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House Democrats Hold First Climate Change Hearings in More Than 5 Years

Politics
House Democrats Hold First Climate Change Hearings in More Than 5 Years
The House Committee on Energy and Commerce held a hearing on Feb. 6 titled "Time for Action: Addressing the Environmental and Economic Effects of Climate Change." Energy & Commerce Committee / YouTube screenshot

President Donald Trump might have left climate change out of his State of the Union address Tuesday night, but the next day, House Democrats filled the silence with twin committee hearings addressing the issue.

Both the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change and the Natural Resources Committee met Wednesday morning to discuss the problem. Democratic California Representative Scott Peters tweeted it was the first Energy and Commerce hearing to focus on the issue in six years, while House Natural Resources Committee Chairman and Democratic Arizona Representative Raúl M. Grijalva said it was the first hearing on climate change in eight years, as CNN reported.


"Today, we turn the page on this committee from climate change denial to climate action," Grijalva said.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the hearings:

1. 'Turning the Page' on Denial

House Republicans participating in the hearings largely abandoned outright denial of climate science, E&E News reported.

When Colorado Democratic Representative Diana DeGette asked every witness called by both parties before the Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee if they believed the climate was changing primarily due to greenhouse gas emissions, they all said yes.

"That in itself is a revolutionary step for this committee," DeGette said, E&E News reported.

However, there was more skepticism expressed by Republicans and their witnesses at the Natural Resources Committee hearing. One Republican witness was retired chair of earth and atmospheric sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology Judith Curry, who argued that droughts and extreme weather events in the past had been worse than those that have taken place in recent years, The Guardian reported.

2. Green New Deal

Most Republicans, however, opted to accept that climate change is happening while they shifted their disagreement to how it should be addressed.

Republican West Virginia Representative David McKinley told the Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee that "we all agree" on what is happening. "Where we disagree is on solutions," he said, E&E News reported.

Republicans like McKinley focused their opposition on a Green New Deal, an ambitious plan supported by some Democrats to transition the U.S. away from fossil fuels while providing green jobs and addressing economic inequality.

"If anyone thinks that decarbonizing America is going to save the planet, whether that's 10 years or 20 years from now, they're delusional," McKinley said.

Republicans generally prefer market or technology based solutions to sweeping policy proposals, E&E News reported.

"We have heard about general tenets of the plan for the U.S., such as all renewable electricity generation by 2030, all zero emission passenger vehicles in just 11 years, a federal job guarantee and a living wage guarantee," Republican Oregon Representative Greg Walden said. "We have serious concerns about the potential adverse economic and employment impacts of these types of measures."

However, top Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee like Subcommittee Chairman and New York Democratic Representative Paul Tonko and full Committee Chairman and New Jersey Democratic Representative Frank Pallone are also skeptical of the idea. Pallone recommended addressing climate change within an infrastructure bill that Trump would sign as the most politically realistic way forward.

3. Bipartisan Impacts

In a show of how much climate change is already affecting American daily life, both Republican and Democratic governors testified before the Natural Resources Committee about what it had done to their states.

North Carolina Democratic Governor Roy Cooper spoke of the devastation caused by Hurricane Florence and other recent storms. He said his state had survived two 500-year flooding events in two years.

"When storms are becoming more fierce, it is not enough to pick up the pieces. We must take action to prevent this kind of devastation in the future," Cooper said, as CNN reported. "I urge Congress and all of our federal partners to match the level of determination brought to recovery efforts to fight the effects of climate change."

Republican Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker agreed with Cooper on the need for preventative action. He spoke about the impact that more frequent storms, higher temperatures and warmer oceans had had on his state's residents, agriculture, recreation and fisheries and called both for federal plans for infrastructure adaptation and emissions reduction.

"This is not a challenge any one of us can solve alone. We need collective action from federal, state and local governments working with the private sector to aggressively reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the changes that are already in motion," Baker said, CNN reported.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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