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Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a member of House Democratic leadership, will become a co-chairman of the Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) following the retirement of Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). In an exclusive interview with Bloomberg BNA's Anthony Adragna in his office, Van Hollen said Democrats hope to raise the profile of the climate change issue ahead of the 2016 presidential election cycle. Climate change is on the radar of House Democratic leaders, and many House Republicans privately are embarrassed by their party's stance on climate change, Van Hollen said. The Maryland Democrat said he believes business leaders may ultimately push congressional Republicans for a legislative solution to address climate change because it would bring more certainty and be more efficient than Environmental Protection Agency regulations on carbon pollution. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Bloomberg BNA:What drew you to this opportunity, and what do you hope to accomplish through co-chairing this group?
Van Hollen:I've been a member of the caucus during the past sessions. I've also had a long-standing interest in the climate change issue. It's an issue of concern to my constituents, obviously to the state of Maryland, which has the bulk of the Chesapeake Bay. But beyond that, just the huge disruptions we will see across the country and around the world as a result of climate change [drew me to the task force].
We just saw the news the other day that California had its worst drought in 1,200 years. If people don't wake up and figure out that this is a result of climate change, we're all going to be in trouble. We really need to focus on this issue. It's already costing the country substantially. So, I'm looking forward to teaming up with my fellow House caucus members and Senator Whitehouse in this effort.
Bloomberg BNA:With the retirements of environmental champions like Democratic Representatives John Dingell (Mich.) and Henry Waxman (Calif.), do you feel like there's a developing vacuum on these issues for House Democrats? Is that a role you'd like to assume yourself?
Van Hollen: We're certainly losing some great champions on environmental issues. You mentioned two. [Representative] George Miller [D-Calif.], of course, has been over on the Education and Workforce [Committee], but he's also been a champion. There are many of us in the House that are going to work together to try to address these issues.
I don't think anybody can fill those shoes, but I think together we can try to fill the void. We have lots of members in our caucus that are going to be working together. This is a team effort.
Bloomberg BNA:Where does this issue rank in priorities for senior Democratic House leadership? Is it on their radar?
Van Hollen:Yes, it is. As you know, the whole issue of climate change—but also the job opportunities that go with investing in clean energy—is a big part of our agenda. This is a situation where people need to recognize we're already experiencing the huge costs of climate change—whether it's through droughts in California or the Midwest or hurricanes or other weather events that are much more intense.
Insurance companies already recognize there's a huge price that accompanies climate change. With that, also, is an opportunity. To the extent that we can invest more on the clean energy front and get the private sector fully engaged, it's a great opportunity as well. We see it as a challenge, but also a huge economic opportunity. Bloomberg BNA:How about politically? With a Congress controlled by Republicans—who have been outspoken about their desires to roll back any executive action on climate change—where do you see your role in the next couple of years? Is it defensive?
Van Hollen:I think it's two-fold. One is a very important educational role, not just for members of Congress but for the public. One of the things the caucus does is we bring in the outside stakeholders to talk about the issue of climate change but also the innovations they're working on to address the issue. And then we try to publicize the steps that are being taken.
Right now, obviously, a lot of the focus is on steps people are taking outside Congress because Congress has been such a deadbeat actor when it comes to climate change. But the world doesn't stop just because Congress has stopped. We're going to continue to support the president's efforts. He just reached a historic agreement with China. As you know, you've got the international community coming together around the next round of climate change discussions. So there are lots of opportunities.
And then, of course, we're also going into a presidential election cycle. So, one of our goals is to make this issue a major part of the national debate and conversation going into the presidential election. Bloomberg BNA:Is this an issue that Democrats could win elections on in the future?
Van Hollen:I think it can be an important part of a larger agenda. A very important part. Especially because we need to, as I said, focus on both the challenge and the opportunity. The challenge brings with it huge economic opportunities. We need to focus on the economic opportunity.
