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The Climate 202

Sen. Whitehouse wants the budget panel to be a climate committee

The Climate 202

Below, we have an exclusive letter from Democratic senators calling for a climate-conscious leader of the World Bank. But first:

Sen. Whitehouse wants the Budget Committee to have a climate focus, but obstacles persist

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) has a new platform for urging Americans to wake up to the threat of climate change.

Whitehouse, who has given nearly 300 “Time to Wake Up” speeches on the Senate floor to call for greater action on global warming, recently became chair of the Senate Budget Committee, which is responsible for drafting Congress’s annual budget plan.

The Democrat plans to use the committee gavel to probe ways climate change could threaten the overall economy — and how the fossil fuel industry has allegedly misled the public about global warming. But he faces a couple of big obstacles.

For one thing, the Budget Committee doesn’t wield a great deal of power: While the panel produces budget resolutions, which serve as a blueprint for appropriators, policy decisions are left up to other committees. For another, House Democrats have not sent a trove of internal industry documents to the Senate, complicating Whitehouse’s plans to continue investigating the fossil fuel industry’s downplaying of climate concerns.

Still, a defiant Whitehouse pledged in a recent interview to use the full powers of his new perch — however limited they may be — to push for continued climate action and accountability.

“There are plenty of sector-specific areas for the committee to dive into where there is profound budget impact from climate change, the obvious ones being coastal flooding and the flood insurance program,” Whitehouse said Wednesday after holding the panel’s first hearing of the 118th Congress on climate issues.

Flood risks

One area where Whitehouse could provide much-needed congressional scrutiny, advocates say, is federal flood maps, which don’t reflect the true scope of risks in a warming world.

  • As the maps are drawn now, the Federal Emergency Management Agency considers about 8.7 million properties to be in areas at high risk of floods. 
  • But according to 2020 modeling by the nonprofit First Street Foundation, as many as 14.6 million properties could actually be at risk because of climate change, which is causing heavier precipitation across the country.

“There are millions of properties that are in a flood zone without any knowledge that they should be procuring flood insurance for their property,” said Matthew Eby, founder and chief executive of First Street Foundation. “We applaud all efforts to address this problem, be they Republican or Democratic.”

Whitehouse said the Budget Committee could hold a future hearing on the issue, although he declined to say whether he would haul in FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell to testify.

“I have consistently complained about how bad FEMA mapping is, particularly in the context of Rhode Island having to do its own mapping in order to work around the problem that FEMA flood maps simply couldn’t be trusted,” Whitehouse said.

Any hearing on federal flood maps could encroach on the turf of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over the National Flood Insurance Program. But Laura Lightbody, who directs the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Flood-Prepared Communities Initiative, said she would welcome the additional scrutiny.

“It’s positive for any members, especially outside of the Banking Committee, to be taking a look at it so that more attention is paid to the program and there’s more pressure for reforms,” Lightbody said.

FEMA has stressed that its maps are not meant to predict where it will flood, and that people considering buying flood insurance should consider other relevant information. A FEMA spokesperson said in an email that the agency is working to “enhance flood maps over the coming years” to account for a “complete range of flood hazard types and frequencies.”

Big Oil probe

Meanwhile, Whitehouse could continue a year-long investigation of the oil industry launched by Democrats on the House Oversight and Accountability Committee. But first, he needs to get his hands on documents that the House panel subpoenaed from major oil companies including BP, ExxonMobil and Shell

  • An initial batch of documents released in December revealed that some oil company executives remain privately skeptical about the transition to clean energy, even as they publicly portray their firms as partners in the cause.
  • But Oversight Committee staffers lacked the time and resources to finish combing through the communications, which total more than a million pages. And Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), the former committee chair, didn’t send the documents to the Senate before Republicans took control of the House.
  • Now, only Oversight Committee Chair James Comer (R-Ky.) has the authority to send the documents to the Senate — something he has no intention of doing.

