Can Congress ever agree on climate change? An interview with Henry Waxman

February 5, 2013

Four years ago, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) was trying to craft a climate-change policy for the entire country. But he only got halfway there: His massive bill to cap U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions passed through the House, but eventually died in the Senate.


Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

Now he's trying again. Although Republicans have since retaken the House, and Waxman is no longer chair of the energy committee, he's still trying to call attention to the issue. Recently, Waxman formed a new Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) — an effort to raise awareness about global warming among legislators and to look for policy solutions.

Waxman and I spoke Monday about the new climate task force, the prospects of a carbon tax, and what President Obama is's planning on climate change. A lightly edited transcript follows:

Brad Plumer: Right now the conventional wisdom is that no climate policies can pass Congress — House Republicans aren't going to vote for a cap on carbon emissions or anything of that sort. So what can a climate task force actually do?

Henry Waxman: We have three main goals for this task force. First, we're trying to raise awareness among our colleagues and the public about the dangers of climate change. We're trying to provide a forum to develop effective policies to address it. And we're working to develop measures to reduce carbon emissions to adapt to the harm that climate change is already causing and is expected to cause in the future.

There's a lot that Congress can do here, but the president can also take some important steps on his own without Congress. He's already made important moves in the right direction—there have been significant investments in solar and wind energy, we've already doubled the development of solar and wind in this country. There are new tailpipe standards for automobiles that will double fuel economy and lead to major carbon-dioxide reductions. And the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed new carbon standards for power plants.

BP: Now when you say you're trying to raise awareness among colleagues — do you think there are lawmakers who can actually be swayed on this issue? 

HW: I believe that it's important for Congress to hear from scientists and other sources about the concerns they've expressed with regards to climate change.

Over the last two years, House energy subcommittee ranking member Bobby Rush and I have written to [Republican Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee] Fred Upton and [Republican Chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy and Power] Ed Whitfield 21 times requesting hearings on new scientific findings and other important developments related to climate. They ignored every one of those hearing requests.

Whether it's from the National Academies of Sciences or the International Energy Agency or the World Bank or PriceWaterhouseCoopers. This was all new reported data. They've ignored our requests to hear from researchers about climate change effects on agriculture, on marine ecosystems, on communities impacted by extreme weather.

BP: But would any of these scientific reports actually change anyone's minds? It seems like many politicians have already firmly made up their minds about climate change.

HW: I think that many lawmakers still don't realize that there's a shrinking window for action. They think we can put this issue off indefinitely, and that's not scientifically accurate. But yes, a lot of members are engaged in willful ignorance — and I'm talking about the committee that has jurisdiction over this issue.

BP: Now you mentioned that the Obama administration could, in theory, do a lot to tackle climate change on its own. What, realistically, would this will look like?

HW: The president has substantial authority to reduce carbon pollution. As the Supreme Court affirmed back in 2007, the Clean Air Act authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency to control carbon pollution from a wide range of sources. It can set limits for new and existing power plants and get substantial reductions. The EPA has proposed regulations for new power plants but hasn't yet finalized them.

The president could also make sure that other agencies besides the EPA and the Department of Energy include a strong focus on climate change as they carry out their various missions.

There's no silver bullet on climate change. It will take wide action across the board. Sen. Whitehouse and I wrote a letter to the president urging him to develop a plan of action for the administration to take. He can use his existing authority to reduce carbon pollution 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. I think he can do that on his own.

BP: Did you get a response to that letter?

HW: We haven't heard a response yet. But the president did make a strong point in his inaugural address that climate change is something that we will have to respond to.

BP: Do you think the White House has to tread carefully here? Are they worried about a backlash from Congress if they try to do too much on carbon emissions unilaterally?

HW: The president has a very good record in dealing with this issue. But in the past, there was a lot of concern about the president's reelection in parts of the country where he might suffer if he was out front on policies that couldn't pass Congress. But now there's a groundswell for action. And the president is not going to run for re-election again. I think he's committed, as he said in his inaugural address.

BP: So he won't be quite as timid on the issue in his second term?

