GOP warms to idea of a climate change policy

Why We Wrote This

Conservatives have spent years bashing the notion of global warming. So why are several Republicans suddenly calling for a GOP policy aimed at mitigating it?

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Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chat before a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee nomination hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 28, 2019. They coauthored an op-ed calling climate change real and largely driven by human activities.

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In recent years Republican politicians have been more likely to dismiss climate change than to call it a real problem. That is changing, in a gradual shift that’s become more pronounced this spring.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., is calling for a “new Manhattan Project” on clean energy. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is trying to rally his colleagues to create a Republican plan to contrast with Democrats’ Green New Deal. And in the House, the party’s leading voice on a new climate change committee is Rep. Garret Graves, who speaks with an urgency linked to his experiences in the wetlands of Louisiana.

This Republican pivot goes only so far, especially when President Donald Trump isn’t joining the chorus. But political analysts say it’s rooted in political dynamics ​– rising public concern and local evidence of a warming climate ​– that are likely to persist. And some bipartisan legislation looks possible. “There are green shoots starting to show,” says Josh Freed of the think tank Third Way. “The first step to addressing the issue is to acknowledge that there is a problem.”

On March 8, two members of the U.S. Senate joined in a statement calling for Congress to take action to address global warming. What was unusual is that one of them is a Republican and chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, while the other is the top Democrat on that committee.

“There is no question that climate change is real or that human activities are driving much of it,” said Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., writing together in The Washington Post.

The call to action symbolizes a shift in both rhetoric and substance by conservatives on what’s widely seen as today’s central environmental issue. It’s an issue that Republican politicians in recent years have been more likely to dismiss than embrace.

Increasingly, lawmakers who had called climate change into question or framed it as highly uncertain are bluntly naming it a real problem. And others who had not been so dismissive, like Ms. Murkowski, are ramping up efforts to act on the issue.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., is calling for a “new Manhattan Project” on energy. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is trying to rally his colleagues to create a Republican plan to contrast with Democrats’ Green New Deal. And in the House, the GOP’s leading voice on a new climate change committee is Rep. Garret Graves, who speaks on the issue with an urgency linked to his experiences in the bayous and wetlands of Louisiana.

This Republican pivot doesn’t mean the two parties will be locking hands in a kumbaya moment over major climate legislation anytime soon, especially when President Donald Trump isn’t joining the chorus. But political analysts say the shift is rooted in political dynamics ​– rising public concern and on-the-ground evidence of a warming climate ​– that are likely to persist.

“When the head of the party [is] opposed to action … that’s an enormous obstacle,” says energy-policy analyst Josh Freed of the think tank Third Way. But “that being said, there are green shoots starting to show, where [Republicans] are starting to acknowledge climate change and they are starting to propose some actions that would be helpful.”

In part, the question to be navigated by both parties is how to curb greenhouse emissions in a way that’s both environmentally meaningful and economically pragmatic.

At one end of the spectrum is the left’s Green New Deal, embraced by some House Democrats and Democratic presidential hopefuls, which aims to be environmentally meaningful by calling for reducing greenhouse gas emissions “as much as technologically feasible.”

Conservatives regularly bash the plan as radical and expensive socialism that would wreck the economy. But pollsters suggest that without a plan of their own, Republicans risk coming across as climate deniers, especially by young voters who increasingly represent a big chunk of the electorate.

A clean-energy push

Some in the party see a chance to win over these and other voters by positioning their party to promote clean-energy innovation while avoiding a command-and-control approach that could burden taxpayers and businesses.

Speaking to reporters in the Capitol building Monday, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, called innovation “an ultimate solution to climate change” and said “current technologies will not get us to a point where we actually reverse the growth of emissions of greenhouse gases.”

 

Susan Walsh/AP/File
Protesters gather outside the White House in Washington on June 1, 2017, opposing President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw the Unites States from the Paris climate change accord.

Voters of all stripes tend to endorse clean energy.

“It’s not necessarily even about the climate. What should be driving our energy future is a capitalist free-market approach to embracing the innovation that we’re seeing,” says Tyler Duvelius, a young Republican who heads the Ohio Conservative Energy Forum in Columbus.

About two-thirds of conservative voters in that key swing state said they want 50% or more of Ohio’s electricity to come from renewables, his group found in a poll early this year. “Wind and solar are on parity if not sometimes less expensive than traditional sources of energy,” says Mr. Duvelius, who also touts the benefits of renewables for the nation’s energy independence.

For some Republican politicians, a rising urgency on climate change appears to be personal as well as political.

In the deep-red state of Idaho, 11-term Rep. Mike Simpson cites a “consensus among most policymakers” as a reason to curb greenhouse gas emissions, but he also recently mentioned climate change in the context of efforts to revive populations of salmon that “are the most incredible creatures, I think, that God has created.”

Is the GOP sincere?

Democrats wonder whether the GOP emphasis on promoting innovation is environmentally meaningful or just represents a delaying tactic.  

“I’m not sure I’ve seen enough evidence” of a genuine GOP shift, says Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. “I think the public’s way ahead of Republican members of the Congress.”

“It’s neither a sufficient set [of lawmakers], nor are their solutions sufficient,” says Mr. Freed at Third Way, which promotes center-left policies in Washington. Yet he says the story could change if more Republicans join the shift, if new technologies get a policy “push” for implementation, and if innovation becomes a gateway toward other actions.

“It’s a start. And the first step to addressing the issue is to acknowledge that there is a problem,” he says.

Technology is one way forward

To Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, another Washington think tank, the evolution of Republican positions looks even more promising. After years of Congress being stuck amid inaction and bills that only one party could support, he sees barriers to bipartisan discussion coming down.

“What I think we see now is a focus on the kinds of breakthrough technologies that will enable us to sustain our basic economic success and solve the climate problem,” Mr. Grumet says. “I think ... we’re going to see people become more comfortable and more enamored with those solutions and then start to ask the question ‘Well, what kind of policy is going to be necessary to get these technologies to deploy at scale?’”

He sees early steps, including one bipartisan bill to encourage advanced nuclear power and another for a “Use It Act” nurturing technologies that capture carbon dioxide emissions.

The effort by Senators Murkowski and Manchin “is the kind of conversation that gives me optimism,” adds Mr. Grumet. ”Democracy is a momentum sport.”

For his part, Senator Graham is determined to try to win President Trump’s support for a bill that can be framed as helping both the environment and the economy.

“Let’s just cross the Rubicon,” he said at a late-April event in Texas. “Let’s, as a party, say ... climate change is real” while offering an alternative to the Green New Deal.

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