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Are Republicans coming out of ‘the closet’ on climate change?

Young climate activists outside the White House in September. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Bruce Westerman, a Republican congressman from Arkansas, has a plan to help save the planet — one he thinks may also help save his party.

His proposal, which calls for planting a trillion trees to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, was warmly received last month when House Republicans gathered to discuss their policy agenda heading into the 2020 elections.

After years of denying that the planet was growing hotter because of human activity, an increasing number of Republicans say they need to acknowledge the problem and offer solutions if they have any hope of retaking the House.

In poll after poll, large numbers of young and suburban Republican voters are registering their desire for climate action and say the issue is a priority. And their concern about climate change is spreading to older GOP supporters, too.

Almost 7 in 10 Republican adults under 45 said that human activity is causing the climate to change, according to a poll last summer by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Republicans “can’t win the majority back [in the House] without winning suburban districts, and you can’t win suburban districts with a retro position on climate change,” said former South Carolina congressman Bob Inglis, a Republican who is pushing his party to craft a climate plan.

Westerman said last week that the notion of tree planting is proving popular among constituents. “The reaction I’ve been getting from my colleagues has been positive,” Westerman said. “Several of them told me they heard good things back home in their districts last week.”

Americans increasingly see climate change as a crisis, poll shows

The GOP is still hammering out details, but some critics say the new Republican approach to climate change looks a lot like the old one. In addition to trees, senior Republicans are said to be considering tax breaks for research, curbs on plastic waste and big federally funded infrastructure projects in the name of adaptation or resilience.

The already well-worn buzzword “innovation” will be their rallying cry, and natural gas, despite its carbon emissions, will be embraced.

Two weeks ago at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, President Trump surprised many when he pledged that the United States would join an international tree planting campaign.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) told the news outlet Axios that a new set of policies would expand an existing tax credit to encourage carbon capture and storage, sharply increase research-and-development funding for “clean energy” technology, curb plastic pollution, and plant a whole lot of trees. Graves in an interview also said that U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas would be better for the climate than natural gas from Russia.

What’s missing? There are no taxes or tax revenue. There are no regulatory standards to boost automotive fuel efficiency or contain methane emissions. And there are no limits on fossil fuels.

Moreover, Republicans have no taste for a proposal that leading economists say is the fastest, most powerful way to cut carbon emissions — a $40-per-ton carbon tax on polluters, promoted by George Shultz, secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan, and James A. Baker, Reagan’s treasury secretary and secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush. Money raised by the tax would be returned to taxpayers in the form of dividends.

“I’m for incentive-based methods versus punitive methods,” Westerman, a former engineer and a graduate of Yale University’s forestry school, said in an interview. “I’m for reducing emissions, but I’m for doing it in a way that doesn’t deliver a gut punch to the economy.”

Westerman said he does not think planting trees is enough, but he said it is “an approach that is pro-growth, pro-economy and against punitive-based cap-and-trade-type systems.”

Younger voters' concerns

As difficult as it may be to change the positions of GOP lawmakers, Trump makes matters even more complicated. Moments after rhapsodizing about trees at Davos, the president took aim at climate activists, calling them “perennial prophets of doom” and “the heirs of yesterday’s foolish fortunetellers.”

Earlier, in response to efforts to ban plastic straws that end up in the ocean, the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, a super PAC, sold packs of 10 red plastic straws emblazoned with Trump’s name and said that “liberal paper straws don’t work.”

It is unclear whether Trump will refer to the changing climate in his State of the Union speech Tuesday, with the possible exception of the trillion-trees commitment, which echoes Bush’s unrealized 1990 proposal to plant 1 billion trees a year for a decade.

Among voters who approve of Trump’s overall job performance, his approval ratings on climate change — 73 percent — were the lowest out of six questions the Post-Kaiser poll asked his supporters. And 23 percent of all Republicans disapprove of his handling of the climate issue, substantially higher than the 9 percent of Republicans who disapprove of his job performance overall.

“You see among younger voters a higher concern,” said David Winston, a veteran Republican pollster who has been researching attitudes toward climate change. “Does it meet the levels of the economy and health care? No. But you are seeing it move up as a level of concern.”

Much of the impetus for a new Republican posture on climate change has come from McCarthy and Graves.

When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) created the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis last year, Graves told McCarthy the party needed to change its position on climate change or risk being left behind by its voters and awash in a worsening series of floods and fires.

“My conversation with McCarthy was about hey, number one, I think the science is pretty good here and I don’t think the path forward has to be a hard right or a hard left turn,” said Graves, the ranking Republican on the climate committee.

McCarthy was receptive. In October, he told the Washington Examiner that the GOP would introduce several free-market-based bills in response to the Green New Deal, a sweeping set of policy proposals backed by some Democrats that would aim to cut greenhouse-gas emissions to net zero over 10 years.

Before he ran for Congress, Graves worked as a congressional aide, then returned to Louisiana to help clean up after Hurricane Katrina. In 2008, then-Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) put him in charge of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, where he learned about permanent changes to the coastline. In 2014, he won his first race for Congress.

