Young Republicans, facing a future with more extreme weather events, wildfires, rising sea levels, famine and other repercussions of a warmer planet, have been knocking on their lawmakers’ doors with a message that many in the party have preferred to ignore: It's time to get serious about fighting climate change.
The party leadership, aware of polling that shows the GOP out of step with its young voters, is taking heed.
On Wednesday at a news conference led by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., House Republicans released the first few in what is expected to be a series of modest climate-related bills that they hope will demonstrate the party can acknowledge and act on climate change.
The measures include three bills to bolster research and use of carbon capture technology and to codify President Donald Trump’s decision to have the U.S. join the United Nation’s Trillion Trees Initiative.
“I think that young Republicans have made this happen,” Quillan Robinson, government affairs director at the youth-driven climate group American Conservation Coalition, said of the bills. “We’ve been meeting with offices for the last six months relentlessly on this issue.”
His group led about 50 college students to 28 GOP offices over the summer. Other groups such as the Citizens Climate Lobby have also taken young voters to coax lawmakers of both parties to act more urgently on climate change.
“I’m not going to say that climate change is the make-or-break issue in 2020,” Robinson said, “but particularly among young people, the negative perception around the Republican Party on environmental issues in general and on climate change specifically has been detrimental to the party in attracting, not just young voters, but suburban voters and women.”
The lawmakers had planned to release their climate plans after the Democrats running the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis unveiled their recommendations, which are due by the end of March. But the Republicans decided to fast-track their message as Democrats on other committees kept releasing “confusing” climate plans, said Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., ranking member of the select committee.
On the sidelines
“We didn't want to sit on the sidelines with some of our proposals,” Graves told CQ Roll Call. “This is just the first step of a few different rollouts that we're going to be doing moving forward.”
The Republicans say their proposals are rooted in innovation and would counter Democrats’ plans, which they cast as “hysterical alarmism” and damaging to industry and consumers.
“We put the consumer first and smart policy first and innovation first,” Energy and Commerce ranking member Greg Walden, R-Ore., said Wednesday. “The Democrats are all about raising costs for consumers.”
The writing is on the wall for Republicans on climate change, said Heather Reams, a GOP clean energy advocate whose organization, Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, has been helping the lawmakers reshape their climate message.
“It’s very much survivability…but also voters want it,” Reams said.
A poll released in July by Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions and American Conservation Coalition found 67 percent of millennial Republican voters believe the party should do more on climate change.
“They’ve got to start doing things differently,” she said. “If you’re not listening to your voters, you’re not going to win; plain and simple.”
Another poll released on Monday by American Conservation Coalition found 7 in 10 young voters surveyed were more likely to back a Republican candidate in 2020 who accepts that climate change is real.
“I don't believe that it's wise for Republicans to surrender all of the ground to the Democrats on potential solutions,” Rep Matt Gaetz told CQ Roll Call. “I believe we need an innovation-focused strategy…and I'm encouraged that more and more Republicans are looking to innovation as an alternate strategy to denial.”
Gaetz, who last year introduced his Green Real Deal as a response to the Green New Deal, an aggressive set of goals championed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said he’s had mixed responses from his Republican colleagues.
“I wish we had more Republicans acknowledging the science on climate change,” he said. “Denial is still too popular a viewpoint in our caucus, but I think the tide is turning.”
Threading a needle
Indeed, climate-conscious Republicans must thread a politically treacherous line between conservatives who oppose government intervention to slow climate change and Democrats and their climate-action allies who say the GOP's proposals are woefully inadequate to the challenge of global warming.
The limited-government group Club for Growth said its political arm will not endorse any candidate “that supports the liberal environmental policies being pushed” by McCarthy to win over “green socialists.”
“Besides hurting our economy, these measures will not make a single environmentalist vote for a Republican and only alienate conservatives across the country,” Club for Growth President David McIntosh said.
House Democrats are also skeptical of the GOP’s commitment to climate action after decades of inaction.
“I hope that they do something that's meaningful, but I would sincerely doubt that just because most of them still deny that climate change is human caused and if you take the position that climate change is not human induced, it's unlikely that you can come up with any meaningful action,” House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., told CQ Roll Call.
Reams said she expects the Republicans’ plan to include legislation to reduce ocean plastics — which are not a cause of greenhouse gas emissions — by tying foreign aid to countries’ action to control that kind of pollution. She said she does not expect it will include a carbon tax, a proposal that has broad support among economists but has proven politically difficult for either party to move in Congress.
She predicted the GOP plan will also not set a specific timeline for carbon emissions or set a target for temperature reduction, causing environmental advocates to question the seriousness of solutions that don’t include such benchmarks.
David Doniger, senior advisor to the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, said the lack of such yardsticks is a form of “climate denial.”
“The premise still seems to be that fossil fuels can be used in an unlimited way if we just taper emissions with R&D and innovation,” he said, adding that some of the proposals would be helpful but not nearly sufficient.
“They must be noticing that even the Republican base is showing higher levels of concern and they’re looking for something that might work in a campaign setting…to fool some of those people into thinking that House Republicans are serious about climate change,” Doniger said.
It’s doubtful Democrats who lead the House will take up the GOP bills, although some of those ideas have been included in their plans.
“At the end of the day when the sea levels are rising and the hurricanes are rolling up, nobody is going to care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat,” Gaetz said. “We’re all going to be Americans dealing with this challenge. It would be nice if we could start by actually passing legislation that encompasses ideas most people agree with.”