Why some Republicans are warming to climate action

A handful of Republicans, including a California assemblyman and a former US congressman, say conservatives need to help shape plans to mitigate climate change.

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Bob Inglis, a lifelong Republican and former US representative for South Carolina, says conservatives need to join the national discourse on climate change. His nonprofit, republicEn, strives to come up with climate actions that align with conservative values.

California Assemblyman Chad Mayes doesn’t lose much sleep over whether or not climate change is real.

“That debate of whether it’s a hoax or isn’t a hoax is a good mental exercise,” but serves little practical purpose, he says.

What the Republican from Yucca Valley does care about is getting conservative voices in on the discourse around the state’s climate initiatives. He’s especially concerned about the costs of extending California’s cap-and-trade program, which requires companies to purchase permits to emit greenhouse gases, which they can then sell to other companies if they don't need them. He insists that any version of the program after the current 2020 deadline must incorporate conservative principles and receive bipartisan support.

To that end, Assemblyman Mayes and his colleagues are ready to work with Democrats, who hold a supermajority in the state Legislature.

“We can either decide to not engage and let it be really bad for our economy and the people of California,” he says, “or we can engage and say we’re going to protect the environment and make sure that California is a place we can still afford to live in.”

The approach puts the assemblyman in the company of other Republican leaders who are increasingly supporting efforts, direct and otherwise, to address climate change. Like Mayes, these legislators are driven mostly by practical concerns: mitigating the effects of sea-level rise in South Florida, for instance, or ensuring Ohio competes effectively in the growing renewable energy industry.

They’re also part of a broader group of conservatives – including businesses, nonprofits, and religious groups – that have stepped up to support climate initiatives for reasons that range from the moral to the financial.

“We’re getting voices that Republicans trust that are talking about [the issue] more,” says Josh Freed, vice president for clean energy at Third Way, a centrist think tank in Washington. “And they’re trying to decide what are actions that address climate that fit their ideology.”

The focus on solutions marks a shift in the deeply partisan debate that’s surrounded climate change for nearly two decades, political analysts say. And while this shift is still in its early days, it could be a crucial first step toward disentangling climate change from identity politics – and developing a more diverse set of voices on the issue.   

“It’s incumbent upon everybody who sees the need for climate action to find a way around that polarization,” says Nat Keohane, who heads the global climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund. “We’re only going to succeed if we have serious solutions coming from both sides of the political aisle.”

A 'badge of identity'

Like immigration, abortion, and gun control, climate change is among a slew of issues swept up in the hyperpartisanship of American politics in recent years, political and cultural analysts say. Many on the right have come to view climate change as a pretext for expanding government regulations, Mr. Freed says, while some progressives see the issue as a way for conservatives to attack any form of environmental action, regardless of what the science says.

The result is that “the issue becomes a referendum on who’s virtuous and who’s vicious,” says Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale University who studies how cultural values shape perceptions of risk and individual beliefs.

They become “a kind of badge of identity in their social group,” he adds. “Those kinds of connotations raise the cost of changing your mind.”

No one knows that better than Bob Inglis, former US representative for South Carolina. Once a vocal climate change doubter, Mr. Inglis came out on the side of climate action after spending time studying coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef with Australian climate scientist Scott Heron – and after his own son urged him to clean up his act on the environment.

The reversal cost Inglis his seat in the House in 2010. “It seemed that I had crossed to the other team, that I was … no longer with my tribe,” he says.

But the loss gave Inglis a new mission.

In 2013, the former congressman started republicEn, a nonprofit that strives to introduce conservative voices and solutions into the national discourse on climate change. Today the group has more than 3,000 members across the country. Inglis himself advocates an environmental tax reform that would remove government subsidies for incumbent fuels and place all the health and environmental costs of fossil fuels “at the meter and at the pump.”

Having those costs reflected in the price of gas and electricity would hold fossil fuel companies accountable for their environmental impact, the theory goes. The higher price, in turn, would incentivize innovation in renewables and encourage consumers to power their lives in climate-friendly ways – all while keeping government intervention at a minimum.

