Senators form new group to support climate action as administration stresses better preparedness

Source: Evan Lehmann, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, January 16, 2014

Eighteen senators opened a campaign yesterday to highlight the science of climate change and defend the president’s actions to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. They also tried to help Republicans understand the movement of lobsters.

The unveiling of the Senate Climate Action Task Force adds to the growing number of voices within Congress expressing concern about the absence of legislation to stem greenhouse gases. It’s the latest in a series of high-profile efforts to resuscitate the issue after cap and trade’s disastrous showing sent it tumbling into political exile four years ago. Both chambers now feature organized efforts to speak on climate regularly.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who leads the task force with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), described the group as a defensive play against Republican efforts to roll back elements of President Obama’s climate plan, like regulating emissions at power plants. The group did not endorse specific legislative efforts to cut carbon dioxide.

“We understand that the makeup of Congress now is making it very difficult for us to pass climate change legislation,” Boxer conceded. “But we will not sit back and give up.”

The timing dovetailed with efforts in the House to block the Obama administration from stopping the construction of new coal plants that fail to capture carbon emissions. The Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power passed a bill yesterday by Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) to stop U.S. EPA from requiring future plants to have carbon capture and sequestration technology. Whitfield says the technology is too expensive and would lead to lost coal jobs.

That’s what the Senate’s new group is designed to defend against. Members said they will introduce climate-related amendments, speak on the floor and team up with universities to raise the profile of climate change. That can lead to homespun stories about the impact of warming on their states.

“When you think about ice melting, my state is the home to the world’s second-biggest hockey puck,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), noting that coastal regions aren’t the only areas to be affected. “This matters to the Midwest.”

When “200 guys in snowmobile suits” warned her that winter sledding is threatened by warming, she realized “this isn’t just an issue for the elite.”

Donovan: ‘Huge storms’ increasing

Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine, can’t believe how partisan the issue of climate science continues to be in Congress.

“Congress may not know what’s going on, but the Maine lobsters know what’s going on,” he said, “because they’re moving north.”

The former governor, who began his first term in the Senate two weeks ago, said that Maine lobstermen are a conservative bunch, but they see that “something’s changing out there.”

“They’re finding seahorses in their lobster traps,” King said. “That’s change. It’s climate change, and it’s having a direct effect on Maine lobstermen.”

As senators were opening their campaign in the Capitol, the administration’s housing secretary, Shaun Donovan, was telling coastal planners across town that Obama is committed to strengthening the nation against future disasters.

“Huge storms are occurring more frequently, so it simply isn’t enough to rebuild the region back to the way it was before the storm,” Donovan said about the areas struck by Superstorm Sandy. “That would just put communities at risk of the same tragic outcomes when the next big storm hits. And frankly, it’s fiscally irresponsible.”

The administration issued a rebuilding strategy in August that included 69 recommendations for states and local communities, including a first-time standard that begins to account for future sea-level rise. It requires projects to raise their elevation by 1 foot above predicted flood levels.

Planning for climate and war is similar

Still, even though Congress provided more than $50 billion in aid for reconstruction, Donovan said more is needed to harden the nation from anticipated impacts of climate change.

“The 20 warmest years on record have all taken place since 1990,” he said at an event hosted by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and the Regional Plan Association. “As I hear all over the country, those 100-year storms seem to be coming every few years now. Not just Katrina or Sandy, but record floods in Iowa or in Colorado, tragically, tornadoes within just a few months of each other in Oklahoma recently.”

While uncertainty about the rate of warming and its impacts is a concern, it shouldn’t prevent Congress from acting, said Susan Ruffo, the deputy associate director for climate change adaptation at the Council on Environmental Quality.

“Yes, there is uncertainty, but it’s not paralyzing,” she told the group of land-use experts. “We can still make decisions with that uncertainty as long as we start to think of it in tolerances.”

Ruffo said it is similar to planning for national security crises or for earthquakes.

“We don’t know when an earthquake is going to hit, where it’s going to hit, how big it’s going to be,” she said. “But we build for tolerances to address what we think is going to happen.”

Back in the Capitol, it’s not just Republicans who are concerned about the uncertainty of climate change. About one-third of Democratic senators have so far signed on to Boxer’s new group. She downplayed their absence, noting that the task force can succeed without Democrats from conservative areas, like along the Gulf Coast.

“You shouldn’t have to have 100 percent of the Democrats carrying this issue. It’s ridiculous,” Boxer said. “I don’t need 100 percent of Democrats. All I need is a majority of Democrats and a majority of Republicans, and we will change this place.”

She invited Republicans to join the task force, but she said none had responded.