Republicans try to prove they are not the party of climate denial

When Joe Manchin, the conservative Democrat, last week convened a meeting on climate change with Republican lawmakers, America’s largest environmental group reacted with dismay.

“Just as there’s no negotiating with arsonists on how much of a building they can burn, there’s no negotiating with a party of climate deniers on climate action,” said the Sierra Club.

Recognising their bad reputation on climate change among people concerned about the issue, a group of Republicans in the House of Representatives has formed the Conservative Climate Caucus.

But the group has work to do if it is to change voter perceptions about the party’s commitment to environmental issues.

The GOP in recent years has largely resisted government action on global warming, opposing limits on emissions, the phaseout of coal power generation and US participation in the Paris climate accord.

Surveyed by the New York Times in January, not a single Republican senator said they would support the climate measures put forward in President Joe Biden’s stalled Build Back Better bill. 

The League of Conservation Voters, which gives lawmakers a score depending on whether they cast a pro-environment vote on selected legislation, said the average score for Republican lawmakers across the House and Senate combined in 2021 was 14.21 out of a possible 100. 

The chair of the Conservative Climate Caucus, Utah congressman John Curtis, said he started the group to show that Republicans cared about climate change and could offer policies to combat it. “Republicans do care about our Earth and our planet, and we want to be good stewards,” said Curtis. “In my opinion we have not been vocal enough.”

Democrats and Republicans agree there should be investment in new renewable energy generation and storage. Their key difference on climate policy is over the GOP’s insistence that US fossil fuels should continue to play a role in the world’s energy mix. 

Curtis said he believed US natural gas could offer lower greenhouse gas emissions than its Russian equivalent. “Do you want to lower greenhouse gas emissions?” Curtis asked. “If you do, you have to admit there’s a role for US fossil fuels.” 

One of the Republicans at Manchin’s meeting this week, North Dakota senator Kevin Cramer, told Fox News that European allies were “begging” for American energy in an effort to wean themselves from Russian gas because of the war in Ukraine. He told MSNBC that replacing Venezuelan oil with US supplies, or Russian natural gas with US liquefied natural gas, would “[bring] down greenhouse gas emissions”.

The GOP climate caucus has not released policy proposals. But it said climate action should be based on free-market innovation and must include China, which it described as the biggest obstacle to reducing global emissions. “With innovative technologies, fossil fuels can and should be a major part of the global solution,” it said in a statement.

The creation of the 73-member caucus follows polling showing that the majority of voters, including Republicans, are increasingly concerned about climate change. 

According to a September 2021 survey of registered voters by Yale University, 60 per cent of moderate Republicans said the US should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions regardless of what other countries do. The figure was 14 percentage points higher than six months earlier. About a third of conservative Republicans agreed. 

A Pew Research survey of more than 10,000 adults in early 2022 found that 64 per cent of respondents who said they were moderate Republicans wanted to prioritise developing renewable energy sources over expanding gas and oil, while about a third of conservative Republicans did. 

Philip Rossetti, a senior fellow at the free-market R Street think-tank, said that while the “most extreme” candidates from both parties dominated the media, winning Congress would require convincing moderate voters. 

“For Republicans to win suburban moms, they need to have reasonable responses to key issues like climate change and prove that they can govern,” said Rossetti.

“2018 and 2020 show that Trump’s rhetoric hurt Republican credibility with these voters, and winning them back means presenting solutions to an array of contentious issues, climate included.”

About a decade ago, Andrew Hoffman, a professor at the University of Michigan, wrote a paper on the so-called culture war around climate science, outlining the gap between scientific consensus and social consensus, particularly among Republican voters. 

Today, Hoffman says the polarisation is decreasing as more Republican lawmakers and voters believe in climate change and agree with scientists that it is caused by human activity. “In particular, if you look at what the young Republicans are doing — they care about climate change,” Hoffman said. 

Curtis said many Republican lawmakers had needed to be persuaded that climate change could be a conservative issue. “I think a lot of them felt like they had to check their conservative credentials at the door when talking about climate,” Curtis said. “And I think now they’ve realised they don’t need to do that and it emboldens them to be more comfortable talking about it.”

Several members of the caucus have previously disagreed with the scientific consensus that global warming is happening and is caused by humans.

In 2018, Michael McCaul, a member of the caucus and the top Republican on the House’s foreign affairs committee, said climate change had “gotten completely politicised”, and questioned whether global warming was “a normal earth cycle” or “man-made”. His office declined to comment on whether his position had changed. 

Debbie Lesko, another member of the caucus and a congresswoman for Arizona, in 2018 said that while “some” global warming was “possibly” human caused, “certainly not the majority of it”.

“I think it just goes through cycles and it has a lot to do with the sun,” said Lesko. “So no, I’m not a global warming proponent.” Lesko’s office did not respond to a request for comment on whether her position had changed. 

Her fellow caucus member Bruce Westerman, the Republican congressman for Arkansas, suggested in 2017 that if the climate were changing, it would be visible in Arkansas. “I did a little research and found out the number of forest fires in Arkansas has actually decreased over the past 20 years,” Westerman told a Congressional hearing.

“You would think even though it’s a more moderate or temperate climate, if climate change was causing more fires we would see a lot more of them than what’s in the baseline.”

Westerman’s spokesperson said the congressman had “always been an advocate for science-based conservation and responsible stewardship of our natural resources”, and that without “proactive conservation efforts”, “catastrophic wildfires, natural disasters, skyrocketing emissions from leading polluters like China, and other natural and man-made disasters will continue to impact our global environment”.

Curtis said that some members of the caucus had changed their views on climate change since joining and engaging further with the topic.

“I think it’s important to understand one of the successes of the caucus is that we take people where they are . . . I’ve had a lot of success saying: ‘Look, I’ll take you where you are, and I’ll move you along a continuum.”

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