Now the panel is turning a new leaf: Its new leader, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.), is taking a stronger stance on climate change. She decided to make the topic the focus of the committee's first full hearing this session and promised many more discussions about the science behind it in the coming two years.
“Rigorous scientific discourse can help enable the creation of a sound public policy,” Johnson (D-Tex.) said at the start of the committee's first full hearing in the new Congress.
“We’re already feeling the impacts of this warming today,” she said Wednesday. “It has almost become a given that we can expect record-breaking temperatures every year.”
With that, many observers — like NASA climatologist Gavin Schmidt — saw the science panel returning to what they said it should be doing: taking science seriously.
After two years out of power from every branch of the federal government, Democrats are trying to send a message to voters that they will put a priority on the planet’s warming.
The most prominent effort to date on this front is the “Green New Deal” resolution from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).
But that resolution is nonbinding and outlines only a broad progressive goal of driving down greenhouse gas emissions. The new Democratic committee chairs in the House, meanwhile, have actual bill-writing authority and are trying to set the stage for climate legislation by holding a series of hearings on climate change during the first few weeks of Congress.
Even if few if any of the bills they tee up pass the GOP-controlled Senate, Democrats hope to make climate change a marquee issue on which to campaign against President Trump and other Republicans in the 2020 election.
Smith, by contrast, used his perch atop of the science panel to become one of the fiercest and highest-profile critics of climate science in Congress.
Not only did the Texas lawmaker dismiss the broad scientific consensus that people are warming the planet, but he once suggested that additional carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was bringing “beneficial changes to the Earth’s geography.”
As such, he launched a probe into National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists who did a study refuting the idea that warming had "paused" and even started an investigation into state-level prosecutors investigating ExxonMobil over potential climate-related fraud.
During climate-related hearings, Smith made sure that a majority of expert witnesses were as skeptical as he was of the consensus on climate change. Many scientists said that the composition of those panels greatly misrepresented the state of climate science.
But on Wednesday, all the witnesses called to testify acknowledged not only the reality but the severity of climate change, emphasizing the deleterious effects it is poised to have on the health and economic well being of the nation.
“Climate change is real, it is happening now and humans are responsible for it,” said Rutgers professor Robert Kopp, who is the lead author of major climate reports for both the U.S. government and United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Even a witness brought in by Republicans — Joseph Majkut, director of climate policy at the Niskanen Center, which pushes market-based solutions to environmental problems — called climate change real.
“We promote a mainstream understanding of climate science,” he said. “Nothing to be afraid of.”
The committee hearing was notable for its lack of rancor. At one point, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) asked the witnesses if they thought the world’s nations should participate in the global climate agreement.
“We’re all in agreement on that?” Cohen asked as each one of the panelists nodded yes. “Kumbaya.”
While some Republican committee members, like Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), used their time to advance the idea that humans are not the cause of current rising sea levels, the new top Republican on the committee, Frank Lucas (Okla.), took a tone on climate change markedly different from Smith’s by pointing out the impact man-made climate change is having in his rural Oklahoma district.
Just as fracking revolutionized energy production in this own state, Lucas said he hoped new technologies like battery storage and the next generation of nuclear reactors could advance emissions reductions elsewhere in the United States.
“As any farmer can tell you, we are especially dependent on the weather,” Lucas said. “Drought, heat waves come and go naturally, but the changing climate has intensified their impacts.”
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— EPA set to release plan on two toxic chemicals: Acting chief Andrew Wheeler told ABC News the agency will announce an action plan to regulate a pair of toxic chemicals. Following a report that the EPA would not restrict PFOA and PFOS under the Safe Drinking Water Act, Wheeler said the agency is planning to set a drinking water limit. "What we're doing with this new management plan for PFOS, PFOA -- we're protecting Americans' drinking water, which is very important," Wheeler said. "We need to make sure that every American regardless of Zip code has safe, reliable drinking water." But ABC News notes the agency's plan will test "for the chemicals at lower levels than an earlier round of testing in 2012, meaning more communities could find out the chemicals are in their water."
Wheeler also weighs in on Green New Deal: “I've read the resolution that they put out and I've also read the fact sheet that they later disavowed. I’d say probably the rollout was not really ready for prime time,” he said. He added that he wished it explicitly endorsed nuclear. "We need all of it — nuclear in particular. I believe the Green New Deal discounts nuclear. It's certainly a clean energy source.”
— EPA’s top air policy official stayed in touch with his former firm: After joining the Trump administration, Bill Wehrum stayed in contact with employees at Hunton Andrews Kurth, his former law firm, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin reports. Documents released via the Freedom of Information Act reveal just how much Wehrum contacted and socialized with ex-associates “even though many of them had clients with business before the EPA,” Eilperin notes. During his time at the firm, which was called Hunton & Williams before a 2018 merger, he “represented a number of industry groups during his time as a corporate lawyer. Those included American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, Duke Energy and Exxon Mobil Corporation.”
But Wehrum told Eilperin he didn’t cross any lines. “There’s a group of people I had lunch with every single day for the last 10 years, and they’re friends of mine,” he said. “What I understand is I can still be friends with friends of mine, if I don’t do business with them.”
