By Jenna Lewinstein (SC ’19)
With the 2018 midterm elections on the horizon, speculation have arose as to whether or not the Democrats will take back Congress. In the event of a Democratic majority in either chamber, climate change would top a list of legislative priorities, simply for its increasing relevance yet lack of prevalence in the 113th Congress. In Congress, environmental and climate change policies have fallen to the wayside. Of over 12,000 bills introduced in the current Congress, only two “environmental protection” related bills have passed both houses and became law— one a deregulation allowing coal mining processes to pollute drinking water, and another exempting certain fishing vessels from being subject to pollutant standards. As the country endures seasonal weather disparities and sees an increasing pattern of natural disasters, the issue of climate change has become paramount and the need for policy implementation intensifies. In a time of heightened government deregulation, the revival of a climate change committee may bring the environment back into the policy arena.
Though there is currently no committee in Congress specifically regarding global climate change, there is precedent. The House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming was created in 2007 by House Resolution 202 pushed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during the 110th Congress. The Committee was directed to “investigate, study, make findings, and develop recommendations on policies, strategies, technologies and other innovations, intended to reduce the dependence of the United States on foreign sources of energy and achieve substantial and permanent reductions in emissions and other activities that contribute to climate change and global warming.” For 4 years, it employed a broad agenda that drove the congressional climate change debate. The committee held over 80 hearings and briefing sessions, conducted research, and helped produce legislation. Key findings of the bipartisan Committee were issued in an extensive report by Chairman Markey (currently Sen. D-MA, then Rep.) that identified scientific consensus that global climate change is exacerbated by manmade greenhouse gas emissions.
During the committee’s lifetime in the 110th-111th Congresses, the Select Committee took many steps to address climate and energy security challenges. It investigated the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill and the House passed the “Spill Bill” to ensure oversight on offshore drilling, adding clean energy spending to the 2009 economic stimulus package, and negotiated with the Obama administration to create the “cash for clunkers” program that gave vouches for efficient vehicles. It created the American Clean Energy and Security Act, a cap-and-trade bill, and the Home Star Energy Retrofit Act, an energy efficiency program, which both passed the house with bipartisan support. The Committee also improved cybersecurity protections for the country’s electric grid, and represented the U.S. at the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009. The Committee’s legislation never passed the Senate, but it did inspire President Obama and Democrats at large to bring environmental policy to the forefront and redirect conversations about climate change.
In 2011, the 112th Congress dissolved the House Select Committee at the will of the newly Republican majority. Jurisdiction of climate change matters were shifted to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the Natural Resources Committee, and the House Science Committee. A separate global warming panel within the Committee that was also created by Nancy Pelosi in 2006 was additionally cut. Speaker Boehner’s (R-OH) spokesman commented on his behalf, saying the committee was “created by Democrats simply to provide political cover to pass their job-killing national energy tax.” Another Republican who served on the panel, Rep. Shadegg (R-AZ), mentioned he was willing to serve on the panel to explore an “all-of-the-above energy posture,” but walked away with the impression that the Democrats had a “preordained agenda” which “compelled Republicans to take a more partisan posture.” Despite these sentiments, Shadegg still admitted that bringing back the Committee is worth considering due to the importance of addressing challenges posed by climate change, and is “in favor of Congress acting on solid information…focusing on sound science.”
Because the Committee dissolved in 2011, President Obama did not have always have the support of a special climate committee. Obama’s achievements regarding the environment included working within legislative processes during times of Democratic majority in Congress, as well as working unilaterally within executive frameworks during times of divided government. During the current era of President Trump, action on environmental policy has largely been based on deregulation and rollbacks of Obama policies during a time of stagnation regarding climate change discussions in Congress. Though there is no current climate change committee, Rep. Smith (R-TX) the current Chairman of the House Science Committee, has discussed the need to research “benefits of a changing climate.” He pointed to research of Judith Curry, who questions the extent of human contribution to recent warming.
Across the Republican Party, the current stance on climate change is, at best, indifferent, but in general, leans away from protectionary environmental policies. With Democrats potentially able to retake the House, a Democratic effort to re-establish a Climate Change committee could shift the legislative and public conversation about climate change. It would represent a break from the current status quo and bring scientific, pro-environmental policy back to Committees, and a bicameral Democratic majority would lead to passing legislation on the floor of both houses.