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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Economic Recovery, the Virus and Climate

Air Date: Week of

In the summer of 2019 Rep. Castor (D-FL) led a delegation from the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, where they toured the lab’s Insight Center 3D Visualization Lab. (Photo: Dennis Schroeder / NREL, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The world is now facing two major crises, corona virus pandemic and climate. And while COVID-19 has brought economic carnage, it also presents an opportunity to build back the U.S. economy in smarter ways to deal looming climate disruption, says Rep. Kathy Castor. The Chair of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis discusses with Host Steve Curwood how Congress can respond to the pandemic crisis with climate change in mind, and why the world’s pandemic response gives her hope about addressing the climate crisis.


CURWOOD: From PRX and the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios of the University of Massachusetts Boston, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood at a social distance.

The novel coronavirus pandemic is turning economies upside down, but so far the US Congress has yet to address structural changes that could enhance the American economy when recovery does eventually begin. The recent 2 trillion-dollar CARES act was aimed at urgent short-term needs, so Congress did not have enough time to include climate solutions as powerful tools for a long-term economic recovery. But as Washington starts to talk infrastructure, as a way to put people back to work there is a team led by congressional Democrats that’s aiming to do exactly that. The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis 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. Climate Crisis Committee Chair and Florida Democrat Kathy Castor joins us now. Welcome back to Living on Earth!

CASTOR: Well, hello from Florida. Thank you for having me on.

CURWOOD: Now, tell me first, what's the status of your committee? Initially, it was set up by the the House leadership, by Nancy Pelosi, as a Select Committee, which means it doesn't go on forever. And you were supposed to have a report by about this time of year; but of course, things have changed, huh?

CASTOR: Yes, unfortunately, we're dealing with a life and death situation, the COVID-19 pandemic. 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, this coronavirus, and that gives me hope that we will be able to attack the other, more slow-moving crisis, that's the climate crisis.

CURWOOD: At this point, though, the nation is in the midst of this crisis, this pandemic crisis. Why is it is a good time to be thinking about climate change policy?

The $2 trillion stimulus package known as the CARES Act includes up to $16 billion to replenish the nation’s depleted stockpile of ventilators, medicines, and personal protective equipment, or PPE, shown here as members of the Florida National Guard assist hospital staff. (Photo: US Army Photo by Sgt. Leia Tascarini, Flickr CC BY 2.0)

CASTOR: You know, I was born and raised in the State of Florida and it reminds me of a hurricane, and 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, we have to do going forward. 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, and then it spanned this entire spectrum. And I think folks will be very interested and focused on those solutions down the road. But first and foremost, it's about helping our neighbors right now and those frontline heroes in hospitals and making sure we get the the personal protective equipment to deal with the here and now.

CURWOOD: We'll come back to some elements of your report in a bit, but first, let me ask you this. How satisfied are you with the $2 trillion dollar CARES Act?

CASTOR: Well, the way you think about the emergency aid package here, the CARES Act, you think about, it provided a huge influx of funds for our frontline heroes in hospitals -- doctors, nurses -- and to develop the masks, the ventilators that we need. And then, support for our neighbors and workers through unemployment insurance and direct cash payments. The CARES Act, from a climate action perspective, provides a huge infusion to our transit systems across the country. You know, think about what they're doing right now. 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. There's also important investments for small businesses, and folks overlook the fact that so many of our clean energy workers are in solar and wind and this will provide a lifeline for those businesses. You know, jobs and clean energy were far outpacing jobs in oil and gas and dirty fossil fuels, and this should provide a lifeline. I wish we could have done more, though, for those clean energy companies and workers.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to ask you, what about support and the deadline extension for the clean energy tax credits, or aviation carbon limits that Democrats had sought in exchange for bailing out the airline industry? I mean, that didn't make it into this most recent package that was passed.

CASTOR: No, but we're gonna press to have it included in future packages. And a lot of those provisions related to aviation, yes, we could have done better. And they, in fact, a lot of the airline companies were in agreement on better aviation fuels and decarbonizing our airports. So I'm, I'm confident we'll get there. But the first priority: making sure that those workers and all of those folks that work at airports get the lifeline that they need to make it through the stay at home orders.

