Two very different Virginia congressmen will be key players in climate fight on Capitol Hill

By: - March 13, 2019 5:06 am

The U.S. Capitol. (Credit: Toni Smith, USGS. Public domain

WASHINGTON — Two Virginians with starkly different views on climate change have landed seats on a new U.S. House committee set up to tackle the hot-button issue.

Reps. Donald McEachin, D-4th, and Morgan Griffith, R-9th, are two of the 15 members selected to serve on the new House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. Virginia is the only state with members serving on the committee from both sides of the aisle.

U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin, D-4th.

The new committee, according to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., “will spearhead Democrats’ work to develop innovative, effective solutions to prevent and reverse the climate crisis.”

The committee, led by chairwoman Kathy Castor, D-Fla., resembles another select committee on global warming — largely a messaging panel with no legislative authority — that Pelosi and her allies assembled the last time Democrats held the House majority. Republicans quashed that committee when they gained control of the chamber in 2011.

The panel is expected to start holding climate hearings soon, putting both McEachin and Griffith on center stage as the polarizing political battle heats up on Capitol Hill.

McEachin, whose district stretches from Richmond to Hampton Roads, has warned that climate change is an issue that “jeopardizes the world as we know it” and deserves an “urgent response.”

Griffith, whose district lies firmly in southwestern Virginia coal country, won his seat in 2010 in part thanks to hammering his competitor — then-Democratic Rep. Rick Boucher — for supporting the cap-and-trade climate bill that passed the House in 2009. Griffith’s campaign website then said it was “reckless to pursue such an economically devastating plan in order to address a scientific theory — man-made global warming — that many scientists do not even believe is happening.”

U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-9th

Former longtime Virginia Democratic Rep. Jim Moran knows both congressmen well.

“Other than being the same gender, Don and Morgan don’t really have much in common,” Moran told the Virginia Mercury.

Moran isn’t expecting a dramatic showdown between the two Virginia lawmakers when hearings kick off. “They’re both nice guys,” he said. But “they’re going to have vastly conflicting views.”

McEachin’s district, which stretches to the edge of Virginia’s Atlantic coast, is “very vulnerable to climate change,” Moran said. “He’s very conscious of the threat.” Griffith, on the other hand, represents a district “heavily dependent on coal, so he has to represent his constituents.”

McEachin co-founded and is the co-chairman of the United for Climate and Environmental Justice Task Force. He has a lifetime score of 87 percent from the League of Conservation Voters, although the environmental group notes that he missed votes in 2017 and 2018 due to medical issues.

Griffith has a five percent lifetime score from LCV.

McEachin told the Mercury this week that climate change has been a key priority for him since he was first elected to the Virginia State Senate in 2007. He said he developed an interest in “Creation Care” — the idea that humans are stewards of God’s creation — when he studied in seminary.

However, like many a longtime Virginia politician, Dominion Energy, which is pushing a contentious interstate natural gas pipeline project and has been a barrier to more consumer friendly renewable energy here, is among his biggest campaign contributors.

McEachin wanted to serve on the climate committee, he said, because he hopes it’ll help generate ideas and debate to aid the committees that have legislative jurisdiction — like the Energy and Commerce and Natural Resources Committees. McEachin has seats on both of those committees, as well.

“What we are is an idea factory,” he said of the new select committee. “We have the privilege of stepping back and looking at the problem of climate change as one problem, which it is rather than having it siloed up.”

McEachin has worked with Griffith dating back to the 1990s, when they both served in Virginia’s House of Delegates. They work together when they can, McEachin said, and they’re straight with each other about when they can’t.

When Griffith was appointed to the committee last month, he issued a statement saying he’ll use his position “to guide this committee toward following the facts and scientific evidence, not ideology and speculation.”

He added, “The climate is changing. Any plan of action must reflect the reality that most countries in the world will continue to use fossil fuels. Our goal as a worldwide leader and energy exporter should be to develop cleaner, more efficient ways to utilize the wealth of energy resources our country possesses.”

Griffith’s remark that the climate is changing appears to be a shift from his past statements casting doubt on the science.

Tiernan Sittenfeld, LCV’s senior vice president of government affairs, called it a “baby step” that Griffith is “finally belatedly acknowledging that the climate is changing. But let’s see him acknowledge that burning fossil fuels is what’s causing the climate to change,” she said.

“It’s hard to imagine two more different approaches when it come to combating the climate crisis than Morgan Griffith and Don McEachin,” she added. McEachin is a “tremendous champion who is extremely focused on combating climate change,” while Griffith “votes against the environment and against climate action at virtually every opportunity.”

Griffith’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

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Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender

Robin Bravender was the States Newsroom Washington Bureau Chief from January 2019 until June 2020. She coordinated the network’s national coverage and reported on states’ congressional delegations, federal agencies, the White House and the federal courts. Prior to that, Robin was an editor and reporter at E&E News, a reporter at Politico, and a freelance producer for Reuters TV.