While the nations of the world heard President Obama take the pledge in Paris this week that the United States would do more to combat climate change, the House of Representatives passed two measures apparently aimed at undercutting him.

Here on Long Island, which is especially vulnerable to rising sea levels from global warming, the votes are split along party lines on these resolutions, which would weaken the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions from existing and future coal-fired power plants.

Freshman Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) says he supported the two joint resolutions—already approved by the Republican-controlled Senate—because the EPA’s so-called “Clean Power Rule” could significantly raise electricity bills on Long Island.

“Some forecasts see potential costs as high as $366 billion to $479 billion over the period 2017-2031,” he told the Press in an email. “While I support clean and renewable energy on Long Island, I am opposed to unfunded EPA mandates that ignore the role of Congress and the Constitution. Any deal negotiated in Paris must be presented to the Senate in the manner proscribed by the U.S. Constitution. The President has no authorization from Congress to commit any U.S. taxpayer money to other nations or to agree to any unconstitutional regulations that would infringe on our nation’s sovereignty.”

As a longtime elected official from eastern Suffolk, Zeldin says he’s always been a staunch supporter of clean energy and protecting Long Island’s environment. But he found fault with the Obama administration on this important issue.

“While protecting the environment is one of my priorities, hearing our president compare the threat of climate change to that of ISIS, or hearing Secretary of State John Kerry call climate change ‘the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction,’ shows how completely out of touch this administration is on foreign policy, especially in light of the recent terror attacks in Paris.”

Also serving her first term in Congress, Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) vehemently disagreed. She saw the resolutions as the latest attempts to prevent the EPA from doing its job, as well as undermining President Obama as he pursues an international climate treaty in Paris. And, just as clearly, she agreed with the Secretary of State’s assessment of the issue.

“Climate change is not only a threat to the environment and public health–it’s a threat to our national security,” said Rice in an email. “It’s a threat to our energy grid and to our troops on the ground all over the world who are forced to spend massive amounts of time transporting, retrieving, storing and protecting fossil fuels. While politicians and special interests debate whether or not climate change is real, our military leaders are taking action and leading the effort to diversify our energy grid, develop alternative energy sources, and reduce fossil fuel dependency.”

Long Beach after Sandy
An aerial view of the City of Long Beach after Superstorm Sandy. (Kevin Kane/Long Island Press)

She outlined the perils of doing nothing to reduce heat-trapping carbon in the atmosphere, one of the leading causes of global warming, because “those of us on Long Island have a tremendous amount to lose as sea levels will continue to rise and extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy will become more frequent and more intense.”

Rice stressed the importance of investing in renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power to create good jobs and economic opportunities here.

“We have to capitalize on our potential to be a leader in the transition to a cleaner, greener economy,” she said.

Rice’s assessment that climate change is a national security issue echoes a 2014 report published by a military advisory board consisting of retired generals and other military officials, including former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

“During our decades of experience in the U.S. military, we have addressed many national security challenges, from containment and deterrence of the Soviet nuclear threat during the Cold War to political extremism and transnational terrorism in recent years,” the panel wrote in the report titled “National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change.” “The national security risks of projected climate change are as serious as any challenges we have faced.”

Long Island’s longest-serving congressman, Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), never responded to explain his votes or his views on climate change, despite repeated attempts to reach him, as of press time.

Long Island’s senior Democratic Congressman, Rep. Steve Israel (D-Dix Hills) agreed with his party’s colleague from Nassau.

“We have a moral responsibility to take action to protect families and communities from the negative impacts of climate damage,” said Rep. Israel in an email. “These dangerous Republican resolutions prevent our country from taking practical steps to curb carbon pollution and keep the air we breathe clean. We all know the effects that dirtier air and water will have on future generations and coastal communities like Long Island.”

Adding urgency to the climate change debate is the potential devastation to our region, considering that a large section of New York City and the South Shore of Long Island lies less than 10 feet above sea level now, and that puts hundreds of thousands of people at risk during major storm events, whether from excessive rainfall or hurricanes. Based on some current projections, the average sea level could rise 8 inches by 2020 and by almost two feet by 2050.

Environmentalists railed against the House votes, calling “these attempted giveaways for industry…extreme legislation that no New York member of Congress can justify supporting” because it would block climate action and clean air protections, according to Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of watchdog group Environmental Advocates of New York.

By supporting the bills, Iwanowicz said in an email, Reps. Zeldin and King “are placing the interests of western polluters over our public health here at home.”

While world leaders are convening in Paris “to plan global climate action,” Iwanowicz added, the goal of the House of Representatives is “to thwart progress.”

“Climate change has taken an enormous human and economic toll that is only expected to get worse in the years ahead,” he said. “New York is already ahead of schedule on meeting standards required under the Clean Power Plan thanks to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). There is no justification for any New York member of Congress to support this effort.”

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