The U.S. Congress Climate Crisis Committee came to Colorado this week seeking guidance for a new national push to reduce the heat-trapping air pollution that worsens global warming — boosting the state’s position as a center for innovative action.

Members of this select committee and staffers explored energy research labs for two days. They quizzed scientists at work on accelerating a shift off fossil fuels to lower-cost wind and solar electricity.

And on Thursday the lawmakers held their first formal field hearing in a jam-packed courtroom at the University of Colorado law school, repeatedly asking state and city leaders how best the federal government could weigh in.

“The climate crisis is the challenge of our lifetimes. When we confront it, it makes us realize we’re all in this together. It will take creativity,” said Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., who chairs the committee.

“Those first steps on the moon proved that Americans can do anything when we work together. … We have to act as swiftly as possible,” Castor said.

Kelsey Brunner, The Denver Post
Members of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis listen to Representative Diana DeGette as she asks Governor Jared Polis a question during a congressional hearing at the University of Colorado in Boulder on Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019.

Gov. Jared Polis testified first, telling the lawmakers climate change poses “the existential threat” that in Colorado is affecting water supply, food production and a recreation industry that needs healthy forests. State agencies are girding for “a hotter, drier, more erratic future,” Polis said, and summarized work “to accelerate the retirement of costly coal assets” that pump out heat-trapping carbon dioxide.

Bold federal action “is more than just a moral imperative,” Polis said. “We also have an economic imperative to lead the global clean energy revolution.”

Colorado still relies on coal as the source for 52% of the electricity people use. However, gradual phasing out of coal-fired power plants, initiated by voters 15 years ago, has begun to reduce carbon dioxide.

This congressional visit, arranged by first-term U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, a committee member and Lafayette Democrat, was designed largely to help focus federal funding for green energy research and development. Colorado-based facilities include the National Renewable Energy Lab, North American Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration labs, the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Colorado in Boulder. Research teams are creating cybersecurity systems to protect power grids, super-efficient wind turbines, low-cost solar panels that can be “painted” onto walls and printed out like newspaper for installation on massive glassy skyscrapers.

The costs of wind and solar electricity will continue to plummet, researchers told lawmakers, enabling worldwide use to supply the bulk of the electricity people will need in the future.

“The climate crisis is daunting,” Castor said Wednesday during an interview at NREL. “But we have the solutions. We just need to do it — and make the right types of investments.”

Persuading the rest of Congress, under a Trump administration that frowns on utterances of the words “climate change,” looms as a political challenge.

But panel testimony included discussions with Liberty Oil Services chief executive Chris Wright on how long to rely on natural gas as a relatively clean “bridge fuel” versus trying to leap into solar and wind.

The proposed tighter regulatory controls on fossil fuels production in Colorado will displace oil and gas development to parts of the planet where regulations are minimal, Wright told lawmakers. Neguse pointed out social and environmental costs of continued dependence on fossil fuels, citing volatile organic compounds pollution by oil and gas companies on Colorado’s Front Range, where air quality for a decade has failed to meet federal ozone health standards.

“If you really want to drive CO2 emissions down, we have next generation (nuclear) power,” Wright said during an interview after the hearing, adding that China and India appear eager. “If it did not have political headwinds against it, it would grow again in this country.”

Kelsey Brunner, The Denver Post
Audience members listen to the testimony of Gov. Jared Polis during a congressional hearing on the climate crisis at the University of Colorado in Boulder on Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019.

The ranking Republican committee member, Rep. Garrett Graves, R-La., told the packed crowd of about 250 in the CU courtroom that the federal government “has got to get it right” in ramping up national climate action.

Land loss in southern Louisiana caused partly by climate-driven rising sea levels has reached one football field per hour, Graves said. The inundation of 2,000 square miles in recent years is reverberating through the culture and economy.

Lawmakers on the panel, joined by Rep Diana DeGette, D-Denver, heard from Boulder Mayor Suzanne Jones, Fort Collins Mayor Wade Troxell and others who have helped organize local responses to changes in water flows, wildfires and temperatures.

Jones and Troxell told how 14 Colorado cities have committed to providing only renewable energy. Cities “absolutely” need federal help, Jones said.

The lawmakers seemed unaware of advancements in battery storage and other breakthroughs, she said during an interview after the hearing, based on conversations during a private reception.

Hosting the hearing “is a huge honor,” she said. “It bolsters all of our efforts here in Colorado. It shines a light on what is possible, what we’re already getting done, what we could be getting done with more assistance, and what other states and cities could be doing. …

“We need to get on with it much faster. I want them to pass federal legislation to get on with it — legislation to make meaningful progress.”

Kelsey Brunner, The Denver Post
Climate crisis protestors stand outside the University of Colorado’s law school building before a congressional hearing on climate change in Boulder on Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019.

At NREL, lawmakers moved through research facilities wearing goggles and hearing directly from researchers. Field visits like this, members said, are hugely helpful to show the potential of current research and reveal the most important technical challenges. “We can go back,” Graves said, “and focus research and development dollars on those challenges.”

Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Georgia, acknowledged wide innovation.  “There’s already been significant federal funding of renewable energy research, and I expect to see that funding continue,” Carter said as he rode in a van.

Research and development funding for Colorado-based research “will be a big takeaway from this tour,” Neguse said.

“It is consistent with our brand as a state to have this select committee come to Colorado. They met scientists they never would have met otherwise and are building relationships and partnerships that will live on. It gives our labs the ability to have more doors opened in Washington, D.C., for increasing those federal research dollars,” he said.

“The ultimate goal is to save the planet.”