As oceans rise, Democrats put all hands on deck for climate change

White House and congressional Democrats agree moving away from fossil fuels, creating green jobs are top priorities

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer says he has directed the new chairs of “all relevant committees to begin holding hearings on the climate crisis.” (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer says he has directed the new chairs of “all relevant committees to begin holding hearings on the climate crisis.” (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 9, 2021 at 6:00am

As the 117th Congress enters its second month and the Biden administration fills out its Cabinet, Democrats in the executive and legislative branches of the federal government are in agreement that climate change deserves swift attention and in alignment that legislation to support the transition from fossil to clean energy is a good place to begin.

Even President Joe Biden’s nominees for director of national intelligence, secretary of Agriculture, Treasury secretary and deputy Defense secretary, not traditionally posts with ecological focuses, described climate change as a critical issue.

If there was doubt that the Senate under Democratic control would approach climate change as an all-hands-on-deck threat, Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., aimed to lay it to rest on Feb. 3, calling the warming globe “the existential threat of our time.”

“We’re finally seeing a focus on the climate issue at the highest level of our politics,” Flannery Winchester, communications director for Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a nonpartisan organization that prods Congress to tax carbon emissions, said in an interview. “I think that this year and this session of Congress are really crucial because it seems more likely than ever that major policy is going to move forward on climate.”

On his first day in office, Biden set the U.S. on track to rejoin the Paris climate agreement of 2015, directed federal agencies to review more than 100 environmental decisions and agency moves from the Trump administration, and revoked a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.

[Congressional mandates unfulfilled by Trump’s Interior Department]

A week later, on Jan. 27, Biden announced a moratorium on fossil fuel extraction leases on federal lands, issued a memo on scientific integrity and announced the creation of the Civil Climate Corps, styled after the Depression-era Civil Conservation Corps work program.

“Just like we need a unified national response to COVID-19, we desperately need a unified national response to the climate crisis,” Biden said.

Pushback

Republicans responded with bills to protect Keystone and block federal freezes on fossil energy leasing. They also pointed to projected job losses from Biden’s moves, saying halting individual projects doesn’t matter in the grand scope of a warming planet.

“Any reason to believe that that executive order by President Biden is going to reduce the amount of oil and gas that the world will consume?” Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., asked Mark Mills of the conservative Manhattan Institute.

“There’s no reason to believe that will happen,” Mills replied.

The president has more in the works. After Congress considers the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package this week, Democrats are expected to introduce an infrastructure bill that will include a focus on transportation systems that release little or no greenhouse gases.

Biden singled out Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, at a White House meeting last Friday.

“Even before any of us spoke and even before the president addressed us, when we sat down he said to Peter, ‘You’re next,’ before anything else,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Jamal Raad, co-founder and executive director of Evergreen Action, said in an interview that he expects the next piece of legislation after the COVID-19 relief bill to be an infrastructure bill that contains renewable energy facets, including a national clean electricity standard.

“I have been really excited about Leader Schumer’s focus on climate,” said Raad, a former staffer to Gov. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., who ran for president with climate policy at the core of his agenda. Schumer has talked about climate change as a priority for more than a year, Raad noted. “He’s really put his words into action.”

Biden ran for president with the goal of getting all electricity in America to be carbon-free by 2035 — a proposal known as a “clean energy standard,” a term that generally refers to the government setting goals to derive a certain percentage of electricity from zero-emission sources by a set date.

While Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., a swing vote and chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, on Thursday said he opposes a carbon tax, he has indicated he is open to a clean energy standard. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., introduced a clean energy standard bill last Congress that did not get a vote in committee.

Listening to opposition

A few hours after he reached an agreement with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Schumer said last week that he had directed the incoming heads of “all relevant committees” to hold hearings on the “climate crisis,” which he lamented the Senate long sidestepped: “This Democratic majority will compel the Senate to forcefully, relentlessly and urgently address climate change.”

Speaking to reporters Feb. 3, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said lawmakers should heed members who represent districts with strong links to fossil energy jobs.

“We need to be sensitive and listen to our members,” Hoyer said. “But we believe that ultimately we’re going to create a lot more jobs by converting to renewable energy and nonpolluting energy.”

Noting a threat to coastal districts like his, Hoyer said the government should act “to save our littorals, shorelines, from being swallowed up by a rise in water levels.”

Global sea levels have risen during the past century, and the rate at which they are rising has increased in recent decades, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

With higher ocean levels come more damaging storm surges during hurricanes, more people and real estate in harm’s way and a spike in “nuisance flooding.” This type of flooding, also known as “high tide” flooding, is increasingly common, leading to disruptions and costs to repair buildings and public works such as roads.

Nuisance flooding is “300 percent to 900 percent more frequent” in coastal U.S. regions than it was 50 years ago, according to NOAA.

On the heels of 2020, which tied for the hottest year recorded, according to NASA data, House Democrats on Friday introduced legislation to boost tax incentives for renewables, energy efficiency and electric vehicles.

“Climate change is the most pressing issue of our time and we must act boldly to address this existential threat,” said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., a member of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee.

Republicans in the 116th Congress did not put forward comprehensive climate legislation or a climate plan to knock down emissions. But they did show an interest in nuclear power, capturing carbon emissions, limiting hydrofluorocarbon use and a proposal to plant trees nationwide because they absorb carbon dioxide. Legislation that passed both chambers around Christmas included carbon capture and hydrofluorocarbon measures.

GOP solutions

“We should look at advanced nuclear, we should look at carbon capture, hydro,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., the highest-ranking GOP member on the Energy and Commerce panel, told CQ Roll Call in December. “There’s a lot of clean energy solutions that I believe we can find bipartisan support to advance.”

Asked to describe the Republican Party’s “climate platform” and for potential areas of climate cooperation, spokesmen for McConnell did not respond to requests for comment.

Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina who leads a conservative group called republicEn.org that pushes for pricing fossil fuel emissions, said by phone that the GOP in Congress did not seem to have a coherent climate plan. “They’re objecting to some things, but it’s not full-throated ‘we don’t need to do anything,’” he said of Republicans’ reaction to Biden’s climate moves.

Still, he said, Republicans have come a long way from the days about a decade ago when former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin rallied crowds with the phrase “Drill, baby, drill!”

“Now we have Sen. Barrasso saying, ‘It’s real, we need to do something.’ So we’re making progress,” Inglis said.

Mary Ellen McIntire and Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.