Rep. Pingree shrugs off GOP jokes as she works to address climate change

WASHINGTON — When it comes to addressing climate change, Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree is not joking around.

Congressional Republicans have tried to caricature the Democrats’ Green New Deal, a sweeping plan to combat climate change, as an attempt to regulate “cow farts,” or the methane emitted by livestock. During a hearing of the House Agriculture Committee last month, President Trump’s Agriculture Secretary, Sonny Perdue, quipped, “Aside from giving our cattle Pepto Bismol, I’m not sure what we can do.”

Pingree, who sits on the committee and who is co-sponsoring the legislation, was not amused. “I just want to make sure that as a committee we don’t toss this off as kind of a joke,” she replied to Perdue.

Pingree said it’s time Congress had a “serious conversation” about “how farmers can be a great part of the solution.” She is hoping to change the conversation around climate change — particularly when it comes to agriculture, she told Beacon in a recent interview.

“I’m sorry to say that a variety of my Republican colleagues will sort of use any excuse to make a joke out of it,” Pingree told Beacon. “I think there’s a lot of fear in conventional agriculture that everything is going to be turned into, ‘You’re going to have to stop eating meat, or we’re going to eliminate all cows.’”

Pingree said she wants to use her posts on the Agriculture Committee and on the Appropriations Committee to steer the conversation instead toward the role farmers can play in combating climate change.

“It’s kind of getting it from the, ‘Let’s just make a bunch of jokes about this to divert attention,’ to ‘What can we do that’s positive for our farmers that will also be positive for the long-term health of our environment.’”

In another year, Pingree expects that most climate discussions on Capitol Hill will be serious conversations.

Given that House Republicans — who controlled the chamber from Jan. 2011 until Jan. 2019 — didn’t hold hearings on climate change, she noted that “even the Democrats started to lose their vocabulary around this topic.”

By contrast, she said, lawmakers remain well acquainted with the language surrounding health care and pre-existing conditions after the GOP held dozens of votes on the House floor to repeal President Obama’s signature health care bill.

“We know kind of the buzzwords and the fundamentals” on health care, Pingree said. “And you really have to give Congress and the American public a little bit of time to get re-educated on [the climate change] debate, because it’s been shut down for almost a decade.”

One such effort is a bill to address ocean acidification that Pingree reintroduced on Thursday. The legislation directs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to work with state and local experts to assess the likely impacts of acidification on coastal communities and fishing and aquaculture interests.

As for the ambitious Green New Deal proposal, released by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) last week, Pingree sees it as a starting point, rather than a final product. That plan calls for net-zero U.S. carbon emissions by 2030, while overhauling the economy and creating new jobs in the process.

“I see it as a great messaging document that allowed people to see a future for the United States that was about a cleaner and healthier environment” while ensuring that everyone has equal access to a clean environment and affordable energy, Pingree said.

To make it work, she continued, Congress will need to do more work to iron out the mechanics.

“While I was happy to sign on and I know it means a lot to my constituents to kind of finally feel like Congress is paying attention,” Pingree added, “I’m focusing most of my effort on what can I get done in my committees that moves forward substantially on the areas I know most about.”

Longtime organic farmer and environmental advocate Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who sponsored the ambitious Green New Deal proposal. (Photo: Alex Wong | Getty Images)

Sign up for Beacon newsletters

Our newsletter, sent each evening, curates the day's most important stories from newsrooms around Maine.