At EPA Hearings and in Congress, Public and Politicians Ready for Climate Action

Children take the stage at the EPA climate change hearing in Seattle on May 21, 2009.
Photo by Andy Grow,

It’s a rare day when corporate execs from Nike and Starbucks, EPA administrators, state politicians, solar power businesses, anti-poverty advocates, and moms with wiggling children on their laps spend hours agreeing with each other on climate change. The unusual concurrence happened on the same day that 30 state governors said they want Congress to pass national legislation to cut carbon emissions, and a major climate bill launched out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, destined for debate on the House floor. On Thursday at hearings on both sides of the country—one in Seattle for the Environmental Protection Agency and one in Washington, DC to debate a carbon cap-and-trade bill—it looked like U.S. politicians were finally prepared to get serious about climate change. The public wants action. And it is possible that within months, the U.S. will see its first regulation passed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and confront the climate crisis.

“People are ready,” says K.C. Golden of Climate Solutions. More than three in four Americans thinks the government should act on climate change, according to an April poll by ABC and the Washington Post, and in another recent poll by the Wall Street Journal, a majority said they would support such policies even if it meant hikes in their utility costs.

If the Seattle hearing is any indication, the public is prepared to show up and say something about their feelings. On Thursday people traveled from throughout the West to give hours of testimony in the second of two national public hearings to determine whether or not the EPA should regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The hearings are based on a proposed finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health. The first was held in Arlington, Virginia on Monday.

Meeting a polar bear at the EPA Climate Hearing. Photo by Madeline Ostrander
Meeting a polar bear at the EPA climate hearing.
Photo by Madeline Ostrander

On Thursday, almost all of the testimony was in favor of regulation, and at noon, activists organized a rally outside the door of the hearing. Between 1,000 and 2,000 turned out for what felt more like a party than a protest—some were dressed in salmon and polar bear costumes.

“I can’t think of any other time that people have rallied in support of what the EPA was doing,” an EPA administrator told me privately in the morning, while grinning.

It’s clear that action on climate change has become possible in part because the old dichotomies between environment and economy have finally broken down. Tony Lee of the Statewide Poverty Action Network testified that the effects of climate change will hit hardest in poor communities. More Katrinas, more heat waves, and more wildfires mean more trauma for those least able to cope with or recover financially from disaster.

Stacy Noland from the Moontown Foundation was there to represent the opportunities for using the fight against global warming to create jobs: His organization hooks up youth from Seattle’s poorest neighborhoods with training in solar panel installation and green jobs. Jim Hanna of Starbucks said that climate change was a direct threat to the millions who grow and trade coffee. Starbucks and a group of partner corporations are, in Hanna’s words, “making it clear to our officials that they cannot continue to count on industry or the business sector as a monolithic political shield to avoid voting for aggressive, meaningful climate legislation.” And two women from a group called Cool Mom, each with a small child in tow, reminded the EPA about what is at stake for young people in a future destabilized by climate change.

Governor Christine Gregoire speaks at a press conference in Seattle on May 21, 2009. Photo by Andy Grow,
Governor Christine Gregoire announces a joint statement from 30 governors calling for greenhouse gas regulation.
Photo by Andy Grow,

In a separate press conference, Washington Governor Christine Gregoire announced that 30 governors have sent a statement to Congress calling for greenhouse gas regulation. A reporter asked whether Washington could afford the cost of rising energy prices that would surely come from cap and trade. “Let’s talk about the cost of doing nothing,” Gregoire said sharply, pointing to her state’s economy, deeply dependent on hydropower, river flows, irrigation, and a snowpack that shrinks each year as the climate warms.

On the opposite side of the country, members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act onto the House floor, after days of grueling debate. The accomplishment is both momentous and imperfect. It’s the first real climate change-fighting bill to get this far and have this much political traction. But it’s been worn down by coal-state politicians. Protesters blocked the door of Rep. Rick Boucher’s (D-VA) office to oppose the billions of dollars of incentives for the coal industry that Boucher has slipped into the bill. Fifteen people were arrested.

Environmental groups like 1Sky believe they can shore up the bill again in the House. Let’s hope they are right, and that Congress, Obama, and the EPA listen to the millions of Americans who are ready for action.

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