The Congressman

Ted Lieu

Job:Congressman, California’s 33rd district
Reps:Torrance, CA

When it comes to climate change, the residents of California’s 33rd district are in for a rough ride. They’re already experiencing record heat and severe drought, and with the Pacific lapping at their feet, rising sea levels and ocean acidification aren’t far away. They also have a congressman who recognizes climate change as one of the greatest threats facing humanity.

Born in Taiwan and raised in Ohio, Ted Lieu has now lived in California for more than a decade. He joined the House of Representatives last January, after serving four years as a California state senator. In April, he introduced the Climate Solutions Act — a bill that would set national goals for emissions reductions, renewable portfolio standards, and energy efficiency standards. He modeled the legislation, now under review in a congressional committee, after the California Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32), which set similar goals for the state of California back in 2006.

In September of last year, when news broke that Exxon knew about climate change in the ’70s and didn’t do anything about it, Lieu became one of the first to call for a federal investigation into whether the company broke the law by keeping its mouth shut. And in December, he co-wrote a letter to the CEOs of six of the nation’s leading fossil fuel companies, asking them to disclose what they knew about climate change and when.

Lieu spoke with Grist about preparing for climate change, holding oil executives accountable for their actions, and engaging his constituents in environmental advocacy. Below are excerpts from the conversation, condensed and edited for clarity.

When did environmental issues become a passion of yours?

The environment was always an issue I had cared about, but it wasn’t until I saw the movie An Inconvenient Truth that it caused an emotional reaction in me. It was clear to me that this is essentially the one issue that we need to address. All of us each day deal with a thousand issues, but this’ll be the one that could kill humanity as a species if we don’t address it.

What would the Climate Solutions Act accomplish?

One of the reasons AB 32 has worked well in California is it didn’t say, “Here are 493 specific things to do to reduce carbon pollution.” AB 32 basically said, by 2020, we’re going to go to pre-1990 levels in terms of greenhouse gases, and then it gave the California Air Resources Board the authority to get the state there. What my federal bill does is it sets a goal of reducing carbon pollution by 40 percent in 2035 and by 80 percent in 2050, and it tells the Environmental Protection Agency, “You now have the regulatory power and authority to take our nation to those goals.”

In California, even though the population has increased, the energy usage has largely remained flat, and that’s because there are incredible energy efficiency laws in California in terms of its building codes, in terms of other regulations. So the second part of the bill tells the Department of Energy to set nationwide energy efficiency standards and then to ratchet them up every few years. The third part of the bill sets a nationwide renewable portfolio standard. That’s something that California has. There are some other states looking at doing it, and I think we should have it nationally, and that will move us toward much cleaner power.

Why did you decide to take the lead in holding Exxon accountable for what it knew about climate change?

I thought the allegations were very shocking — that Exxon scientists essentially confirmed that climate change was happening in the 1970s and was largely being influenced by fossil fuels and that the company in fact went the other way in sort of denying the science and spreading this information. It reminded me of what the tobacco companies did in America, and I thought, “Well, I definitely know this is morally wrong. I now want to see if it’s also illegal.”

So that’s why I have now written two letters — both of those letters with other members of Congress. One is to the U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, asking for an investigation. The second is to the Securities Exchange Commission, also asking for an investigation.

In America, companies do lie, and they do make false statements, and many times, nothing happens. But in the area of security law, if they lie and make false statements, that is not only illegal, but they will be prosecuted. And my belief, looking at the securities filings, is ExxonMobil did not adequately disclose the known risks of climate change that their scientists had confirmed decades ago, and that is a violation of securities law.

“I think with every passing year, you get more and more bipartisan support to take action on climate change.”

How does being a veteran influence your approach to climate change?

When I talk about climate change, I always try to mention that it is part of U.S. national security. One of the things that makes America’s military totally awesome is that not only does it rely on technology and facts, it takes the world as it is. It’s not ideological. It doesn’t take the world as it thinks it should be or hopes it will be. Not only are some of our bases now going to be more at threat of being flooded, we also have climate change affecting food and water supplies in other parts of the world, which creates refugee issues and creates more conflicts, which then may draw the U.S. to engage in other parts of the world.

The U.S. military also realizes that relying so much on fossil fuels is not the best way forward, partly because it takes a lot to transport and deliver fossil fuels to the units that need them, and we suffer a lot of casualties in different parts of the world simply trying to get fossil fuels delivered so our units could operate. If you could have them operate, for example, on solar power, it would be much easier, and you wouldn’t have the same transportation issues that you have now.

If we could get people to think about climate change not just in them breathing better air but also affecting U.S. national security, I think that would also go a long way in getting legislation accomplished.

How has the conversation around climate change shifted since AB 32 passed almost a decade ago?

There is clearly much more momentum for climate change legislation now than there was a decade ago, and the public is much more cognizant of climate change because they’re seeing it. They’re experiencing hotter temperatures, they’re seeing more extreme weather events, they’re seeing more droughts. The voters are quite smart. They understand that when [more than 95 percent] of scientists all say the same thing, and their predictions come true 10, 20 years later, then generally that means that it’s true.

You also see a shift in the conversation now, where 15 years ago, there were I think a fair number of people that actually thought climate change wasn’t happening. That is very few now. It’s now just the fringe, crazy people that say that. Even the conservative Republican legislators I talk to on the House floor now tend to say that climate change is happening. They might push back that it’s not being caused by humans but the conversation has shifted.

You also see a dramatic shift in other countries acknowledging climate change and wanting to solve the issue. The U.S. and China embarked on a historic agreement [last] year on climate change, so now you have the two leading economies in the world working together to mitigate climate change — and it’s a pretty big deal for China to do this.

I had the opportunity to go with leader Nancy Pelosi on a congressional delegation to China last [November]. I was one of six members selected to go with her, and one of the reasons was to follow up with president Xi Jingping’s visit to the United States in September and to talk about climate change and encourage further cooperation on that issue. I think it’s heartening to see Chinese officials talk about climate change and how they want to be part of the solution.

Are you optimistic about the future of the Climate Solutions Act?

Ultimately, yes. I’m very cognizant it’s not going to happen this term, especially during a presidential election. But I am optimistic that we will get this passed. We had some movement [last] year already with about 10 Republicans issuing a resolution saying that climate change is real, and we need to do something about it. I think with every passing year, you get more and more bipartisan support to take action on climate change. And my view of democracy is that — well, I have two views: One is that everything seems impossible until it happens and No. 2 is that the side with the facts ultimately wins in the end.