Politico recently reported that a number of GOP lawmakers want to do something about it after years of letting Democrats dominate the issues and conversation, while the New York Times reported Republican strategists are worried the party could lose voters if it doesn’t turn around on this issue quickly.
But it seems that is still a long way off, too far off for science, which has found that major areas in the country are nearing the critical threshold of warming by 2 degrees Celsius.
It will certainly never happen in a Trump administration, say some conservative climate activists. President Trump didn’t start the climate change denial movement, but he is its most prominent proponent. His stance that climate change is a “hoax” is in line with his base but incongruent with nearly half of Americans, according to Pew Research Center, who think dealing with it should be a top priority for the president.
“It’s not an issue Trump seems to have much interest in or sees political advantages in approaching,” said Joseph Majkut, the director of climate policy for the right-leaning Niskanen Center think tank.
Republican lawmakers in this political moment are carefully contemplating whether and how to address climate change in a way that doesn’t “overwhelmingly disturb their political coalitions,” Majkut said. “That’s complex stuff to figure out,” he said. And Trump’s not providing them any leadership on how to navigate it.
But set aside Trump, and Republican lawmakers need to realize there is a political constituency to talk about climate change, say conservative climate activists.
When Benji Backer, the president of the 2017 youth-led conservative climate group American Conservation Coalition, talks to lawmakers, he stresses that climate deniers are a small, yet vocal, minority of the party. And he hands them polls that show it’s in the top two or three issues for young voters with a warning: “Young people are leaving the Republican Party in droves over this issue."
Various public polling shows that climate change isn’t a top issue for the country as a whole; it often ranks below health care, immigration and the economy for voters.
But a February Pew Research survey finds evidence that Republicans of all ages are warming to prioritizing this. Over the past two years, Republicans who think stricter environmental laws are worth the potential economic cost jumped nearly 10 points, to 45 percent.
An April Pew survey found a majority of Americans, 56 percent, say protecting the environment should be the top priority of Congress and the White House and that Republican millennial voters are twice as likely to say humans are causing the Earth’s accelerated warming as their older party members. (Though that high is just 36 percent.)
“Not enough conservative constituents are reaching out,” Backer said, “and not enough lawmakers are willing to extend their hand and say: ‘This is an issue I’m going to prioritize.’ ”
Environmental activists are skeptical that will happen.
“It seems there is this desire from the GOP to show that they are not keeping their heads in the sand on climate, that they are not a party that’s anti-environment,” said Liz Perera, the climate policy director at the environmental organization Sierra Club. But, she said “there’s really no there there.” Exhibit A is how Republicans in Congress have endorsed the Trump administration’s wholesale rollback of dozens of environmental regulations — they’ve even helped when they could legislatively.
“If they came out and said: ‘I disagree with the president, I disagree with everything his agenda has completed on climate,’ ” Perera said, “… Then maybe we’d start taking them seriously.”
It’s a politically precarious time for conservative lawmakers to even talk about climate policy, given Democrats’ marquee climate plan, the Green New Deal, is being weaponized by Trump to signal that Democrats are for too-big government. (The plan calls for reducing carbon emissions to zero in an ambitious time frame while funding Franklin Roosevelt-style social and economic justice programs.)
“Most Republicans think there is no conservative policy,” Backer said, “that climate change is a Trojan horse for big government.”
But Majkut says there’s a political constituency among Republicans for a carbon tax, within the business community and especially within the oil and gas industry. A carbon tax is the holy grail for climate activists, since it’s the quickest way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (Scientists warn the world doesn’t have much time to waste here to avert the worst effects of climate change.)
Right now only one Republican is publicly championing such an idea, Rep. Francis Rooney, who represents a coastal district in Florida.
Climate change legislation, like gun control, may seem elusive. But for all of Trump’s unhelpful rhetoric on dealing with it, conservative activists point out that Congress under Trump has actually supported tax credits for capturing carbon dioxide in power plants, and the Republican-controlled Senate has held hearings on bills to promote technology to capture and store carbon dioxide. There’s a way to legislate on this within the frames of limited government, say conservative climate activists.
“America should reduce emissions through innovation, not punishing government regulations,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said at a February hearing the committee he chairs held on carbon-capture technology.
Backer says it’s not so secret anymore that some Republican lawmakers want to legislate on this. Conversations that were happening behind closed doors are starting to be had out in public. He named GOP Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and John Cornyn of Texas as leading the Republican conversation to work on bipartisan bills to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“No matter what the president says, no matter what people think, Republicans are starting to get on board with this, within the base and within Capitol Hill,” Backer said. “Is it enough? No, but we’re getting there.”