Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) knows he has big shoes to fill.
Early last year, Lieu, 46, took the Los Angeles-based seat of now-retired Rep. Henry Waxman (D), who served in Congress for four decades and was long considered one of the House’s top climate change champions.
"If I could do half as much as he did, it would be an astounding success," Lieu said in a recent interview in his fourth-floor Capitol Hill office in the Cannon House Office Building.
His first piece of introduced legislation was a bill that would replicate California’s cap-and-trade law across the entire country. A former securities lawyer, Lieu has also taken a lead in pushing businesses to disclose climate risks, an issue that’s been in the forefront since investigations accused Exxon Mobil Corp. of misleading the public about the changing climate.
The current Republican-led Congress is unlikely to pass any climate change legislation, though. Many GOP members have expressed doubts about man-made warming and warn that actions to limit greenhouse gas emissions would hurt the economy.
While he’s optimistic that lawmakers will one day tackle climate change, Lieu said he’s also a realist who understands that the dynamics of Congress are not currently in his favor.
"I grew up in Cleveland. I’m a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan. So it’s taught me to be patient," he joked. (The Browns have never appeared in a Super Bowl game.)
Waxman, who now works with his son at Washington, D.C., consulting firm Waxman Strategies, endorsed Lieu for his seat and said in a recent interview that he’s happy with the new congressman’s work so far.
"When he campaigned, he campaigned on the idea that climate change was the most important issue we had to deal with, and he’s lived up to that concern by introducing a cap-and-trade bill to reduce greenhouse gases," Waxman said. "I’m pleased to see he’s taken such a leadership role as a brand new member."
Waxman, a former chairman and ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, expressed regret for not being able to himself push cap-and-trade legislation through Congress. With then-Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Waxman managed to get a climate bill through the House in 2009, but the legislation stalled in the Senate.
The bill’s failure caused much soul-searching in the environmental movement and led the Obama administration to aggressively pursue executive action in the area of climate, a move that has led to complaints of overreach.
"I think there’s a lot we need to do on climate change, and I think that, to me, is the unfinished business that I cared about," Waxman said. "But I don’t see Congress doing that job right now. But I think at some point, working with this administration and the next, I think Congress will recognize that it has a role to play."
His successor, Lieu, was born in Taiwan, and his family immigrated to the United States when he was a young child. The family lived in Cleveland in the basement of someone’s home while Lieu’s parents sold gifts and jewelry at flea markets before eventually opening a gift store.
Lieu attended Stanford University, where he received undergraduate degrees in computer science and political science. He received his law degree from Georgetown University.
Lieu served on active duty in the Air Force for four years before settling in the Los Angeles area. After serving as a law clerk to the late Judge Thomas Tang in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Lieu worked for the law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson and, later, for the legal office at UBS Financial Services Inc.
The future congressman began his public life in 2002 with a stint in the City Council of Torrance, a smaller city in the southwest region of Los Angeles County with beaches on the Pacific Ocean. He served in both California’s state Assembly and Senate before beating Republican Elan Carr by a wide margin in 2014 to succeed Waxman.
Lieu said he’s always had an interest in protecting the environment. Part of that interest, he said, comes from belief in an old saying that’s frequently attributed to Native Americans: "We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children."
He and his wife, Betty — a state water commissioner — have two boys who are 10 and 12 years old. He said one of his favorite things to do is bring his children to national parks; he ticks off Yosemite, Zion and Olympic among his top picks.
But it wasn’t until he saw former Vice President Al Gore’s 2006 documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," which explores the science of global warming, that Lieu took up climate change as a top issue.
"After I saw that, I concluded that there’s a thousand issues that all of us face, but only one that can kill humanity as a species," he said. "And that would be climate change."
Observers of California politics characterized Lieu as a "reliable vote" for the environment and climate issues during his time in the state Legislature.
"He was always a leader there, always one of the reliable people we could count on," said Mike Young, political and campaign manager at the California League of Conservation Voters. "One thing we always appreciated about his time in the Legislature was that he was very thoughtful. He wanted to learn more about the issues. He always knew how to ask important questions."
In the state Legislature, Lieu signed on as a co-author to A.B. 32, California’s landmark climate change law, and was adamant that revenues from the cap-and-trade program be directed back to fighting climate change.
