Rep. Castor tours National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Juan Torres, associate laboratory director, Energy Systems Integration, leads a tour of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory for Rep. Kathy Castor and other members of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.


Dennis Schroeder/Flickr via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The United States' recent $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act focused on urgent, short-term economic needs, so Congress did not include climate solutions in the aid package that could be a powerful tool to help with long-term economic recovery.

But as Washington starts to talk infrastructure as a way to put people back to work, a team led by congressional Democrats is aiming to change that.

Related: Mutual aid groups respond to coronavirus and climate change threats

While COVID-19 has wrought economic carnage, it also presents an opportunity to rebuild the United States economy in smarter ways to deal with looming climate disruption, says Rep. Kathy Castor, the chair of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. The committee was about to release its final report when the virus crisis struck, but with this delay, the legislative lane for climate action may get wider.

“Unfortunately, we're dealing with a life-and-death situation, the COVID-19 pandemic,” Rep. Castor said. “Our Select Committee on the Climate Crisis Framework for Congressional Climate Action was actually due out last week, so we were bringing it in for a landing. But if anything has given me hope when it comes to climate, it's this massive mobilization across the planet to tackle this pandemic. … That gives me hope that we will be able to attack the other, more slow-moving crisis that is the climate crisis."

Castor, who was born and raised in Florida, says both crises remind her of how people cope in the aftermath of a hurricane. “When a hurricane sweeps through and it destroys your community, it destroys your home, you build back on a stronger foundation — and that's what we have to do going forward," she said. "The climate crisis is a public health crisis and our climate action plan that was going to be released last week and will be released down the road, had some very strong recommendations for public health policy and how to keep our families safe and healthy.”

Related: Farmworkers are now deemed essential. But are they protected?

While the CARES Act doesn’t specifically address climate change, it does provide a large infusion of cash into public transit systems, which is not only something the country will need to reduce carbon emissions in the future but is crucial in this difficult moment.

“Think about what [those workers] are doing right now,” Castor said. "They're ensuring that a lot of our frontline health care workers can get to the hospital, can get to the clinic to take care of our neighbors.”

In addition, the CARES Act contains important investments in small businesses, which includes support for clean energy companies and their workers. “Jobs in clean energy were far outpacing jobs in oil and gas and dirty fossil fuels, and this should provide a lifeline,” Castor said. “I wish we could have done more, though.”

Solar and wind companies are also concerned about extending tax credits to consumers, Castor said. Democratic representatives and senators pushed to have those provisions included in the bill.

“I think if the Republicans and the administration had pressed forward on a bailout for oil and gas companies, or for refilling the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, then the clean energy tax credits would have traveled along with [that],” she explained. “So we have an opportunity now to start from a clean slate and to make the case on building that strong foundation for how we want the economy to work in the future. It has to be more sustainable. We've got to be smarter with our public dollar investments, and that means in clean energy, in more resilient communities.”

Castor says she can’t yet describe in detail the report from the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, but it contains provisions that make her feel enthusiastic. 

“I'm excited about the agriculture section because going into this I didn't anticipate that the agriculture community and our food producers would be so engaged,” Castor said. “But the climate's hurting them desperately. They can't grow the same crops, their livestock is suffering, there are torrential floods that are flooding out their croplands. So, they want to be part of the solution.”

Related: What can COVID-19 teach us about the climate crisis?

“That means sequestering carbon [and getting] assistance from USDA and all those great agriculture extension offices in our universities,” Castor continued. “They want to figure out how they can grow their crops to be more sustainable, how they cover their crops to make them more productive. So I'm excited about that piece.”

Castor is also excited about new investments in science and research contained in the report, particularly at clean energy labs like the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, where she and a bipartisan group of lawmakers got a peek at new ideas for solar products built into and alongside new construction. “There are innovators who understand that our building materials have to change, that it’s going to be a source of jobs of the future,” she said.

Like the coronavirus, the climate crisis is an unprecedented threat to our public health and safety, Castor notes, but, in the end, it’s also an opportunity to create new, long-lasting, clean energy jobs and a more sustainable future for our kids and our grandkids.

“These jobs run the gamut — in clean energy and solar power and wind energy, but also in weatherizing our buildings, the way we construct buildings and how we retrofit them, and smart grids, and smart meters,” Castor said. “Those will be very important jobs in modernizing the grid across America, connecting the clean energy sources to a modern grid that will serve our businesses and serve our communities. I think the sky's the limit.”

“I know folks are feeling very anxious about this pandemic, and I hear it from the folks I represent, but the coronavirus public health emergency has shown that we can mobilize the planet, we can attack these enormous problems and health emergencies,” Castor adds. “And I think this ultimately will give us hope and ambition to tackle the climate crisis. And in the end, we don't really have a choice. We must do this. And we can do this.”

This article is based on an interview by Steve Curwood that aired on Living on Earth from PRX.

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