“I would never want to diss someone like that,” Braun said recently, pointedly omitting Trump’s attacks on the “very angry” Swedish teenager. “She’s talking about an issue that she ought to be sincerely concerned about because if we don’t, we’ll pay a consequence for it. So yes, I admire her.”
The freshman senator who ran in 2018 as a Trump loyalist in Vice President Pence’s home state is not just an unlikely Thunberg supporter — he’s a self-described conservationist readying to push a reluctant Republican Party forward on an issue many in the GOP have long denied or ignored.
During an extended interview with The Washington Post in December, Braun was not especially interested in landing attacks against Democrats before Trump’s impending impeachment trial in the Senate. Instead, he was focused on voicing the climate-related concerns of his four millennial children and his future plans as the chairman of the new bipartisan Senate Climate Solutions Caucus.
“I think there have been a lot of Republicans in the closet on climate,” Braun said of his efforts to recruit others to the group he rolled out in October with Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.).
In the interview, the senator outlined an ambitious timeline to raise GOP awareness on climate change as the country’s “next biggest issue.” He wants to discuss his climate evangelism with Trump before the president is “debating whoever the Democratic nominee is” in the 2020 race for the White House.
“We as Republicans will have a void there if there’s no comment or view about climate,” Braun said, a nod to bubbling GOP fears that a party without a meaningful climate change plan will continue to hemorrhage young voters.
Just this week, Trump rolled back protections for U.S. wetlands and small waterways. It is just one of dozens of environmental rules and regulations designed to mitigate the effects of climate change being targeted and repealed under a president who withdrew the country from the Paris climate accord, which sought to cap global carbon emissions.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week, Trump called activists like Thunberg, who also attended the forum, “perennial prophets of doom” who must be rejected for “their predictions of the apocalypse,” though he also endorsed an initiative to restore and conserve one trillion trees.
One of the president’s top officials, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, took a cue from his boss and mocked activists like Thunberg for urging investors to stop putting their cash in fossil fuel stocks.
“Is she the chief economist or who is she? I’m confused,” Mnuchin said of Thunberg. “After she goes and studies economics in college, she can come back and explain that to us.”
Despite the inflammatory rhetoric coming from the top, Braun has managed to coax a few of his more moderate Republican colleagues to join him in the new climate-themed caucus. Even so, many Republicans are loath to implement the kind of restrictions on industry that would make the most difference to the environment.
Between the two of them, Braun and Coons have thus far rounded up six other senators to join them: Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Angus King (I-Maine), Michael F. Bennet (D-Col.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Mitt Romney (R-Utah), and Susan Collins (R-Maine). Braun and Coons say additional members will be announced in coming weeks after the conclusion of Trump’s impeachment trial.
“We’ve got a pretty compelling group of folks,” Coons told The Post in an interview last week.
Like most odd couples, the story of how the stars aligned for the bipartisan alliance on perhaps the most polarizing issue of the moment — after impeachment, of course — varies depending on who you ask.
After nursing his grudge against Braun for defeating his good friend and then-Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) in 2018, Coons finally met with Braun, as he does with all new senators. He knew the two shared a background in manufacturing but “was very pleasantly surprised to talk at length about his experience in conservation,” Coons noted.
“Coons came to me because he knew there was nobody left to ask,” Braun said, only half-joking. “But he didn’t know I was a conservationist and had a real background in the discussion.”
“Is that what he said?” Coons laughingly exclaimed. “Look, this is a guy who is serious about addressing problems and when I asked about climate change, his answer was rooted in his kids and grandkids and the passion they have for being engaged in trying to tackle this multigenerational issue,” Coons said.
Of course, there remains a serious chasm between Democrats and Republicans in devising strategies to achieve the emissions reductions necessary to avoid the irreversible and potentially catastrophic effects of climate change.
For a start, Braun still supports Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris accord and abandon the global pledge to slash carbon emissions, which most Democrats fiercely oppose. Braun endorses reforestation to offset carbon emissions and is also interested in backing legislation around carbon capture, a method by which carbon dioxide is trapped at a large source and later stored. He also expressed interest in pushing a carbon pricing program, a price applied to carbon dioxide emissions, in “a year or two down the road.”
At the state level, Braun is calling on Trump to lay off of California — a state his administration has targeted repeatedly over their efforts to fight climate change.
“If he accepts climate as an issue of discussion, he might not weigh in as heavily on what California does,” Braun said. “In fact, if any state wants to spend any money to do better at helping mother Earth out, I’m okay with that — even California.”
But crucially, the Indiana Republican sees federal efforts as working in tandem with relaxed environmental regulation so industry can “actually use fossil fuels so long as they don’t emit any ” carbon dioxide, which is responsible for trapping significant heat inside the Earth’s atmosphere.
That is in direct contrast to 2020 Democrats, almost all of whom have signed a pledge not to take campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry during their race for the White House.
“It’s not the first time we’ve seen bipartisan movement on climate, and in the past that progress has been derailed by industry,” Amy Westervelt, an environmental journalist and podcast host, said in an email. “So far, I’m not seeing any proposals from the Climate Solutions Caucus that would suggest a different outcome here.”
Coons concedes that “real and big differences” between the parties remain on the issue but believes there are existing bills that could be signed by Trump while Democrats waits for a friendly administration.
“The best we can do is keep trying to find consensus because otherwise we’ll get nothing done,” Coons said. “We won’t solve climate change or transition to zero carbon emissions but there is a lot we can do to show the world that the U.S. is modernizing the [electric] grid, and investing in research and compelling new opportunities.”
Trump’s environmental policies might not sit well with the incoming wave of young conservative voters who are increasingly passionate about environmental issues. Fifty-two percent of Republicans ages 18 to 38 believe the government “is doing too little on climate,” according to a November 2019 Pew Research Center Poll.
Quill Robinson is the director of government affairs at the American Conservation Coalition, a conservative group, which works to reengage conservatives on climate change, sustainability and conservation.
The work of the ACC is grounded in the GOP’s history on this issue — from Teddy Roosevelt’s conservation legacy to Richard Nixon’s establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency to the Montreal Protocol, a treaty designed to save the ozone layer negotiated by Ronald Reagan.
“There’s a generational divide — younger people are much more likely to say that climate change is real and we should do something about it,” Robinson said.
Robinson said defending Republican congressional seats depends on leadership on climate change.
“If we want to protect [GOP Sens.] Cory Gardner [Colo.] and Collins’s [Maine] seats, we can’t be framed as the party of climate denialists any more,” Robinson told us. “It just doesn’t work. My generation doesn’t accept it.”
“I can tell you that for young people having the Republican Party being perceived as the party of climate denial is a reason they wouldn’t vote Republican. This is a case we’ve been making for a long time now. There’s a really big disconnect that we can overcome between the president’s rhetoric and where the future of the party is at.”