The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Transcript: 117th Congress: Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah)

MS. ALEMANY: Good morning, and welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m Jackie Alemany, author of the Power Up newsletter and congressional reporter for The Washington Post.

Joining me today is Republican Congressman John Curtis of Utah in the latest installment of our series about the 117th Congress. He chairs the newly launched Conservative Climate Caucus that has over 60 House Republican members.

Welcome, Congressman. Thanks for making the time for us today.

REP. CURTIS: Oh, it's great to be with you. Hello from Utah.

MS. ALEMANY: Let's start with the Climate Caucus. Why did you decide to form this group, and what's the shift that you are trying to push in the Republican Party on this issue of the climate crisis?

REP. CURTIS: Well, let me start with the second part of that question, the shift, and that is I regret that we're often--as Republicans and conservatives, we're not at the table when we're talking about this earth and environmental issues, and by us not being at the table, unfortunately, it's allowed us to be branded as not caring about the earth, as somehow denying the science. And my experience is, in large part, that's just not true.

MS. ALEMANY: So, what do you hope to accomplish? What are the top-line goals--


MS. ALEMANY: --of this newly formed group?

REP. CURTIS: I'll give you kind of an informal goal, and then we'll talk maybe more specific. But as a new member of Congress for the last few years, I found myself frequently in town hall meetings or in situations where, as somebody would say, "Mr. Curtis, is the climate changing, and is man influencing it?" And I didn't really understand the science. It wasn't so much that I denied it. It's so much more than I didn't understand it. I had been a mayor here in Utah, and the big issue was clean air, not so much carbon. And I didn't do a good job of answering that question. I sometimes would dodge it or I'd poke around with different answers.

And my goal is that every Republican when asked that question can smile with confidence and say, "Yes. Of course, it's changing, and let me tell you what I'm doing about it," and if all 60-plus members of the caucus can do that with confidence, I feel like we'll be successful.

MS. ALEMANY: And you've said that part of your mission is to get Republicans more comfortable with the science. Do all of the members who are currently a part of your caucus currently believe in the science of climate change, or is that something that you still actively work on and discuss with them in terms of--


MS. ALEMANY: --conveying the crisis at hand?

REP. CURTIS: Well, I can tell you the very first tenet, if you look at our documents, is that the climate is changing, and that decades of the industrial revolution have clearly had an impact on it. So, let's put it this way. They have signed up for the caucus knowing that that's how we feel.

Now, none of us really are scientists--or most of us are not scientists, but I can tell you this. We care deeply about the earth, and we want to leave it better than we found it. And too often, we get too political in this conversation, and I think part of what we need to do is dial back to just real basics, all right? Less pollution is better than more pollution. That's hard to argue with.

MS. ALEMANY: What do you think, though, is--you've said that you believe that terms like the "climate crisis" don't resonate well with Republicans. It doesn't motivate them. What do you believe, then, is the best language to communicate why this is an issue that lawmakers and policymakers should be devoting energy and attention towards?

REP. CURTIS: Yeah. Let me tell you, first of all, I think, to try to help people understand how a lot of us feel about this, the best analogy I can use is if I said to a roomful of Democrats, if we were talking about immigration and I said to them, "Listen, I demand that you acknowledge the wall has a positive impact on immigration, or we're not even going to be able--you have no credibility. We're not going to talk to you about immigration," those Democrats would be probably offended. They would be perhaps a little bit angry, and I think to Republicans, the word "climate" carries some of that same agenda problem. So, a lot of us, when we hear "climate," we hear Green New Deal, we hear extreme ideas, we hear shaming, and it kind of turns Republicans off.

But when I stand up here--I'm in a very Republican district, perhaps one of the most Republican districts in the country. When I stand in front of a town hall meeting and I say, "Is there anybody that doesn't want to leave this earth better than they found it?" everybody agrees with me. And when I talk about our responsibility to be good stewards, everybody agrees with me.

So, in part, I kind of have a plea to my Democratic colleagues to stop making that a litmus test, that question, and at the same time, I have a plea to Republican colleagues to stop dodging the question. It's not that hard of a question to answer, and I think to the extent that we could just get past that, we'll be much better off talking about our responsibilities and the things that we can do to be good stewards over this planet.

MS. ALEMANY: How do you think, though, then that your policy should engage with this issue on a policy level? You mentioned a few different terms that, you know, denote policy ideas put forward by Democrats, such as the Green New Deal. How would you like to see your party craft policy, and what sorts of ideas are in discussion?

REP. CURTIS: Yeah. So that's a great question. You know, I'm the first to admit that this has been a little bit of a journey for me. I didn't start off three and a half years ago when I came to Congress with very many answers and didn't understand the science, and so this has been a journey for me. But part of that journey has been discovering that conservatives, they have nothing to fear in this debate. There are a multitude of very strong conservative ideas that are very good for the environment, and I might even advocate maybe even better than the ideas currently on the table. And that's been one of the problems is we haven't been at the table advocating our ideas.