“We’re already paying the full cost of coal-fire electricity,” Inglis says. “It’s in the healthcare system. It’s in the climate damages [they cause].  So go ahead and put that on your meter and let’s see how wind and solar do then.”

More than pushing a particular solution, however, Inglis aims to mobilize conservatives into joining the discourse instead of just going on the defensive against what he calls the environmental left – thus helping to sever the ties between climate action and political identity.

“People assume the solution is bigger government that’s going to tax or regulate more and reduce liberty and that’s completely unacceptable to conservatives,” Inglis says. “We’re trying to build the confidence of conservatives so they can engage in the competition of ideas.”

Working towards a consensus

Back in Sacramento, Mayes, the Republican assemblyman, has less lofty – if similar – objectives in working with Democrats on climate policy. In August he and his colleagues voted against Senate Bill 32, which set tougher goals for cutting the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The bill passed anyway, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law in September.

Now Mayes and other Republicans in the Legislature are involving themselves in the discourse, hoping to ensure conservative principles are preserved as the state maps out how to reduce emissions by 40 percent.

“It’s a matter of settled law. So for us the focus is how do we best protect the environment and make sure we’re not putting incredible burdens on Californians who are struggling to make ends meet,” Mayes says.

Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor
Republican California Assemblyman Chad Mayes sits before the state flag in his office in Sacramento, Calif., on May 8, 2017. Assemblyman Mayes joins other Republican leaders across the nation who are increasingly supporting efforts, direct and otherwise, to address climate change.

Across the country, Republican leaders are making similar statements on climate action, at times aligning themselves with Democrats in the process.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee in December collaborated with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D) of Rhode Island on a New York Times op-ed making the case that nuclear power is indispensable in the fight against global warming.

In 2015, New York Republican Rep. Chris Gibson – supported by 14 other GOP legislators – introduced a resolution in the House that says Congress must take “economically viable” steps to mitigate the effects human-induced climate change on the economy and the environment.

Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo and Democrat Rep. Ted Deutch, both of Florida followed the resolution by co-founding the House Climate Solutions Caucus in 2016. In its mandate, the caucus – which as of March had 34 members – echoes the Gibson resolution’s language, seeking “to educate members on economically-viable options to reduce climate risk and protect our nation’s economy, security, infrastructure, agriculture, water supply and public safety.”

“[W]e know that parts of our country, like South Florida, are already experiencing some of the effects of climate change,” Rep. Curbelo said in a March interview with CBS explaining his position. “Republicans and Democrats should work together toward some consensus solutions.”

“When it stops being an abstract issue and becomes a nuts and bolts issue and people's lives are affected – that’s a powerful driver of change,” says Keohane at the Environmental Defense Fund.

In places like Iowa and Texas, the economic potential offered by renewable industries like wind and solar serve as a compelling argument for gaining conservative support.

“There’s a strong business case for fighting climate change,” says Ethan Elkind, an attorney who directs the Center for Law, Energy and the Environment at the University of California, Berkeley. “This isn’t an economic loser.”

'A nascent movement'

Despite these efforts, it’s a long road to bipartisan solutions to climate change. On the right, supporting climate action can still come with political costs, Freed says, while on the left anything less than full support for environmental justice policies can still be viewed as weakness.

“It’s a nascent movement,” Inglis acknowledges. “It’s a heart issue right now. It’s saying that climate change is real says something about you and your membership in a tribe.”

But he adds, “At some point, we're going to figure out that we’re all in this together, that we’re doing an experiment on our common home.”

And for lawmakers like Mayes, it’s less about picking sides than it is about getting things done – and having their say on a crucial issue.

“We’re not the Dodgers and the Giants, where if you’re a Dodgers fan you have to hate the Giants and if you’re Giants fan you gotta hate the Dodgers,” he says. “It’s not about the game. It’s about trying to make sure people’s lives are better.”

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