WASHINGTON (CN) – Ringing in the first meeting of the House Select Committee on Climate Crisis, a group of young leaders and activists called on Congress Thursday to take a bipartisan stance against manmade climate change before time runs out.
Unlike a traditional congressional hearing where invited panelists are typically well over 18 years old and considered experts or longtime industry leaders by lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Thursday’s hearing featured candid testimony from impassioned young people – all under 25 – who have taken it upon themselves to call out what they perceive is the federal government’s slow-walking of climate change policy and legislation.
Aji Piper, who turns 19 in July, has been on the forefront of this challenge to the U.S. government. He, along with 20 other plaintiffs, sued the United States four years ago in Oregon, claiming that the government’s own actions – including subsidizing fossil fuels for decades – infringed on his constitutional right to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness.
“It is a constitutional duty for the government to protect resources on which we all depend,” Piper said Thursday. “Instead, the government is taking actions that are directly contributing to the destruction of our planet. This abuses the trust of its most vulnerable citizens.”
In the Juliana v. United States lawsuit, the blame for inaction does not fall squarely to one political party or one administration. Both President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump have been named as defendants, and both administrations have fought the lawsuit, arguing that the claims should be sorted out through the halls of Congress.
“Courts don’t make the laws, they interpret them, but we need laws to be made clear to move forward,” Piper told the House today.
Earlier this month 30,000 young people signed an amicus brief in support of Juliana, saying that they, too, believe the U.S. Constitution protects their right to a safe climate. The Ninth Circuit is set to hold oral arguments June 4 on the effort by the government to head off a trial.
Thursday’s hearing also featured testimony from Chris Suggs, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina who was spurred to action by the constant threat hurricanes pose to his community of Kinston, North Carolina. Since 2014, Suggs has led a nonprofit organization that brings young people and communities together to rebuild.
Describing how Kinston becomes cleaved in two when flooding overtakes area highways, Suggs said his experience with repeated, and increasingly severe, weather events has taught him the importance of practicality when local, state or federal government’s scramble for long-term solutions.
“I want ambitious action, but no action that would disparage the recommendations made by scientists who say there is a need to protect natural resources and avoid the dangerous effects of climate change,” Suggs said.
Several Democratic lawmakers on the committee emphasized that the bold ideas discussed today should not be pushed aside as youthful intemperance.
“I know you are dismissed as being unreasonable,” Representative Jared Huffman said. “You are urged to think incrementally. That might have been the right conversation a few decades ago.”
The California lawmaker added that any lawmakers who think incrementalism will work now “may be in the wrong room.”
“Or in the wrong century,” Huffman continued. “Don’t let anyone tell you your demand to have a livable planet is extreme or radical. It is not. It is essential that we hear your voice. You’re calling for swift action. That is the right message.”
Recounting the difficulty in reasoning with individuals who have “such strong illogical climate denial,” Piper took a jab at the recommendation President Trump made in November about wildfires ravaging California.
“There isn’t much you can say,” Piper said. “Something as ridiculous as telling someone to rake a forest to reduce the effects of wildfire season – which is out of our control – blows my mind.”
Lindsay Cooper, a recent Tulane grad who testified before the House Thursday, talked about how her family was temporarily relocated from Lake Pontchartrain in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. She noted that other families were not as lucky.
Now a policy analyst for the Office of Coastal Activities for the Office of the Governor of Louisiana, Cooper said the state loses a critical first line of defense to rising waters as erosion takes its toll on Louisiana’s coastal wetlands.
“We are losing a football fields worth of coastline every hour and a half,” Cooper said. “We stand to lose so much more. Whether you are pessimistic or optimistic about climate, we have all of the elements necessary to craft a large-scale solution for our country.”
Representative Garret Graves, a Louisiana Republican, asked Cooper what she would prioritize for the people of her state, whose livelihoods largely rely on offshore oil reserves and fisheries.
“Economic implications can be a large consequence of climate action,” Cooper said. “But it’s most important that we work in a bipartisan manner.”
The panelists were in agreement about the importance of agreements like the Paris Climate Accord that weigh economic and environmental concerns, liabilities and restrictions. But Piper said more needs to be done.
“It may seem really radical … but the 1.5 degree Celsius global warming cap will still lead to catastrophic disaster,” Piper said.
“These targets are not as aggressive as they need to be,” he added.
To showcase that climate change is not a secular or liberal issue, the committee also heard Thursday from Melody Zhang, co-chair for the Young Evangelicals for Climate Action.
“[The Earth] is God’s first and very wonderful gift to us,” said Zhang, calling out the moral obligation Christians have to ease the suffering of family and neighbors.
“A good man leaves an inheritance for his children and his children’s children,” Zhang testified. “This inheritance is in terms of abundance and natural resources. I believe God is speaking a new word through our generation. The religious community cares a lot about [climate change] because it is directly tied to our love of god and neighbor. This is a humanitarian crisis and not hypothetical. It already impacting people who Jesus told us to draw closer to.”
Zhang, who attends the University of Michigan, said she watched the Flint water crisis unfold and listened to dozens of affected families explain why they had no choice but to bathe in or drink water tainted with lead.
“I learned 60% of Flint were people of color and 40% were at the poverty line. That’s when I began to understand what environmental injustice looks like,” Zhang said.
Historic flooding in Nebraska last week killed three and destroyed entire communities, Cyclone Idai in Mozambique killed 750 and displaced over 100,000. California wildfires killed 104 people. And all of these events, Zhang said, are linked to human behavior which has exacerbated climate change.
“If I do nothing, I am complicit,” she said. “More than this, I am disobedient. … As political leaders, especially ones of faith, I implore you to respond faithfully and with full force to love God and neighbor by enacting just, compassionate and transformative climate policies which rise to the challenge of the climate crisis.”
As the House hearing was underway Thursday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted 14-6 this morning to approve the appointment of former lobbyist David Bernhardt to lead the U.S. Interior Department, an agency that manages public lands and resources.
At the hearing, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden cited new allegations in a New York Times article that Bernhardt was shaping Interior decisions in favor of a powerful California water district, which he used to represent as a lobbyist.
Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, called the allegations unsubstantiated.
Two Democrats and one independent joined Republicans in sending Bernhardt’s nomination to the full Senate. Bernhardt currently serves as acting secretary.