Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Thursday paused before proceeding to her line of questioning at a House Oversight Committee hearing, expressing shock over the treatment Republican Rep. Clay Higgins subjected an expert witness, Raya Salter, to moments earlier.
"Frankly, men who treat women like that in public," said the New York Democrat, "I fear how they treat them in private."
The committee held a hearing on the tens of billions of dollars oil companies rake in annually and their failure to mitigate the damage their extraction practices are doing to the planet, instead embarking on a "greenwashing campaign" while people in frontline communities across the U.S. and around the world face increasingly extreme weather events fueled by the heating of the planet.
The witnesses included Salter, the founder and executive director of the Energy Justice Law and Policy Center, who spoke about environmental injustice that has plagued communities like those represented by Higgins in southern Louisiana.
Salter noted in her testimony that "the extraction, processing, transportation, refining, and combustion of fossil fuels places disproportionate environmental burdens on Black, Brown, Indigenous, and poor communities."
The industry has also been heavily invested in painting "the consumer, rather than Big Oil, as the primary climate crisis villain," she added.
Instead of addressing Salter's comments on the disproportionate impact oil and gas extraction has on communities of color and low-income people, Higgins illustrated her point by challenging the attorney to comment on the fact that the U.S. economy is heavily reliant on fossil fuel industries.
"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."
"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 replied.
Higgins later addressed the witness as "boo" and "young lady," telling her, "You got a lot of noise, but you got no answers."
When her turn to question the witnesses came, Ocasio-Cortez addressed Salter.
"In the four years that I have 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," the congresswoman said.
"I've never seen anything like that," she added. "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."
Salter thanked the congresswoman for her "leadership and courage" and said Republicans who continue to defend the fossil fuel industry "can come for me all day long."
Other progressives joined Ocasio-Cortez in condemning Higgins' actions.
"Small men resort to demeaning tactics when they don't have the wherewithal to act decently," said Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) on Twitter. "Thank you, Raya Salter, for your brilliant testimony and work to rescue us from the climate catastrophe."