New urgency on climate change comes to Congress

Democrats hold multiple committee hearings

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While President Donald Trump pokes fun at global warming on Twitter and expresses doubts about his own administration's scientific findings about climate change, Congress is approaching the issue with new urgency.

Now in the majority in the House, Democrats held multiple committee hearings over the past two weeks to discuss climate science and hear the accounts of people who experienced climate change destruction.

Scientific discussions

Throughout the hearings, leading climate scientists discussed the damage already done to public lands. They warned about rising temperatures, the threats of sea level rise, floods, the loss of sea ice and the intensification and frequency of extreme weather events like hurricanes.

One of the scientists who testified was Robert Kopp, a co-author of the National Climate Assessment released in November. At nearly 2,000 pages, it is a data-driven and peer-reviewed assessment of climate change and its predicted impact.

"The process of drafting the fourth National Climate Assessment are painstaking and complex, but its fundamental findings are simple and urgent. First, climate change is real, it's happening now, and humans are responsible for it," testified Kopp, director of the Rutgers Institute of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and a professor in Rutgers' Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. "The planet is running a fever."

Eyewitnesses to damage

On February 6, governors from Massachusetts and North Carolina testified before the House Natural Resources Committee, discussing the billions of dollars in damage and loss of life, property and jobs in their states due to extreme weather events related to climate change.

"Many federal initiatives are only available after a disaster occurs," Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker testified. He urged Congress to make more funds available to improve infrastructure and research 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," said Baker, a Republican.

Indigenous impact

On Tuesday, at a House Subcommittee for Indigenous People of the United States hearing, community leaders testified about how climate change has forced entire villages to move.

Jennine Jordan, the government relations liaison for Calista Corp., a regional Alaska Native corporation, cited Newtok. It's one of the six villages the state of Alaska has labeled "in peril" due to climate change.

"Newtok is currently threatened by advancing erosion caused by the Ninglick River, adjacent to the village," Jordan said. "This progressive erosion, plus permafrost degradation and seasonal storm flooding, threaten the very existence of Newtok."

It will cost the community $130 million to move to a new site 9 miles away, Jordan said, because no roads connect the areas, and there is already a "critical" housing shortage forcing multiple families to share single homes. Some federal disaster funds are off-limits, because while federal legislation like the Stafford Act allows for funds to cover damage caused by "singular events like earthquakes and hurricanes," it does not help in the case of "slow-moving disasters caused by climate change," she said.

Climate change in coal country

At Tuesday's hearing of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, community leaders talked about the need for government funds to get coal workers and others in "boom and bust" extraction industries into other work.

Peter Hille, president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development in Berea, Kentucky, testified that the area's "long history of coal mining did not create prosperity" and has left an economy that has been "distressed for generations." It was made worse in 2012, when natural gas became cheaper than coal, collapsing that industry.

A return to coal is not the answer, he said. Instead, his organization provides small-business loans and energy efficiency programs and helps retrain miners for green jobs in sustainable agriculture, energy efficiency work and others. "These communities fuel the growth of this great nation," he said. "They are owed a debt" and need new investment.

Bill Bisset, a minority witness who is president and CEO of the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce, talked about recent job growth in West Virginia that's largely due to the "rebirth in coal and natural gas production," he said. It's a campaign promise from the Trump administration but one that analysts say is unsustainable.

Bisset urged the committee to continue to support "all forms of energy production" and said businesses in West Virginia are worried about the boom being "fragile." Any action due to climate change fears could damage "our economy far greater than any other state," he said.

Climate change politics

Democrat and Republican members of Congress also took the opportunity to talk about the the current politics around climate change. Democrats complained loudly about the Trump administration.

"Though the administration has regrettably chosen to ignore the findings of its own scientists in regards to climate change, we as lawmakers have a responsibility to protect the public's interest," House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, said Wednesday.

Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico, who chaired Wednesday's Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands hearing, said, "they see fit to pursue energy dominance at all costs to push a destructive and extractive agenda."

Calling climate change the "most pressing issue facing our nation," Haaland said that national parks are warming twice as fast as the rest of the country. Climate change threatens our coasts and jeopardizes the country's clean air and water, and "at the same time, the (Trump) administration has suppressed science and prevented adaptation," she said.

"They put Americans in harm's way," Haaland said. "If this administration will not take the lead, this committee will."

Republicans, while expressing interest in "pragmatic solutions" to climate change, also criticized progressive proposals like the Green New Deal, which Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar labeled at Tuesday's hearing a "socialist fairy tale."

"All too often, this issue has been used as a vehicle to push a radically progressive agenda that would prove to be devastating for American families and would offer minimal, at best, climate results," Republican Rep. John Curtis said, reading ranking member Don Young's statement at Wednesday's hearing on public lands. (The Alaska Republican came late to the hearing.)

"Among the policy goals that have been expressed would be complete elimination of air travel, cows and nuclear energy," the statement said. "Fear mongering and unrealistic rhetoric should have no place in this debate. Instead, we should focus on pragmatic solutions that offer realistic environmental solutions."

At the Science, Space and Technology hearing Wednesday, Johnson said that her hearing on climate change will be "the first in what will be multiple climate change-related hearings this Congress."

"It is clear that we are responsible for our planet warming at an alarming rate, and we already are feeling the impacts of this warming today," she said. These hearings "will allow us to better understand the climate-related impacts we are experiencing in all of our districts."

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