HW: Look, I don't want to criticize him for what he didn't do because he did so much more than his predecessors. He did support our legislation in 2009, but even though it passed the House and had majority support in the Senate, it couldn't get 60 votes and get past the filibuster. Then once Republicans took control of the House in 2010, obviously we couldn't get legislation of that magnitude through. And the president I think took important steps. But there's more that he can now do in his second term.

BP: A lot of the unilateral actions that President Obama could take are mainly focused on short-term emissions cuts through 2020. But what about the larger goal of an 80 percent cut by 2050. Is that something only Congress can do?

HW: In my view, Congress needs to act. The task force hasn't taken any positions yet, but Sen. Whitehouse and I both believe that we ultimately need to put a price on carbon to drive technology and give full incentives for market forces to achieve a transition to a low-carbon economy. That would benefit the country not just by reducing greenhouse gases, but also making us the leader in a key economic area.

In my view a price on carbon makes sense because without it we are essentially subsidizing oil and coal — those fuels are not paying the full cost of the external damages they cause to the environment and public health. A carbon price would put all of these things on a level playing field.

BP: Your cap-and-trade bill in 2009 was one way to do that. Could cap-and-trade ever return? Or is that idea dead?

HW: A price on carbon can take a number of forms. One is cap-and-trade. Many people have argued for a carbon tax. Some Republican economists have urged that we put a carbon tax in place and use the money to lower other taxes. Other economists have said that a price on carbon can help us not just solve an intractable problem in climate change but also help reduce the deficit. And others have suggested a carbon tax where the money is recycled back to consumers. The essential point here is that any carbon price would have a strong impact on decision-making throughout the economy.

BP: So what are the prospects for a carbon tax getting through Congress?

HW: Certainly it's something Congress can look at. I think there will be pressure for new revenue when the debt ceiling comes back later this year. And this is a source of revenue that will look awfully attractive compared to other alternatives Congress will have to face, whether it's other taxes or cuts in entitlements.

BP: Now are there any climate-policy areas where Democrats and Republicans could conceivably work together? 

HW: I think there are actions Congress could take that would help alleviate the problem of climate change short of a price on carbon or a carbon tax. Energy efficiency standards. We could increase our investments in research and development.

Here's an example of a proposal I thought should have passed Congress. [Back in 2009], Congressman Upton (R-Mich.) had co-sponsored a bill with former Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) that would have put a tax on electricity generated by coal power plants, and the money would have been used for research into how to sequester the carbon. That would have been helpful. Yet when I asked Rep. Upton over the last two years to consider moving the bill he had sponsored earlier, I got no response.

BP: Now, you also mention climate adaptation. Even if we passed a carbon tax tomorrow, we're still likely to see some effects of climate change in the decades ahead. Is this something the government isn't ready for?

HW: I think we need to approach this issue with a great deal of timeliness. Agencies should be developing adaptation plans -- and this is something the administration can do without Congress. But Congress can also pass laws or appropriate money for different strategies.

In 2011 we experienced 14 weather and climate disasters that each caused more than a billion dollars in damages. They cost $60 billion in all. In 2012, total damages will be even higher. We've just passed legislation to compensate victims of Hurricane Sandy. We're still reacting after the fact. We need to figure out how to prevent some of these things from happening, and accepting that we're now seeing a regular pattern of extraordinary events.

BP: Are you seeing any interest in climate-adaptation measures from members of Congress who might be otherwise skeptical of, say, capping emissions? 

HW: I think even Republicans have to acknowledge that climate change is taking place. They may not think it's man-made, but they can acknowledge that it's happening, and that we're seeing more and more extreme examples of it. And I think a lot of representatives have constituents who understand that we need to do more about this problem. Farmers in the Midwest who are suffering from drought. Urban areas affected by hurricanes. I think they understand that there's a problem and we need leadership.

BP: Now you're going to call for the House Energy and Commerce Committee to hold hearings on this subject. What happens if those requests get turned down?

HW: The Energy and Commerce Committee will have votes this Wednesday — Rep. Rush and I will propose amendments to their plan for the coming Congress to require hearings on these issues. We may be defeated, but to vote against even having hearings? Imagine having that on your record.

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