To overcome this problem, Whitehouse suggested that House Democrats could send the documents to a university library, although it’s unclear whether they would have the authority to do so without Comer’s permission.

“There’s a huge trove of documents at Columbia [University] that relates to toxic chemicals,” Whitehouse said. “There’s a huge trove of documents at UC San Francisco that relates to tobacco. So I don’t know what [House Democrats] have in mind, but there are innumerable ways that I think daylight could continue to find the documents.”

Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (Md.), the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, said in a statement that “given how much is at stake in this critical investigation, it is essential that both chambers work together to find meaningful solutions to effectively address the global climate emergency.” 

A spokeswoman for Democrats on the panel did not respond to a question about the university proposal.

Pressure points

Exclusive: Democrats call for climate-friendly Malpass successor

Led by Sen. Edward J. Markey (Mass.), three Democratic senators will send a letter today to outgoing World Bank President David Malpass and the bank’s board of directors urging new leadership that prioritizes climate action, according to a copy of the letter shared first with The Climate 202.

Malpass announced Wednesday he would step down amid controversy over his views on climate change. In the letter, Markey and Sens. Martin Heinrich (N.M.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) urged the bank to select a new president who will commit to halting financing of fossil fuel projects and providing more financial support to developing countries. They also asked the bank’s leadership to answer by March 9 detailed questions about its climate commitments.

“If we are to have any hope of meeting the scientifically necessary timeline for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, the World Bank must immediately end all fossil fuel project financing, particularly fossil fuel supply projects and gas-fired power plants,” the senators wrote. 

In September, Malpass refused to say whether he accepted the scientific consensus that fossil fuels are heating the planet, prompting persistent criticism from Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen and climate envoy John F. Kerry. In a brief phone interview Thursday with The Washington Post’s David Lynch, Malpass denied that Biden administration angst over his climate views drove his decision to step down.

“I’m leaving on my own terms, having accomplished a lot. We’re doing so much,” Malpass said, adding that he thought the bank deserved more credit for more than doubling its climate funding to nearly $32 billion in its most recent fiscal year.

Where U.S. house prices may be most overvalued as climate change worsens

The nation’s real estate market has yet to fully account for the increasing threats to millions of homes from rising seas, stronger storms and torrential rain, according to research published Thursday in the journal Nature Climate Change, The Post’s Brady Dennis reports. 

The researchers estimated that properties in vulnerable areas across the country, such as along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, are overvalued by $121 billion to $237 billion based on their real flood exposure. However, if those unacknowledged risks are taken into account, then low-income homeowners could lose significant amounts of equity, especially in areas that face water damage caused by extreme precipitation.

Municipal governments that rely on property taxes also stand to suffer as flood-prone homes lose value or become uninhabitable — meaning less money for infrastructure, schools and other community services. 

The combination of outdated federal flood maps, government insurance policies that subsidize development in flood-prone areas, and buyers who haven’t accepted the dangers posed by climate change contribute to the prospect of a future real estate bubble, the researchers added.

In the states

Biden team vows to investigate, clean up after toxic train derailment in Ohio

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan on Thursday told residents of East Palestine, Ohio, that the Biden administration is committed to cleaning up toxic chemicals left behind by a train derailment and holding the company connected to the incident accountable, The Post’s Scott Dance, Justine McDaniel and Brady Dennis report.

Regan’s visit to the town of nearly 4,700 people comes as local officials try to reassure people that the contamination does not pose immediate health risks, though many residents have already expressed distrust in state and federal authorities’ response. 

“We know that there is a lack of trust,” Regan told reporters. “If we say that the water is safe and the air is safe, we believe it, because we’ve tested it and the data shows it.”

The derailment of the train carrying the toxic chemicals, probably caused by a mechanical issue, has also raised questions about the federal government’s oversight of hazardous material shipments across the country. A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Thursday said Biden administration officials, especially Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, should have reacted more swiftly to the crisis.

In the atmosphere


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