Did The House's New Climate Committee Snub the Sunrise Movement?

TRNN Executive Producer Sharmini Peries spoke with Steve Horn about this piece.

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Photo Credit: U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis

by Steve Horn and Dharna Noor

This past November, 150 young activists with the youth-led environmental advocacy group the Sunrise Movement and New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez occupied House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. They held signs that read “Green Jobs For All” and demanded the creation of a new climate change select committee—the Select Committee on the Green New Deal.

On April 4–nearly five months later–a different committee focused on climate change created by Pelosi and called the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis held its first hearing. Youth environmental activists testified. But neither Ocasio-Cortez nor the Sunrise Movement had a seat in the room.

“We’re starting with the people who are the most affected by the climate crisis: young people who are growing up in it, who bear the costs and burdens, and who will help find the opportunities before us,” said Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL), who chairs the committee, in her opening remarks.

Among the witnesses was Aji Piper, an 18-year-old plaintiff in Juliana v. United States, a federal lawsuit filed in 2015 by 21 youth who allege that the federal government’s contributions to  climate change threatens their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

“My health, my community, and my future—and that of my generation—is at stake,” he said.

“We were not invited to participate,” said Stephen O’Hanlon, co-founder and communications director of the Sunrise Movement. “We don’t have any comment on that.”

Select Committee on the Green New Deal vs. Select Committee on the Climate Crisis

Since late 2018, Sunrise has worked closely with U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) to push for a Green New Deal, a broad plan to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions within a decade and create millions of jobs in the process, outlined in a House resolution introduced by Ocasio-Cortez and backed by U.S. Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA).

In November, the Sunrise Movement occupied Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s office demanding she create a House Select Committee to work out the details of the plan.

Instead, Pelosi created the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. “This will be a committee clearly in the spirit of the Green New Deal,” Pelosi told The Hill in December.

Sunrise and other environmental activists aren’t so sure. Unlike their proposed committee, the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis cannot draft legislation, and allows members to accept campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry.

The committee Pelosi created bears more resemblance to the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which she instated in 2007. But the previous iteration had subpoena power, the legal ability to compel testimony and documents from individuals or entities, such as fossil fuel companies.

Pelosi invited Ocasio-Cortez on as a member of the special committee, but Ocasio-Cortez declined the offer.

“I didn‘t feel like I would be able to do it justice,” she told MSNBC. She said she would have liked to participate, but “timing and logistics” wouldn’t allow it.

“I’m really excited to support Representative Castor in her agenda,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

The Sunrise Movement did not share that sentiment..

“This committee is toothless and weaker than the first climate select committee from a decade ago, and it does not get us meaningfully closer to solving the climate crisis or fixing our broken economy,” said Varshini Prakash, co-founder and Executive Director of the Sunrise Movement, in a statement in January.

Pelosi’s recent comments have not eased activists’ fears. In February, Sunrise held a press conference to unveil a resolution on the Green New Deal, sponsored by Ocasio-Cortez and Markey. In response, Pelosi sarcastically referred to the Green New Deal as the “Green Dream or whatever they call it.”

“Nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?” she said.

On 60 Minutes this past weekend, Pelosi further dismissed Ocasio-Cortez, dismissing her support as, “like, five people,” and claiming she is “a progressive.”

Aaron Huertas, Communications Director for the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, said the committee has had communication with Sunrise.

“We talked to a lot of people and organizations in the youth climate movement, including at Sunrise,” he said.

He also acknowledged that Sunrise did not receive an invitation to the committee’s first hearing and did not respond to requests for further explanation.

Quantifying Impact

The Select Committee on the Climate Crisis has a mandate to publish its climate policy proposals by March 31, 2020. Until then, the committee will hold hearings and investigate the climate crisis—but may not draft legislation.

“The Select Committee shall not have legislative jurisdiction and shall have no authority to take legislative action on any bill or resolution,” reads the House Resolution creating the committee. “The sole authority of the Select Committee shall be to investigate, study, make findings, and develop recommendations on policies, strategies, and innovations to achieve substantial and permanent reductions in pollution and other activities that contribute to the climate crisis which will honor our responsibility to be good stewards of the planet for future generations.”

