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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.

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An illustration depicts the extinct woolly rhino. Heinrich Harder / Wikimedia Commons

The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.

The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.

"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."

The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.

The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.

To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.

"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."

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A quality engineer examines new solar panels in a factory. alvarez / Getty Images

Transitioning to renewable energy can help reduce global warming, and Jennie Stephens of Northeastern University says it can also drive social change.

For example, she says that locally owned businesses can lead the local clean energy economy and create new jobs in underserved communities.

"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."

To maximize that potential, she says the energy sector must have more women and people of color in positions of influence. Research shows that leadership in the solar industry, for example, is currently dominated by white men.

"I think that a more inclusive, diverse leadership is essential to be able to effectively make these connections," Stephens says. "Diversity is not just about who people are and their identity, but the ideas and the priorities and the approaches and the lens that they bring to the world."

So she says by elevating diverse voices, organizations can better connect the climate benefits of clean energy with social and economic transformation.

Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.

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