Republicans are beginning to feel the heat on climate change.
Though a significant bloc of the party continues to deny the basic science of the issue, some senior Republicans are showing a willingness to consider incremental legislation to turbo-charge clean energy research funding, invest in greening buildings, support electric vehicle charging infrastructure and promote energy efficiency.
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And a few others are going farther, notably Rep. Francis Rooney, who supports a carbon tax — an idea that hasn’t attracted Republican support since a failed cap-and-trade bill nearly a decade ago.
“I don’t understand what it is about people in politics that they seem to be immune from some of these large shifts in opinion out there in the real world. I mean almost all the large-company CEOs are for taking reasonable steps to deal with climate change and sea level rise,” said Rooney, who represents a coastal Florida district and served as an ambassador in the George W. Bush administration.
He credited pressure from corporate leaders as helpful for ultimately setting a price on carbon despite ongoing resistance from many in his party.
And behind closed doors, Republicans are even more candid in acknowledging that action is needed, according to their Democratic colleagues.
“I’ve had very constructive dinners, meetings, conversations with Republican senators who see the threat of climate change, who agree that we need to take action,” said Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware.
“Since I first got here in 2010, virtually all the Republicans with whom I serve in the Senate have moved from denying that there is any change in our climate occurring, to questioning whether it’s caused by humanity, and then continuing to question whether we have any responsibility to do something about it, and whether we can do something about it without harming our own economy,” said Coons, a moderate who’s seen as one of the Senate’s top dealmakers.
Of course, President Donald Trump continues to fight aggressively to undo Obama-era regulations on greenhouse gas emissions. But other important GOP figures have softened their rhetoric on climate change and begun to embrace modest legislative efforts to combat the problem.
The tonal shift among some Republicans comes as a federal government report last fall warned of hundreds of billions of dollars in annual costs related to climate change by mid-century across every region of the country. And the United Nations last year warned the world must achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century to stave off the worst impacts from climate change.
Amid the overwhelming scientific consensus and growing public demands for actions, some senior Republicans, like Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have acknowledged that human activity is driving climate change. Other senior lawmakers have voiced support for more federal funding for clean energy research and other technologies like carbon capture and sequestration. Famed GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who famously pushed Republicans to cast doubt on the science of climate change in the 2000s, pointedly said last month: “I was wrong.”
“In Florida we’ve got a fairly pro-environmental group — Republican and Democrat,” Rooney said. “It’s an existential threat both to the quality of life and to our tourist economy.”
Coons said changing attitudes by corporate leaders concerned about the sustainability of their businesses is driving more climate discussion in Republican politics.
“There’s been a dramatic change in tone from the fossil fuel industry and then more broadly — whether it’s insurance, financial services or consumer-facing companies that are seeing the price they are facing. They are either conveying publicly or privately that their future models for their businesses include a carbon price, or that they have grave concerns about the potential housing market impacts or insurance impacts of steadily increasing storms, wildfires, and tornadoes,” he added.
Those corporate concerns are making themselves heard on Capitol Hill, said Coons.
“We recently had a day where more than 70 CEOs came and lobbied — on a bipartisan basis — members of Congress, and I convened an off-the-record conversation with seven of them and invited a wide range of members. I got a number of Republican House members and senators, and we had a terrific and constructive conversation,” said Coons.
In the House, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) told the podcast, “It is a decidedly different tone than we’ve heard in recent years.”
Blumenauer pointed to effects of climate change on vulnerable states — including melting snowpack in Alaska and disappearing glaciers. “These are things that are seeping into the public consciousness, and I think that [in light of] the sort of the full-throated denial that we heard on the part of so many of my Republican colleagues — that tone is significant, and I think it is reflecting at least in some cases the fact that their citizens that they represent are not going to abide by an approach like that.”
Blumenauer, like many other progressives, has advocated for a Green New Deal to address climate change by rapidly weaning the country off of fossil fuels, which critics have bashed as unworkably expensive and unable to gain bipartisan traction. Supporters of greater federal investment in technological innovation, in contrast, argue it could garner broad support and make a meaningful contribution to reducing U.S. emissions.
Dan Byers, vice president for policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute, predicted legislative action in coming months. “I will even go out on a limb and maybe predict that you could see a nice package of climate energy innovation-focused legislation be signed by the president later this year,” he told the podcast.
Byers added, “We only spend about $2 billion a year on clean technology, and so we think that that can be dramatically increased so that we can accelerate a lot of these technologies that we see as essentially being the energy economy of tomorrow.”
While Trump has given notice that the U.S. will withdraw from Paris climate agreement — a move slated to take place the day after the 2020 election — Byers said business leaders prefer that the U.S stay in.
“We think it’s absolutely important for the U.S. to remain in the Paris climate agreement and at the table in cooperating with other countries. We do think that the Obama administration’s pledge was unrealistic, was going to have a negative impact on our economy. And so we’d like to see that revisited to something that can be buttressed by essentially pushing technology growth,” he said.
Back in the Senate, Coons observed that some of the most robust discussions around climate have to date remained behind closed doors.
“We see relatively few Republican members of the Senate and House who are willing to step forward and say, ‘We’ve got to do this, let’s get to it,’” said Coons. “Privately, there are many more who see this as a challenge than publicly are so far saying this.”