The Select Committee is bipartisan. At last week’s hearing, some Republican members denied the prevailing scientific consensus that climate change is human-caused and creating a global crisis.

“Climate has a history, it’s always changing,” said U.S. Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL)

Not all Republican members have engaged in climate denial. During the committee’s first business meeting a week earlier, some Republican members suggested they incorporate measures into the report on potential economic and jobs impacts, the effectiveness of proposals in curbing greenhouse gas emissions, the impacts of halting sea-level rise, and the plan’s ability to lower global temperatures.

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Castor thanked U.S. Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA), the Select Committee’s Ranking Member for his proposed amendments and added that there will be more time for that later on.

“So, as we develop committee reports, members will have an opportunity to provide input on what any given report will cover, so it’s premature at this point to include in our rules any specific analyses,” she said.

Image Credit: U.S. House of Representatives Committee Repository
Image Credit: U.S. House of Representatives Committee Repository

Castor also said that members of congressional committees have the ability to file additional views to congressional reports, citing Rule 5(c) of the Rules of the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis in noting that.

U.S. Rep. Huffman (D-CA) agreed with Castor and also said he would like to see some of the items that Graves and his colleagues proposed appear in a separate report created under the mandate of future legislation.

“I’d like to see some of that stuff in there too, but I think it’s important as we try to understand the costs and trade-offs of some of the climate solutions we’ll be recommending, that we also really take a careful look at the cost of the status quo,” said Huffman. “Because otherwise, what’s the point of pretending that action is always expensive an inaction if always free? So, I don’t think this committee has the budget, or scope or timeframe to do the exhaustive economic analysis, especially to the level of certainty that seems to be requested in many of these amendments.

Graves said he would take Huffman up on that offer.

“Look, we can sit here and write a report that has utopian views, but they’ve got to be grounded,” he said. “One of the challenges with this issue is that, when you look historically, what’s happened is people just go to their corners. So what happens? Nothing. Nothing happens, largely. I think it’s really important that recommendations we make have some type of sideboard, some of criteria, or parameters to where we know what the net effects are going to be.”

Graves expressed further skepticism about the committee’s ability to achieve bipartisan compromise in a statement provided to The Real News Network.

“Rep. Graves joined the committee because he wants to make positive difference on this issue, believes that it is a forum to do that and is striving for bipartisan cooperation on meaningful adaptation and disaster reforms to make our communities and the ecosystem more resilient,” said Chief-of-Staff Kevin Roig. “Unfortunately, confidence in the Democrats’ desire to cooperate diminishes daily.”

Staying in Paris

Though the Select Committee cannot vote on legislation, Castor introduced the Climate Action Now Act (HR 9) in her capacity as a member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce the day before the Select Committee’s first business meeting.

That legislation calls for the U.S. to re-enter the 2015 Paris Agreement, from which Trump withdrew the U.S. in 2017. The Paris Agreement, a deal brokered at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, proposes a plan for participating countries to  reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit global warming to 1.5-2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures.

“I am proud to be chairing the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis and I am honored to introduce HR 9, the Climate Action Now Act,” said Castor. “It was with America’s leadership and engagement that so many nations committed to climate action in the international Paris Agreement.”

At a press conference, Castor said it exemplifies how House Democrats will treat climate change with the seriousness it demands.

“We will keep our commitments to fight the climate crisis,” she said. “This is just the start of action by House Democrats in this Congress.”

Yet Graves, the Select Committee’s Republican Ranking Member, also said the Republicans were not consulted about the bill prior to its public introduction.

“It seems—as evidenced by HR 9, which unilaterally came into existence without us even being notified much less given a chance for markup—that Democrats have a predetermined outcome in mind and are simply going the motions to achieve it,” said Graves. “We hope we are wrong.”