— FEMA chief resigns: Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator William “Brock” Long resigned from his post after serving the agency for less than two years during a period marked by a slew of natural catastrophes. “While this has been the opportunity of the lifetime, it is time for me to go home to my family — my beautiful wife and two incredible boys,” he said in a statement. “As a career emergency management professional, I could not be prouder to have worked alongside the devoted, hardworking men and women of FEMA for the past two years.” Long’s deputy Peter Gaynor will take over as acting FEMA administrator.
During his tenure: Long had clashed with his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, The Post's Joel Achenbach, William Wan , Lisa Rein and Nick Miroff report. In September, Nielsen seemed to want to force him out. Long told FEMA colleagues he was near quitting. That relationship suffered after the release of a Homeland Security inspector general report last year, The Post team writes. Long faced questions about his use of government vehicles and staff after the internal investigation found his improper use of government resources cost taxpayers $94,000 in staff salaries, $55,000 in travel expenses and $2,000 in vehicle maintenance.
— Door revolves: Former interior secretary Ryan Zinke and Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski have new gigs as senior advisers at Washington lobbying firm Turnberry Solutions, Politico reports. But while Lewandowski is not set to do any work requiring him to register as a lobbyist, Zinke “will if it’s the right clients and it’s something he’s passionate about,” a Turnberry partner Jason Osborne told Politico. “Zinke is the first former member of Trump’s Cabinet to join a lobbying firm — a new milestone for a president who took office promising to ‘drain the swamp,’” per the report. The move for the former interior secretary comes just weeks after he resigned amid multiple ethical investigations.
— Interior’s Bernhardt had a role in rolling back bird protections: Acting interior secretary David Bernhardt played a central role in the department’s move to repeal migratory bird protections, according to emails reported by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. In one email, top Interior Department lawyer Daniel Jorjani wrote that “Dep Sec’s Office has seen several iterations and has been plugged in since Day 1,” referring to Bernhardt who was then the deputy secretary. An Interior Department spokeswoman told Reveal it was “fair to conclude” Bernhardt determined the bird policy’s direction. The report also notes Bernhardt didn’t recuse himself from working on the policy even though at least one of his former clients had called for such a change.
Why it matters: “Among Trump’s environmental rollbacks, the legal opinion that weakens the 100-year-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act stands out because the Interior Department was able to move quickly, without a public process or congressional approval,” per the report. “In addition, it reversed a policy that had broad support from Republicans and Democrats over nearly 50 years.”
— “We want the money back now”: After California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) called for dialing back the building of a high-speed rail from Los Angeles to San Francisco, the president criticized the state for a “’green’ disaster,” falsely claiming it was “forced to cancel” the plan. “They owe the Federal Government three and a half billion dollars. We want that money back now,” Trump tweeted. But during his first State of the State this week, Newsom had proposed instead focusing the rail construction on California’s Central Valley, and he took to Twitter to blast the president’s claim as “fake news.” “This is CA’s money, allocated by Congress for this project. We’re not giving it back,” the governor said.
— What's causing black carbon to accumulate in the Arctic? After tracking five years of changes in black carbon in the region, new research has found 70 percent of the soot on Arctic ice is coming from fossil fuel burning in northern countries rather than from wildfires and biofuels. The study, published in the journal Science Advances, found more specifically that emissions from fossil fuel burning contributed to most of the accumulating soot during winters, but during summers, “when overall black carbon concentrations are lower, emissions from wildfires and agricultural burning were bigger sources,” InsideClimate News reports. “The Arctic region is warming between two and three times faster than the world as a whole,” per the report. “Past studies have suggested that black carbon is responsible for as much as a quarter of Arctic warming.”
— Above normal winters in Alaska: So far in February, Utqiagvik in Alaska is seeing temperatures running 21 degrees warmer than normal. On Friday, temperatures reached as high as 30 to 50 degrees above normal for that date across Alaska’s North Slope. And there has been open water in parts of the Arctic. “This kind of weather is an extreme rarity in the middle of winter,” The Post’s Ian Livingston reports.
— Venezuela watch: The country’s state-run oil company, PDVSA, is hoping to double oil exports to India to make up for losses that have resulted from U.S. sanctions. India is Venezuela’s second-largest customer after the United States, Reuters reports. “The country’s oil exports since the sanctions took effect on Jan. 28 have fallen to 1.15 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude and refined products, Refinitiv Eikon data showed, down from about 1.4 million bpd,” per the report. “Before the sanctions, PDVSA shipped over 500,000 bpd to the United States, its largest cash market, followed by India at above 300,000 bpd and then China.”
- George Washington University Law School's Environmental and Energy Law Program hosts a book talk on "Climate Change and the Voiceless: Protecting Future Generations, Wildlife, and Natural Resources."
— “Government-forced veganism”: “There are enough real questions about the Green New Deal for conservatives to take issue with, but I guess it's more fun to scare America into thinking it's about to become a vegan North Korea,” The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah said during Wednesday’s episode. The show also released an Apocalypse-like trailer mocking media reports on the proposed resolution.