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Congressional Democrats Say Climate Change Is A Priority As They Control The House


Now that Democrats control the House of Representatives, they hope to use the platform to fight climate change. They say it is a top priority, and they are kicking things off with two hearings tomorrow. NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Congress basically stopped holding climate science hearings when the Republican Party took control eight years ago, so Democrats are excited. And they're channeling a previous moment when congressional climate hearings were a big deal. Rafe Pomerance spent four decades as a climate activist.

RAFE POMERANCE: Congressional hearings were essential to bringing climate change forward as an issue, not only in the United States but globally.

HERSHER: Pomerance pushed for the first major climate hearing in the 1980s.

POMERANCE: 1986, chaired by a Republican, John Chafee from Rhode Island.


JOHN CHAFEE: There's a problem of ozone depletion, and there's the problem of the greenhouse effect and the climate change.

POMERANCE: It was news in that the drama was news.


CHAFEE: There's a very real possibility that man, either through ignorance or indifference or both, is irreversibly altering the ability of our atmosphere to perform basic life support functions for our planet.

HERSHER: I asked Pomerance - has that drama worn off?

POMERANCE: Oh, no. It's much more profound. We're seeing what was forecast back then become a reality.

HERSHER: He says this week's hearings are important to make climate change real to citizens. The governors of Massachusetts and North Carolina will be testifying before the natural resources committee about sea level rise in their states. And Brenda Ekwurzel of the Union of Concerned Scientists is one of the witnesses testifying at the energy and commerce committee.

BRENDA EKWURZEL: Two hearings at the same time and governors coming into one of the hearings, I think that's a really good sign. I think - something feels different to me this time around. I'm hopeful this time.

HERSHER: Ekwurzel wants to see Congress voting on legislation. She'll remind legislators that the U.S. has the highest per capita carbon emissions in the world.

EKWURZEL: I will remind the committee just how damaging it is to the U.S. economy to allow global emissions to keep rising.

HERSHER: Ekwurzel will talk about extreme weather, shorter growing seasons and longer droughts. Congressman Raul Grijalva of Arizona is chairing one of tomorrow's hearings.

RAUL GRIJALVA: We're going to talk about science. We're going to talk about climate change.

HERSHER: He hopes that will pave the way for the House to introduce legislation - more funding for climate studies, for example. He says he expects Democrats to disagree about how exactly to combat climate change. Hearings could start the process of ironing those differences out. But he says he doesn't see any evidence that congressional Republicans are on board.

GRIJALVA: You know, I don't think there's going to be universal agreement on a high bipartisan level to do anything about climate change.

HERSHER: And high-level bipartisan agreement will be necessary if Congress wants to pass big climate legislation - for example, a carbon tax, what economists say is the most efficient way for the country to tackle global warming. Rafe Pomerance says that kind of legislation requires both parties.

POMERANCE: Democrats have tried market mechanism pricing before twice, and it didn't pass. So it doesn't work unless it's bipartisan. That - we'll see.

HERSHER: With the Senate in Republican hands, there's no clear path to passing any kind of sweeping climate bill.

Rebecca Hersher, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.