A House Oversight hearing on climate erupted into disrespect on Thursday when a Republican lawmaker proceeded to yell and demean an expert who criticized the fossil fuel industry’s impact on the environment along with its role in Black and brown communities.
Raya Salter, an energy justice lawyer who serves on the New York State Climate Action Council, was invited to testify before House lawmakers during a hearing about the oil and gas industry’s lack of accountability and major role in the climate crisis. She said that the climate crisis is an “unprecedented global crime and the smoking gun lies in the hands of big oil and gas.”
Salter, a Black woman, talked about the disproportionate impact that the fossil fuel industry has had on Black and brown communities, as well as low-income families. She said that corporations are trying to shift the blame for the climate crisis to individual consumers and environmental activists instead of focusing on the real solution: transitioning away from fossil fuels.
But Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) was not buying Salter’s testimony, posing an open-ended question to her.
“Everything you have – your clothes, your glasses, your car you got here on, your phone, the table you’re sitting at, the chair, the carpet under your feet – everything you’ve got is petrochemical products,” Higgins said. “What would you do with that? Tell the world.”
As Higgins talked over her, Salters responded to his question.
“If I had that power in the world – actually, I don’t need that power because what I would do is ask you, sir, from Louisiana, to search your heart and understand why the EPA knows that toxic petrochemical facilities are some of the most toxic polluting facilities in the world and are killing Black people throughout Louisiana,” Salter said.
“My good lady. I’m trying to give you the floor, boo,” Higgins said as he continued speaking over her. “Boo” is a common term of endearment in the Black community, however, when used sarcastically – as the white congressman apparently did – it can be considered disrespectful, racist and misogynistic.
Higgins then tried to bring his religion into the discussion, saying that he is an environmentalist “from a biblical perspective” because he believes God gave humans the power to care for the planet.
“Sir, if we’re going to talk about the Lord, I ask that you search your heart again and think about repenting because the fossil fuel industry that owns your state is destroying the earth and the natural world. And that is a fact, sir,” Salter replied.
Higgins continued to shout over her as he expressed his belief that Salter lacks solutions to the issues she presented to Congress.
“You know what you got, young lady?” Higgins said to Salter. “You got a lot of noise, but you got no answers.”
Higgins later tweeted about the exchange, calling Salter an “unhinged climate activist.”
The incident was addressed soon after by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who also serves on the committee.
“In the four years that I’ve sat on this committee, I have never seen members of Congress – Republican or Democrat – disrespect a witness in the way that I have seen them disrespect you today. I do not care what party they are in, I’ve never seen anything like that,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
“And for the gentleman of Louisiana, and the comfort that he felt in yelling at you like that – there’s more than one way to get a point across,” she added. “Frankly, men who treat women like that in public, I fear how they treat them in private. We can be better than this.”
Salter thanked Ocasio-Cortez before saying, “They can come for me all day long.”