Are we heading toward the point of no return on climate change?
That was the first question posed to four Democrats from the U.S. House of Representatives, who addressed an audience of nonprofit leaders, green business innovators and community members in Denver Wednesday about the realities of climate legislation in Congress.
Sponsored by the Alliance for a Sustainable Colorado, the event was part of a national series called the Future Forum. Eighteen of the youngest caucus members are traveling the country speaking to young people in various cities — 12 so far, including Denver — about critical environmental and social issues.
Democratic Reps. Diana DeGette, Ed Perlmutter and Jared Polis of Colorado, along with Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, answered questions about past, present and future climate legislation, the odds of finally putting a price on carbon, and the importance of collaborative partnerships in an age of deep political divides.
“The only place you can find climate change deniers to this day,” began DeGette, who represents Denver, “is in the halls of Congress.”
It’s true: Increasing numbers of Americans on both sides of the aisle, and particularly young people, are waking up to the pressing threat of global warming. But some elected officials, particularly Republicans, remain stubbornly resistant.
“What that means is you can’t pass energy efficiency policy. You can’t pass cap-and-trade. You can’t pass anything,” DeGette added.
So is it becoming too late to act?
The lawmakers, like most who reckon with this question, expressed both optimism and fear.
Swalwell, who represents the Bay Area, said most of his optimism comes from the younger set.
“When you talk to young people…whether they’re Republican, Democrat or [unaffiliated], on this issue, they know it’s happening, they believe that we caused it,” he said.
“Eighty percent of millennials think that the U.S. should be investing more in renewable [energy] sources. It doesn’t have to be partisan for our generation. We understand it. We get it.”
But Congressional polarization continues to simmer, especially in key committees.
“In the environmental committee, there’s no such thing as climate change,” said Perlmutter, who represents western and northern Denver. “It’s ridiculous, in terms of the denial that’s going on.”
Noting that three-fourths of engineers and scientists who have ever walked the Earth are alive today, Perlmutter said he doesn’t think it’s too late to act on climate change. Death and taxes may be inevitable, he said, but “most everything else depends on some human input” — but that there has to be a change in political will.
“There is so much political resistance to all this,” he lamented.
DeGette, though a supporter of local and grassroots efforts, stressed the importance of national action.
“I’m very committed to the idea that every level of government and business, from local government to our kids’ classrooms to corporations, are committed to clean energy policy and to reversing climate change,” she said.
“But if we don’t have that commitment in the Oval Office and in Congress, then we’ve got one hand tied behind our backs.”
Both lawmakers and audience members then discussed practical strategies. Tax credits for renewable energies are a must, they agreed. Renewables appeal to consumers on both sides of the aisle, said the entrepreneurs of the group, and it’s time they had a fair shot at the market — unfair subsidies for fossil fuels must end.
Though, as Perlmutter said, “This is a Congress that doesn’t want to do anything,” there has been some incremental progress.
A bill to reinstate the power source for LED lights, which was inadvertently phased out in legislation passed a decade ago, recently passed Congress. And a bill to encourage small, efficient hydropower plants is awaiting passage in the Senate.
But these bills, DeGette said, are “really tiny little baby steps.” The Denver lawmaker refuses to believe that the word “climate” is a taboo word in Congress.
“When I talk privately to many of our Republican colleagues, they know this is an issue that they are going to have to deal with,” she said, so the next step is to start building bridges in a way that even conservatives find palatable.
“We just have to frame it in a way that’s non-threatening to our Republican colleagues,” she said.
The event’s final question, asked by an audience member, was pointed: Would the lawmakers vote in support of a price on carbon?
All three present — Polis had left by then — said they definitely would, if they could.
“Give us an environment where we can vote on that,” DeGette said, who has previously supported legislation on carbon cap-and-trade, which would create a limited market for carbon.
“Without the right Congress…without the right president, it’s a great hypothetical question, but it’s not real until you have the power to do that,” added Perlmutter.
He then gestured to the captive audience.
“And that’s your all’s responsibility,” he said.