOP controls the Senate and Pres. Trump and his administration are moving in the wrong direction—and there isn’t much sign of them reconsidering their position.
So we will do what we can now, and then set the table for bolder action when we have a friendlier U.S. Senate and a new president. But we simply can’t wait. The cost of inaction is growing, and it’s more dire than ever before.
Do you have specific goals in mind for the committee?
There are a number of different sectors where we can reduce greenhouse gases. First, in the energy-generation sector—we’ve got to build in incentives for the reduction of carbon pollution and incentives for the construction of new fuel sources. In the transportation sector there’s some low-hanging fruit—for example, fuel economy standards. The Obama administration was moving forward to improve our fuel economy standards. Unfortunately the Trump administration came in and threw a wrench into the works. We think that Congress can press the administration to reestablish those fuel economy standards. I would look for action there.
The national laboratories have a lot of bipartisan support, and they are generating the most innovative technologies for carbon reduction. Through appropriations, I think we can seek greater investment in our national laboratories on clean energy and energy efficiency. In green building there’s also a lot of bipartisan support to build in new requirements for the way we construct buildings and how they are powered. So those are a few of the things that we are going to press ahead on.
What role will the committee play in pushing ahead on those items?
We do not have legislative authority but we have to report to all of the standing committees on a regular basis. So that is going to be the lever we use to press them to act. We will have complementary hearings and fill in the blanks.
The second part of our role will be to travel the country and have field hearings to shine light on states and communities that are moving towards clean energy, so that we can inform others, including policy makers. Sitting in Washington, D.C., oftentimes you don’t have a great understanding of everything happening across the country. We want to change that. We have new tools—social media and live streaming—where we can bring those communities to policy makers.
We can also travel and make sure all of the terrific scientific research and technology is coming back to policy makers, so they can make better-informed decisions. I anticipate we will go to some of the national laboratories and academic centers where they are really on the cutting edge of what can be accomplished here.
How do you hope the committee will move the needle in terms of incorporating climate science into federal government actions and House legislation?
That is going to be one of our primary roles. Congress is so far behind when it comes to science and technology. It has been way too slow to act when it comes to addressing the climate crisis. So we hope to be helpful and provide a platform for scientists across the country who can explain the impacts—what’s happening due to climate—and also inform us of what is possible, how we can take action.
The challenge will be that there is so much information, so much science. How do we prioritize? How do we take the huge amount of information at our fingertips and turn that into policy? That’s going to be our charge over the next year. First of all, we will press the administration and GOP Senate to act and accomplish as much as possible. But if they will not, we have got to develop policy recommendations so they are ready to roll as soon as we have a new administration and a friendlier Senate.
What might the committee's hearings focus on?
The sky is the limit. We must focus on the energy sector. And we have got to focus on transportation—the fuels of the future, electric vehicles, greater investment in transit, land-use policy. When you talk about land-use policy, you’re also talking about adaptation. Congress intends to act on a flood insurance reform bill this year, and this is an area where the committee will press for the most up-to-date policies to ensure we’re not building in flood-prone areas. So the jurisdiction is broad, the challenge is great and time is short.
How do you plan to address the administration’s refusal to engage with climate science or act on climate change, without subpoena power?
We are going to have some very high-profile hearings and we’re going to use every communication tool at our disposal to make sure that people—no matter where they live across this country—understand that inaction is going to create a very significant cost on them.
I represent a working class district in Tampa, and we are already bearing the burden of changing climate and escalating costs. For example, we have higher air-conditioning bills in the summer—because the summers are hotter and longer. We’re paying more in property insurance because of extreme weather events. We’re experiencing more intense hurricanes. We’ve been plagued in Florida by red tide and toxic algae—even though it’s naturally occurring, scientists are telling us that warmer temperatures exacerbate it. That has a direct impact on our economy—in tourism, jobs and fishing. People are tired of the narrative from the fossil fuel companies that say, "Oh this is too expensive to address.” But see, it’s so very costly already. We’ve got to tell that story.
What role will Republicans play regarding this committee? Do you imagine the committee's work will be a bipartisan effort in any way?
I’m very hopeful for constructive partners from the Republican side of the aisle. There are a couple I’ve talked with. For example, Congressman Francis Rooney—who shares the Gulf Coast with me here in Florida—said he would really like to serve on the committee and help build that policy framework.
This is where the scientific community can come in and help educate colleagues on both sides of the aisle. This is something that’s going to take everyone.