Juan Torres, Associate Laboratory Director, Energy Systems Integration, leads a tour of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory for Rep. Castor and other members of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. (Photo: Dennis Schroeder / NREL, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

CURWOOD: Now in terms of jobs and green energy jobs, both the solar folks and the wind folks are saying without the tax credits, they're gonna be in trouble. What do you think Democrats are going to do about that?

CASTOR: Well, we've pressed hard, along with a lot of the Democratic senators to have those provisions included. 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 them. 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.

CURWOOD: So give us a preview, if you're comfortable with that, of what's going to be in this major report from the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. What are the main goal posts in your report, do you think?

CASTOR: I'm not going to get into too many details on it because we are, this gives us an opportunity to polish it. But clearly we're charting a course for a clean energy future, one that provides an emphasis on what climate means for the health of your kids and your grandkids. 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. But you know, the climate's hurting them, desperately. Their, they can't grow the same crops, their livestock is suffering. There are torrential floods that are flooding out their crop lands. So they want to be part of the solution. That means sequestering carbon, that means assistance from USDA and all those great agriculture extension offices, our universities. 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. I'm excited about our investment in science and research. I was able to travel to a number of clean energy labs, like the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, with the committee in a bipartisan way, and saw the, you know, you get a peek of what the future will be with how we build our buildings with solar, not just solar panels, but solar products that will go alongside buildings of the future. There are innovators that understand that our building materials have to change, that's going to be a source of jobs of the future. Those are a few things I'd, I'd highlight, but, but stay tuned. We're eager to get it out. But the health of the nation comes first. And that's what we're focused on now.

The coronavirus pandemic has put mass climate marches and protests on hold for now, but Rep. Castor says seeing the rapid mobilization across the world to tackle the pandemic crisis gives her hope about nations coming together to address the climate crisis. (Photo: Jessie Palatucci / United Church of Christ, Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

CURWOOD: So which of the climate policies that you've studied have proven to be the most controversial, or politically difficult as you've been working on your report?

CASTOR: Fortunately, there has been a lot of bipartisan ground that we've covered. But it's still, the kicker still is the carbon pollution reduction that comes from fossil fuels. You know, there are a lot of members of Congress who are tied to the fossil fuel industry. And what will be interesting now is the oil and gas companies are under tremendous pressure because they were overextended financially, and their workers are out of work. Do, do a lot of the members there look for a new and stronger foundation in manufacturing in the clean energy economy? And those are the kind of bridges we're going to attempt to build in the future.

CURWOOD: It's very likely that what we're living in right now is the greatest economic dislocation of our lifetimes. And the unemployment rolls are just exploding along with this virus. What does your Select Committee on the Climate Crisis have to offer in terms of policies that would create green jobs that would help us in the inevitable recovery that we're gonna have to stage?

CASTOR: Well, just like the coronavirus, the climate crisis is an unprecedented threat to our public health and safety. But in the end, hopefully it's an opportunity, to create those long-lasting, clean energy jobs for a more sustainable future for our kids and our grandkids. And I think these jobs run the gamut, yes, of course in clean energy and solar power and wind energy; but also weatherizing our buildings, the way we construct buildings and how we retrofit them, and smart grids, and smart meters. Those will be important jobs. 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 and, and I know folks are feeling very anxious about this pandemic and, and I hear it from the folks I represent. But the, the coronavirus public health emergency has shown that we can mobilize the planet, we can attack these enormous problems and health emergencies. And I think this ultimately will give us hope and ambition to tackle the climate crisis. And you know, in the end, we don't really have a choice. We must do this. And we can do this.

CURWOOD: Congresswoman Kathy Castor is Chair of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis and represents the 14th District of the State of Florida. Thank you so much, Congresswoman.

CASTOR: Thank you so much.



The Guardian | "$2tn US coronavirus relief comes without climate stipulations"

Nature | "Climate vs coronavirus: Why massive stimulus plans could represent missed opportunities"

CityLab | "A Green Stimulus Plan for a Post-Coronavirus Economy"

About the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis


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