Further, the Paris Agreement itself has faced criticism by climate advocates and scientists alike for not doing enough to tackle the climate crisis on a fast enough timeline.

It is also a non-binding agreement, with no international legal consequences for falling short of the de facto voluntary commitments.

“It’s a fraud really, a fake,” James Hansen, the first climate scientist to testify about the climate crisis in front of Congress in 1988, told The Guardian in the aftermath of the deal being signed. “It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2°C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.”

Chasing Out Sunrise

The choice to leave Sunrise out in the cold has faced criticism from outside observers.

One of them is Jessy Tolkan, who co-founded the youth climate advocacy group Energy Action Coalition over a decade ago, which is now known as the Power Shift Network.

“It is a disservice to this conversation to disclude—or rather to not go out of your way to invite these young leaders [from the Sunrise Movement] to speak,” said Tolkan, who also sits on the Board of Directors of the climate advocacy group 350.org, but spoke to The Real News in her personal capacity. “They have an important vision that is exactly what’s required in this moment.”

As a youth activist, Tolkan testified in 2009 before the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.

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Tolkan calls herself “Sunrise’s biggest fangirl” and praised the group for shifting the Overton window on federal climate policy beyond the Paris Agreement.

“I think the role [of Sunrise] is to create new political space and to open new frontiers of a conversation,” said Tolkan. “And that’s exactly what I believe Sunrise is doing … I think they’re yanking the conversation to a more appropriate place, a more urgent place, a more just place and a more intersectional place.”

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Joshua Frank, Deputy Editor of the publication CounterPunch and co-author of the book The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink, said he sees the Sunrise incident as fitting within the broader battle ensuing within the Democratic Party today.

“It’s because the old guard continues to be completely out of touch,” he said. “The Democratic Party right now is in crisis … The party establishment is definitely feeling pressure from a grassroots awakening, a progressive, radical awakening.”

Though both Pelosi and Castor have implied that the new Select Committee will tackle Green New Deal-style proposals, Frank expects this will amount to little more than election season posturing.

“Whatever comes out of committee will be promoted as an alternative to a Green New Deal. Or they might even call it a Green New Deal,” said Frank.

He predicts that grassroots climate activists and their allies in Congress, like Ocasio-Cortez, will face pressure to back any policies that the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis deems worthy of its support. But ultimately, he said, the litmus test for the public should be whether or not the committee calls for a phase-out of fossil fuels.

“I think people that are concerned about climate change and are looking to our representatives to come up with a plan a tangible plan to curb emissions, need to look at the finer points of the legislation that’s being proposed,” he said. “And I think they need to be very critical of whatever comes out of the committee and not just take their word for it that this is the best that they can do.”

With all of the Select Committees apparent flaws, Tolkan said she still believes youth climate activists should use the new “platform” to advance the conversation on climate justice.

“I guess my own view is not to abandon this committee that has been set up because there’s ways to use these platforms to continue to drive your conversation,” said Tolkan. “But never, ever stop asking for more.”

A previous version of this article said the Juliana v. United States plaintiffs sued the federal government for climate inaction, not contributing to climate change.

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Steve Horn is a San Diego-based climate reporter and producer. He was also a reporter on a part-time basis for The Coast News—covering Escondido, San Marcos, and the San Diego North County region—from mid-2018 until early 2020.

Also a freelance investigative reporter, his work has appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, The Intercept, Vice News, Wisconsin Watch, and other publications. He worked from 2011-2018 for the climate news website DeSmog.com, a publication which investigates climate change disinformation and the fossil fuel industry influence campaigns.

His stories and research have received citation in a U.S. Senate report and mention in outlets such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Bloomberg Businessweek, Mexico’s La Jornada, and The Colbert Report.

In his free time, Steve is a competitive distance runner, with a personal best time in the marathon of 2:43:04 and a 4:43 mile. He also has served on the film screening committee for the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis and serves on the screening committee for the San Diego International Film Festival.

Dharna Noor is a staff writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate vertical.