Bloomberg BNA:How long are we looking out into the distance before we see Congress tackling this issue again through legislation?
Van Hollen:Obviously, this all depends on public sentiment, and part of the reason for organizing or continuing this effort is to continue to raise public awareness as we go into a presidential election cycle. If some of the presidential debates can focus on—what are you going to do about climate change, what's the challenge and what's the economic opportunity—that would be an important step.
Now, in terms of congressional action, I believe that once some of the folks who dragged their feet on the issue of climate change realize the president is going to move forward with his carbon pollution regulations, they will ultimately agree that the better approach is for Congress to adopt legislation. Because there are different ways to approach the challenge of climate change, but I think if Congress is engaged we have a better chance to develop a policy approach that is the most economically efficient way of addressing the challenge and produces the greatest economic opportunities.
Bloomberg BNA:Can the threat be adequately addressed through executive action, or will we ultimately need congressional action?
Van Hollen: I was really glad to see the president leading and, of course, he has engaged China, which is the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, as a partner. So that's an important start. The president recognized you need to engage the international community—he always has—but that was a concrete step toward doing that.
I think the steps the president is taking can be taken in tandem with some of the other international efforts, including China's pledge, but I think the president would be first to acknowledge that the most comprehensive way of addressing the challenge would be through legislation.
Bloomberg BNA:Both you and Senator Whitehouse have introduced carbon fee legislation at various points. Do you believe that's ultimately the best way to tackle this challenge?
Van Hollen: Let me be clear: This task force, as a task force, has not endorsed any particular approach. But you're right, Senator Whitehouse and I both have proposed different ways to make sure that we have a polluter pays system where we address the price of carbon pollution and, as you know, I've got a bill called the cap-and-dividend proposal, which would return the proceeds from the sale of credits back to every household in America. And an analysis that was done by an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts demonstrated that 70 percent of American households, maybe even higher but at least 70 percent, would come out ahead financially.
The answer is that while the task force, as a whole, doesn't advocate for a particular piece of legislation, you're right that both Senator Whitehouse and I believe there should be some kind of economic mechanism that addresses the cost of carbon pollution, but also provides some great incentive for investing in alternative energy.
Bloomberg BNA:Could that be part of broader reform efforts that some Republicans could eventually get behind?
Van Hollen:Some Republicans may ultimately get to this place because the alternative, right now, is the president's regulations. So if you talk to folks in industry, once they recognize that they are going to be facing carbon pollution regulations they may prefer a legislative approach.
Bloomberg BNA:What sort of impact comes from senior Republicans leaders denying climate change?
Van Hollen:Unfortunately a lot of our congressional Republican colleagues have their heads firmly planted in the sand when it comes to climate change, but I think there's a growing awareness among the public about the costs of climate change. You're seeing farmers experiencing losses as a result of droughts. You're seeing communities that are facing big costs from extreme weather events. People who have their eyes open can see there are rising sea levels, and this is going to have a big economic impact. And, as I said, you just go back to insurance companies that are already beginning to price at the risk of these extreme weather events.
People need to recognize that they're already paying a price here. They may not see it, but they're paying a price in terms of higher insurance rates. So, the best way to deal with this is to tackle it head on, rather than just paying more and more through higher insurance rates.
Bloomberg BNA:Do you think there are some Republicans in the House that privately recognize the risks of climate change?
Van Hollen: I think there are a number that privately recognize it. Some of our Republican colleagues are embarrassed to be part of the camp that denies the scientific facts because if you want to be the anti-science, anti-evidence, anti-reality party, there's not a big future in that.
Younger generations are very aware of the risks of climate change and, of course, they're the folks that are going to have to live with the consequences of our actions today for a longer period of time.
Bloomberg BNA:Anything else you'd like to add?
Van Hollen: Our focus here is just to make this a really important part of the national conversation as we head into the 2016 presidential election cycle, and hopefully that will ultimately break the logjam legislatively on this issue.
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