Graves is no liberal. He has received a 3 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters, based partly on his opposition to requirements that natural-gas producers control methane releases and his support for logging Alaskan national forests.

“I think that some climate advocates have made a fundamental error in identifying fossil fuels as the enemy as opposed to emissions,” Graves said.

Louisiana ranks as the nation’s third-largest producer of natural gas, and the biggest campaign contributions to Graves in the current electoral cycle come from the oil, gas and utility industries. His four biggest contributors are the ClearPath Foundation, which promotes nuclear energy, hydropower and increased energy research; Entergy, a New Orleans-based utility; Marathon Petroleum, a refiner; and NextEra Energy, a big Florida-based utility that relies heavily on wind, natural gas, nuclear and solar. Over Graves’s career, Koch Industries has also been a major contributor.

Graves and other Republicans paint a bright line between their approach to climate change and Democrats’. They have sharply attacked the Green New Deal.

“Democrats like sticks and we like carrots,” Graves said. “We’re not out there dreaming about unicorns. We’re talking about taking fact-based solutions.”

Graves also opposes taking some measures when other countries are not acting in similar ways. “If you were to implement the Green New Deal, you would be playing into the hands of China,” he said.

Instead, Graves said, Congress ought to promote U.S. technology, which is “all about U.S. competitiveness.” And spending on resilience to prevent costlier climate damage is “an awesome conservative fiscal argument,” he said.

In the Senate, some lawmakers are seeking common ground, led by Sens. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.). “There have been a lot of Republicans in the closet on climate,” Braun, a freshman senator, told The Post in December. Coons and Braun each recruited three colleagues to their Senate Climate Solutions Caucus.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) has also managed to work with Republicans on specific parts of a climate policy. He joined with Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), a longtime climate denier, and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who also represents a fossil-fuel-intensive state, to pass legislation that gives tax credits to companies that capture carbon dioxide from the air and store it.

Risky territory for GOP

Still, some Republicans have paid a political price for urging action on climate change. Consider the swift downfall of California state legislator Chad Mayes. In July 2017, Mayes, then the State Assembly’s Republican leader, joined Democrats in supporting a climate-change program called cap-and-trade.

“We lower taxes, we reduce costs, we reduce regulations, and at the same time we’re going to protect our environment,” Mayes said at a news conference. “I know for some they’re going to look at this and say: What in the world is going on? Why are Republicans talking about something like cap-and-trade? Well I’ll tell you. We believe that markets are better than Soviet-style command and control. We believe that markets are better than government coercing people into doing things that they don’t want to do. We believe that businesses in California want to do the right thing.”

A month later, Republican activists in the assembly’s 25-member caucus stripped Mayes of his leadership position.

He went on to form a group called “New Way California,” but that, too, was attacked. Two months ago, Mayes quit the Republican Party and filed to run as an independent.

A spokesman for Mayes said he was not available for comment.

Inglis, the former congressman from South Carolina, has followed a similar path. “For my first six years in Congress, I just said that climate change was nonsense,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about it except that Al Gore was in favor of it.”

After going back to private life, Inglis decided to run again for Congress. His son insisted that he wise up on climate change.

Then Inglis went on a congressional trip to Antarctica and looked at bore samples of polar ice. “It is an amazing record of the Earth’s atmosphere,” he said. That convinced him that human activity since the Industrial Revolution was warming the planet.

Back in Washington, in 2009 he proposed a bill that would have imposed a carbon tax, adjusted the prices of imports from countries such as China and India that did not have such a tax, and return the revenue to taxpayers by cutting payroll taxes.

It was poorly timed during the Great Recession, he recalled. And unpopular.

He lost the Republican primary to Trey Gowdy by a margin of 71 percent to 29 percent.

“Note to self,” Inglis said. “Do not introduce a carbon tax in the midst of the Great Recession in the country’s reddest district.”

After Barack Obama moved into the White House in 2009, Republicans solidified their opposition to his entire agenda, including any climate plan.

“My party was against everything Obama was for,” Inglis said.

How much do you know about climate change?

It took nearly a decade for any shift. On Feb. 12, 2018, Joseph Majkut, climate policy director at the libertarian Niskanen Center, became the first Republican witness before the House Science Committee in nearly 10 years to talk about tackling climate change, according to Inglis.

The former congressman is now traveling the country trying to change Republican minds about climate policy.

“I don’t think it’s a marketing ploy,” he said of the recent GOP talk of climate change. “It’s a way for the leadership to try to test out the new talking points. They’re basically asking for permission to go forward and to go to the next step.”

Democrats and middle-of-the-road politicians are wary about the GOP’s recent climate buzz.

“I think they’re caught on the politics,” said Ben Finzel, president of a public relations firm, RenewPR, and a former Hill staffer. “The challenge is they want to get stuff done but also want to beat up the Dems.”

Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, said he thinks there is meaningful change underway.

“The fact that Leader McCarthy is publicizing his intention to put out a Republican climate solution matters a lot,” Grumet said. “The details will be embraced and ridiculed like every other climate plan. But that gives tremendous license for the Republican Party to get in the game.”

Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.

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