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Ocean Changes Inspire Bold Climate Push From Oregon’s Bonamici

June 7, 2019, 10:30 AM

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) has already observed damaging environmental changes at home—like the change in seawater chemistry that is harming her state’s shellfish industry.

“I represent the amazingly beautiful Oregon north coast,” Bonamici told Bloomberg Environment. “We realized that ocean acidification was affecting that industry, and then really started looking at ocean acidification and realizing we really need to do something about it.”

Bonamici was the main sponsor of the COAST (Coastal and Ocean Acidification Stressors and Threats) Research Act (H.R. 1237), a measure that funds research on the issue. It gained wide bipartisan support, and the House passed it June 5.

Bonamici’s constituents in Oregon’s 1st District see the effects of acidification firsthand as it becomes more difficult for the shellfish industry to grow larvae off the state’s coast.

Ocean acidification refers to the change in seawater chemistry that results as the oceans absorb part of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. Scientific studies have shown it can damage some species, including oysters, clams, and an abundant type of phytoplankton at the bottom of the food chain.

Bonamici supports the Green New Deal and was appointed to the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis in February.

“I try to envision what the world would look like if we don’t do something and if we do something bold, like the Green New Deal, for example,” Bonamici said.

Divisions Over Green New Deal

She cosponsored the Climate Action Now Act (H.R. 9), which would force the Trump administration to remain in the Paris climate agreement on keeping the increase in global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). The House passed it in May.

And earlier this year, Bonamici introduced legislation to ban the cancer-causing mineral asbestos. She also serves on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee’s environment panel.

Bonamici has been the “paragon of an environmental champion” since joining the House in 2012, according to an email statement from Sara Chieffo, the vice president of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters.

The Oregon Republican Party, on the other hand, criticizes her support of the Green New Deal. The sweeping climate policy framework calls for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and includes other progressive Democratic goals on jobs, healthcare and social justice.

Kevin Hoar, communications director for the Oregon Republican Party and chairman of the party in the state’s 1st District, which Bonamici represents, feels Bonamici used to “straddle closer to a moderate position” in the House. He said her support of the Green New Deal is one sign she’s started leaning more to the left.

Hoar said Oregon Republicans think proposals like the Green New Deal could damage the U.S. economy and put the country at a competitive disadvantage.

Praying Mantis in the Fridge

But Bonamici is adamant that bold environmental legislation will make way for jobs in sectors like the renewable energy industry. She said she has a great deal of respect for people working jobs related to coal and oil. But she thinks the potential new jobs will be safer and healthier.

She knows about the hazards of mining jobs from her own family. After he came to America, Bonamici’s grandfather was a coal miner in western Pennsylvania until he lost a leg at work.

“We need to send a message that we care about you, (and) that you have a way to support your family as we transition away from harmful fossil fuels,” she said.

Bonamici’s family life has heavily influenced her political career.

She inherited her concern for the environment from her mother, who started a recycling club in the 1960s and tended a large organic garden.

“When I was growing up my brothers and I used to laugh because she’d order these praying mantis egg cases because praying mantises are good to eat the bad bugs (in the garden),” she said. “And we’d open up the refrigerator for a snack and there’d be praying mantises.”

Education Activism

The congresswoman grew up in Michigan but moved to Oregon after high school when she and her friends drove across the country in a van.

“I was with a group of women friends and it was a really cold, snowy day in Michigan and we were like ‘Let’s move to the West Coast!’” she said.

In Oregon, Bonamici attended community college, and then got a bachelor’s degree and a law degree from the University of Oregon. After a law career focused on consumer protection, becoming a parent herself pushed Bonamici into education activism. She eventually ran for Oregon’s House of Representatives in 2006 and was appointed to the state’s Senate in 2008.

Bonamici decided to run for federal office in a 2012 special election, after former Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) stepped down amid allegations of sexual misconduct. She made education a priority, but also became a champion for other causes, including the environment.

“Education is related to so many things,” she said. The more people are educated about what’s happening on the planet, “the more they understand the crisis that’s before us.”

Looking ahead, Bonamici has high hopes for the climate change committee, which she wants to see focus on uncovering best practices from around the country for fighting climate change.

One promising idea again relates to the ocean. It involves a “wave buoy” device built at a shipyard in Oregon, which is being tested off the coast of Hawaii for its ability to harness ocean waves and currents, and use that power as renewable energy.

“The ocean is really powerful,” she said. “It doesn’t stop.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Maya Goldman in Washington at mgoldman@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergenvironment.com; Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergenvironment.com