It does not yet have office space, staff or even Republican members, but Florida Rep. Kathy Castor is confident that a special House committee on climate change will play a leading role on one of the most daunting challenges facing the planet.
Castor, who chairs the new panel, says those early obstacles can be overcome as lawmakers move to reduce carbon pollution and create clean-energy jobs.
“The Democratic caucus is unified under the belief we have to take bold action on the climate crisis,” Castor said in an interview.
While that can take many forms, the transition to renewable energy such as wind and solar power is “job one,” she said.
Castor, who’s in her seventh term representing the Tampa Bay area, said Congress has a “moral obligation” to protect future generations from the costly effects of climate change, including more severe hurricanes, a longer wildfire season and a dangerous sea-level rise.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi named Castor to lead the panel in December, saying she brings experience, energy and urgency to what Pelosi called “the existential threat of the climate crisis” facing the United States and the world.
The climate panel is similar to one Pelosi created when Democrats last controlled the House from 2007 to 2010. The panel was eliminated when Republicans took the majority in 2011.
While the previous panel played a key role in House approval of a landmark 2009 bill to address global warming, Castor said the new panel is likely to focus on a variety of actions rather than a single piece of legislation.
She and the eight other Democrats named to the panel “are ready to stand up to corporate polluters and special interests” as they press for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and move toward a clean-energy economy, Castor said.
“Climate deniers, fossil fuel companies and other special interests have had an outsized influence” in Congress in recent years, she said, promising to “stand up” to those forces to protect the environment and create green jobs.
The climate panel is separate from an effort by Democrats to launch a Green New Deal to transform the U.S. economy and create thousands of jobs in renewable energy.
Castor dismissed the idea that the Green New Deal — put forth by freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and veteran Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts — will conflict with the climate panel.
“My job and the committee’s job is to take the general concepts (of the Green New Deal) and turn them into a real policy framework and legislative language and eventually law,” she said.
Pelosi agreed, saying in a statement that the climate panel will “spearhead Democrats’ work to develop innovative, effective solutions to prevent and reverse the climate crisis.”
Pelosi invited Ocasio-Cortez, a social media star and the best-known member of the large class of freshman Democrats, to join the climate panel, but she declined, saying she wants to focus on the Green New Deal and other committee assignments.
Three freshmen — Sean Casten of Illinois, Mike Levin of California and Joe Neguse of Colorado — serve on the panel, along with veteran lawmakers such as Rep. Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, the fourth-ranking House Democrat, and Californians Julia Brownley and Jared Huffman, both close Pelosi allies.
“We need their passion and energy, and we need support from all corners all across the country,” Castor said of the freshmen members. “It’s all hands on deck right now.”
Republicans have not named anyone to the climate committee, but six GOP members are expected to join the panel this month.
While she would have preferred that the committee be given subpoena power and legislative authority to draft their own bills, the panel’s more limited power “is not going to hamper us,” Castor said. Most invited witnesses will be eager to testify, she said, and those who resist — including members of the Trump administration — can be compelled to appear by other committees such as Energy and Commerce or Natural Resources.
While the earlier climate panel focused on establishing the threat posed by climate change, Castor said the time to debate climate science is long past.
“People understand the problems,” she said. “They see the effects of sea rise and more dangerous storms. They understand it. They look at Washington and kind of throw up their hands and say, ‘Why don’t you guys do something?’ “
The committee’s challenge, she added, will be “to restore the faith of people and show them Washington can do some things.”