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It's Climate Week. Where are Republicans?

Republicans remained largely silent following President Obama's UN Climate Summit speech Tuesday, which urged international cooperation to address climate change. The GOP largely criticizes the president's environment and energy policies, but is there an opening for bipartisanship on renewable energy and climate adaptation?

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    Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky – flanked by Sen. John Barrasso (R) of Wyoming and Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R) of Texas – arrives to speak with reporters following a GOP policy lunch at the Capitol. Republicans in Congress, like Senator McConnell, have been skeptical of President Obama's climate change agenda.
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Leaders from across the globe, executives of multinational corporations, and a wide array of private citizens descended upon New York this week to support clean energy and climate change action at Tuesday’s UN Climate Summit and adjoining Climate Week events.

But amid the hubbub in Manhattan, one group has kept notably quiet.

For much of President Obama’s tenure, Republicans have criticized his administration’s green goals as job-killing, ineffective, and bureaucratically messy. Some Republican lawmakers reject the existence of human-induced climate change; but more frequently, Republicans say Obama’s climate policies are a distraction from pressing concerns like job creation, the economy, and national security.

“While America faces immediate challenges and threats, President Obama remains fixated on pushing an extreme climate agenda,” Sen. John Barrasso (R) of Wyoming told the Monitor in an e-mailed statement Wednesday.

But if that’s where most Republicans stand on climate and energy policy, few made noise about it this week. At Tuesday’s UN Climate Summit, Obama urged world leaders to take bold action on an issue he said will “define the contours of this century more than any other.” Republican response was muted. Few lawmakers spoke out or issued statements themselves, although a handful did when asked for comment by the Monitor. Ranking member of the Senate Energy Committee Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska declined such a request.

Republicans aren’t likely to embrace Obama’s climate agenda anytime soon, focusing instead on bolstering an oil and gas boom that has driven down the trade deficit and kept the economy afloat. 

But the relative silence surrounding Climate Week may also suggest the GOP is less eager to oppose a green perspective at every turn. If the US economy continues to emerge from recession, and more Americans continue to experience extreme weather exacerbated by climate change, might we see Republicans warm to more aggressive climate and clean energy policies?

“I think the politics are still that members don’t feel they can come out and say anything,” says Kimberly Dean, senior advisor at the Bipartisan Policy Center Advocacy Network. “The Republican party is still dealing with some of the further-right aspects of the party within election cycles.”

In fact, moderate Republicans like Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and New Hampshire Senate hopeful Scott Brown appear to be moving to the right on climate and energy policy. Governor Christie, observers say, is facing pressure to show conservative bona fides ahead of a potential 2016 presidential bid.

And so Republicans are championing the potential of the US energy boom. At a Monitor-hosted breakfast in Washington earlier this month, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) of Louisiana inverted the science denial charge some Democrats aim at Republicans on climate change by saying Obama administration officials are “science deniers when it comes to harnessing America's energy resources.”

Stirrings of bipartisanship

It hasn’t always been so acrimonious. Four years ago there seemed to be modest momentum for bipartisan compromise on climate legislation. In 2010, Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina signaled a willingness to craft climate legislation with Democrats that could attract moderate support from both sides of the aisle.

So what happened? The BP oil spill and immigration reform deflated hopes of a climate bill. And since then, a gridlocked Senate has quashed even modest legislation like this year's non-controversial Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency bill.

The Great Recession is also to blame for halting momentum and putting climate solidly on the back burner for Republicans.

“The recession was one of the key factors,” says Meghan McGuinness, associate director for energy and environment for the Bipartisan Policy Center. “We’re still recovering from the recession, and we lost a lot of momentum.” With so many Americans falling in dire economic straits, creating – or at least preserving – jobs became priority No. 1 over the course of Obama presidency.

Republicans who reject Obama’s climate agenda criticize the president for policies they say will eliminate jobs and stall a fragile economic recovery. Americans view Obama’s energy strategies as “red tape that will destroy their jobs and increase their energy bills,” according to Senator Barrasso.   

Republicans increasingly accept the science of climate change, but strongly challenge its ranking on the Obama administration’s priority list.

“[T]he president views climate change as the most urgent issue facing mankind,” Rep. Ed Whitfield (R) of Kentucky said in a statement Wednesday. “While everyone agrees that climate is changing, we do not agree it is the most urgent issue.”

Sen. Tim Scott (R) of South Carolina echoed Congressman Whitfield in a statement to the Monitor Tuesday.

“We all agree that finding clean, renewable sources of energy is important,” said Senator Scott, a member of the Energy Committee. “The part of that equation that is seemingly overlooked by this administration, however, is overall cost and affordability for the American family.”

The administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took on those economic criticisms Thursday at an event hosted by Resources for the Future, a Washington-based environmental economics nonprofit.

“The most expensive thing we can do is nothing,” EPA administrator Gina McCarthy said, arguing that businesses need a stable climate and a clean environment to thrive. “The economy isn’t a reason to fear action – it’s a reason to take action.”

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When asked about climate change at the Monitor breakfast, Mr. Jindal – a 2016 presidential hopeful – said that “it’s not controversial to say that human activity is contributing in some way. The question is how serious that is.”

Still, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, some Republicans continue to refute that global temperatures are rising or that humans are behind the trend.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma is among the most vocal:

“They're going to try to make everyone believe that the United States of America is going to take some kind of step against global warming, against climate change, or whatever they rename it next time, and it's not going to happen,” Senator Inhofe told Bloomberg BNA last week, ahead of the UN climate summit.

Meeting in the middle

Republicans may not warm to Democrats’ climate agenda for several more election cycles, if at all, Ms. McGuinness and Ms. Dean say in a telephone interview Wednesday.

That does not mean there won’t be incremental action on energy and climate in the meantime. Indeed, some Congressional Republicans view energy as an issue they can make quick progress on should they win the Senate in November. Much of that is in boosting natural gas exports and building the Keystone XL pipeline – two issues that garner support from energy-state Democrats.

Could bipartisan cooperation on Keystone XL and natural gas could lead to collaboration on climate? In an extensive report on America’s energy potential, Jindal emphasizes renewables and climate change in two of six organizing principles – suggesting the two parties may not be as far apart as they seem. No. 2 on the list of principles is “Encourage Technological Innovation of Renewables and Emerging Energy Resources,” and No. 6 is “Take Simple, Tangible Steps to Address the Possible Risks of Climate Change, in Concert with Other Major Economies.”

At least one passage from the Republican strategy wouldn't look so out of place among Democratic talking points:

With very low pollutants—none from operation—and a high degree of cost predictability, renewables can be an intelligent part of an overall energy strategy, providing very clean energy and predictable pricing, and generating a sensible hedge against the volatility of fossil fuel prices. The decrease in renewable pricing over the past decade has also encouraged new research efforts, which will likely lead to further cost reductions and performance improvements in the future.

“What we see in the short term is little steps,” McGuinness says, adding that non-controversial legislation like a successful energy efficiency bill “can build momentum going forward.”

David J. Unger contributed from Boston.

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