Climate panel urges sweeping change, deep carbon cuts

Report endorses a carbon tax, but offers no estimate of the cost to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050

Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., will present her committee's plan Tuesday morning. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo))
Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., will present her committee's plan Tuesday morning. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo))
Posted June 30, 2020 at 6:00am

House Democrats will on Tuesday reveal a sweeping slate of recommendations to address climate change by lowering emissions, investing in low-carbon industries, pulling away from high-pollution sectors and speeding the shift away from fossil fuels.

The suggestions, included in a report by the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, are by turns highly technical and granular as well as expansive in scope. The report includes some cost and benefit estimates for certain policies, but it does not include a cost for the Democrats' entire plan, which likely includes thousands of steps and has not been turned into legislative language.

To achieve net-zero emissions in the U.S. by 2050 the authors detail a national energy standard for the electric utility sector, a robust federal presence in electric vehicles, an overhaul of U.S. railroads, a crackdown on methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, an investment in carbon-capture equipment and a phasedown of hydrofluorocarbons, a family of potent gases used as refrigerants, canisters and aerosols.

The report endorses the idea of a carbon tax, though it does not use that politically fraught phrase. Still, the committee notes that a tax on industries that emit greenhouse gases is not a panacea.

For a fair and effective outcome, "Congress should establish a carbon pricing system designed to achieve America’s economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal of net-zero by no later than 2050," the report reads. It adds that "Congress should consider a carbon price as only one tool to complement a suite of policies to achieve deep pollution reductions and strengthen community resilience to climate impacts. Carbon pricing is not a silver bullet."

Under a carbon tax proposal, the authors also write that the revenue should be returned in some manner to middle- and low-income citizens.

In all, the report contains hundreds, perhaps thousands, of recommendations. It is more than 500 pages long and the culmination of 17 months of work, consultation with hundreds of experts and citizens, and it could serve as a rubric for Democrats in January, if they hold the House, win the Senate and secure the presidency. It may also serve as a campaign theme as they pursue those outcomes in November.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., chairwoman of the select committee, are scheduled to present their “comprehensive” climate plan Tuesday at 10 a.m. on the steps on the east side of the Capitol.

More carbon

Despite the lockdown measures worldwide in response to the coronavirus, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide hit a record high in May, the highest point in 23 million years, scientists said. That month was the second-hottest on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the hottest on record, according to NASA, which uses a different calculation.

In their report, Democrats said the surreal and dramatic background playing out — the virus and its economic destruction, as well as the protests against police violence sweeping the nation following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed by police in Minnesota — have much in common with climate change.

Both the virus and climate change disproportionately affect Black communities and racial minorities in America and other industrialized nations, like the U.K.

“The country’s most vulnerable populations — low-income communities and communities of color that have been hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic — are most at risk, as underlying demographic, socioeconomic, and health factors act as threat multipliers for the dangerous impacts of climate change,” the introduction reads. “What happens next — for racial equality, for public health, for the climate crisis — depends on us.”

Only Democrats appear as authors on the document. It is unclear if Republicans who served on the select committee will write their own report. “First, we are going to review the Democratic staff's report,” a spokesperson for the GOP said. “Our next action is TBD at this point.”

First-term Democrats, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., campaigned heavily on climate change in 2018 and pressed Pelosi to create a select climate committee, and the House did so last January under H. Res. 6, which established the panel. 

The idea was that the committee would issue a set of recommendations, as it did today, that would then be assigned to various House committees and percolate up through the chamber.

Pelosi last year disputed the idea that the committee, which is not authorized to draft legislation or issue subpoenas, was impotent. She said its objective was to release a blueprint for bipartisan legislation. 

That the committee’s official location is in the Ford House Office Building did not help dislodge that idea. Many congressional staffers don’t know it exists.

“That is the purpose of the select committee, not just to be an academic endeavor,” Pelosi said in late 2019, adding Democrats were seeking to include Republicans and hoped the final result should be “something that is unifying on this subject.”

The final report was expected at the end of March, but the coronavirus pandemic pushed other issues out of the way on Capitol Hill.

The panel from the 116th Congress is not the first on climate change that Pelosi has established as speaker. She created in 2007 the Select Committee on Energy Independence & Global Warming, which then-Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., led.

It lasted until 2011, when Tea Party Republicans swept into Washington and the new GOP majority phased out the committee.