He also authored green buildings legislation, as well as supported bills to increase access to solar energy for low-income families and to provide for investment in cleaner cars.
"I like him. He’s a straight shooter. I felt like he knew where he stood on things," said Kathryn Phillips, director of the Sierra Club California.
The California model
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Lieu’s top donors have been law firms, including his former employer Munger, Tolles & Olson. He was elected president of the House Democratic freshman class in the 114th Congress and currently serves on the House Budget and Oversight & Government Reform committees.
In April of last year, Lieu introduced the "Climate Solutions Act" to expand California’s cap-and-trade program to the rest of the United States. The bill would require the United States to achieve a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2035 and 80 percent by 2050, both based on 1990 levels. U.S. EPA would have the authority to develop and enforce emissions targets.
The bill would also set a 33 percent renewable portfolio standard by 2025 and direct the Department of Energy to issue energy efficiency regulations. The legislation currently has 30 co-sponsors, all Democrats.
Lieu said his goal was to create a blueprint for future congressional action on climate.
"I acknowledge in the current environment, in a presidential year, it’s very unlikely this is going to pass," Lieu said. "But eventually, we will have a different environment. And there will be climate change legislation passing, and I want this to set the standard for where we need to go."
In the past several months, Lieu, drawing from his experience as a securities lawyer, has pressed the Securities and Exchange Commission to better enforce its guidance for publicly traded companies on reporting climate change risks.
He’s also been leading congressional Democrats to call for investigations of Exxon Mobil in the wake of reports that the public company hid what it knew about climate change for decades. It is reminiscent of Waxman in the 1990s pressing tobacco company executives to publicly acknowledge they had concealed their knowledge about the dangers of smoking.
In fact, in a letter last week to the Department of Justice asking for a separate investigation of Shell Oil Co. and whether it conspired with Exxon to hide climate change information, Lieu and other House Democrats cited DOJ’s work in the area of the tobacco industry. They said the fossil fuel sector’s actions were similar to those "employed by big tobacco companies to deceive the American people about the known risks of tobacco."
Lieu, who charges that Exxon has been misleading the American public, said he recently met with company officials and several House Oversight Democrats who have also expressed concerns. According to Lieu, top-level executives told the lawmakers they believe in climate change and support a carbon fee.
"So, today, that is what they believe," Lieu said. "Had they not obstructed and misled people for decades, I think we would be much further along in this climate change field."
Young of the California League of Conservation Voters said he’s noticed an evolution in Lieu from merely being a consistent vote and co-author of environmental legislation to taking a leadership role on the issue in Congress.
"I think what we’ve seen since his time in Congress, he’s really stepped up his climate game in a way that was really appreciated," Young said, "because we were losing someone who was really a champion and wanted to tackle this."
Lieu said he’s been "absolutely" influenced by Waxman.
"The Waxman-Markey legislation was amazing, and keep in mind they got that through the House of Representatives," he said. It "gives people hope that if you fight hard enough, you can get legislation out, and it’s only a matter of time before significant climate change legislation passes both houses."
Lieu called the limited Republican support for climate change action that’s emerged over the past year "progress."
Last year, about a dozen House Republicans signed onto a resolution offered by retiring Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.) in support of climate change action. Earlier this month, GOP moderate Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida, a co-sponsor of that resolution, and Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) formed the first bipartisan climate caucus in the House.
"You have to keep pushing," Lieu said. "Ten years ago, if I would have told you there was going to be gay marriage in all 50 states, you would have thought I was smoking weed, illegally. Now there’s legal marriage, gay marriage, in all 50 states — and I believe pretty soon people will be able to smoke weed legally in all 50 states, too."
Lieu, whose district includes key sectors of the entertainment industry, credited TV shows with prominent gay characters such as "Modern Family" and "Will & Grace" for helping build support among the American public for gay marriage and said he’s encouraged by seeing climate change entering popular culture more and more.
"’Inconvenient Truth’ was awesome. I think it sort of was a wake-up call," Lieu said. "But then you had follow-on sort of documentaries and other sorts of films."
He laughed when asked whether the United States needs a sitcom about climate change.
"We wouldn’t call it that," he said. "But yes, we do."