So, I think you want a couple of examples. Let me just throw a couple of ideas out there for consideration. First off, I think it's important that we change the dialogue a little bit, and that is to focus on really the end goal that would start with the end in mind, and that is we must reduce worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. And so some of the ideas, I think, that you'll hear from us are far more focused on worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, not that it's something we should ignore our emissions here at home. Clearly, we've got work to do here, but unless we find answers to worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, we ultimately can't be successful in changing the warming cycle.

So let me just toss out a couple of those nuclear--we had a hearing yesterday in Energy and Commerce on nuclear. At the very same time that President Biden wants to have our emissions reduced in half, we will have cut our nuclear fleet in half. We'll go from 20 percent of our energy mix down to 10 percent at the same time we're trying to cut our greenhouse gas emissions. So, personally, I'd like to see a nuclear on the table.

Now, that doesn't mean that we need to be satisfied with today's nuclear. There's no reason that we can't aspire to next-generation nuclear, that we can't solve the problems that are bothersome about nuclear, so that's clearly a very important area.

We've got to do better at innovation, with technology that actually pulls carbon out of the air. Why is that important? Let me go back to China and India and Russia again. They're going to--if you follow the Paris Accord, they're going to--China is going to continue not just at the same level but to increase their carbon for the next 20 years. We've got to come up with technology that pulls that carbon out of the air. We're actually not far away. It's still expensive, but that's something--the innovation that's out there is something that Republicans can get behind and cheer for.

Something that kind of throws a lot of people for a little bit of a loop is fossil fuels. There's a lot of demonizing of fossil fuels, but let me come back to this goal of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. We've reduced greenhouse gas emissions here in the United States on dramatic levels because of fossil fuels, natural gas. We need to have conversations about replacing coal-burning plants around the world, China and other places, with U.S. natural gas. We could do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with natural gas in China than the entire Green New Deal combined, and we're just not having those conversations.

MS. ALEMANY: So, in terms of the climate goals, though, that President Biden has already set, he's pledged to cut U.S. greenhouse gas pollution in half by 2030 and wants to get the U.S. to net zero emissions by 2050. Do you support these targets?

REP. CURTIS: Well, I think there are certainly targets we should aspire for. When I talk to folks, you know, it's interesting that a lot of corporations have voluntarily committed to near or exactly those same levels of commitment, but without exception, everyone you talk to says, "I can get to half by 2030-35." That's not a problem, but if you're going to ask me to get to 100 percent by 2050, that technology does not currently exist. And I think we've got to be frank with that, that we can set those aspirational goals, and there's nothing wrong with goals. But we've got to get busy with how we're actually going to accomplish those, and I think this is where Republicans hold a really strong suit. I think we have the ideas that will lead us to that.

So I'm not afraid of those goals, but we've got to be more specific about how we're going to get there. And this is one of the things, I think, that's really exciting for Republicans. I don't think you have to kill the U.S. economy to do that, and a lot of times, that conversation is framed in the context of, well, the only way we do that is to shut down U.S. business and shut down all extraction and all fossil fuels. I actually believe that fossil fuels are part of the answer to getting there.

MS. ALEMANY: Well, you have the opportunity to enact some of this policy in the climate--within the infrastructure debate that is currently ongoing in Congress. Do you believe that certain climate measures should be included in the bipartisan infrastructure agreement that was hatched out in the Senate?

REP. CURTIS: So let me first say I think one of the problems is a lot of times we throw ideas out there without really talking about the impact and how much change they'll actually make.

I would love to frame this conversation a little bit differently and say, okay, if our goal is half of our emissions by 2030, what does this specific measure do to help get us there? And I think that's been one of the reasons it's a little hard for Republicans to support some of these proposals is we're just tossing out ideas, but nobody is saying, okay, this is the exact impact and the exact cost of that.

So let's just talk about, for instance, what one of those might be. If we put charging stations up on U.S. highways around the country, certainly, that's a goal, a worthy goal, but how much will that reduce greenhouse gas emissions? I want to know. Those electric vehicles, will they be charged from coal-burning power plants? There's just lots of answers. And how do we get the grid to those power stations?

I think it would be easier for Republicans to get their arms around this if we actually knew what the impact was, how valuable that impact was, and what the cost of that was, and I think that's been part of the dialogue that's been missing.

Sometimes we do things, I think--let me rephrase that. A lot of times we do things that simply feel good without any long-term lasting impact, and personally, I would like to change that dialogue and make sure what we're doing has lasting impact and will really move that needle.

MS. ALEMANY: I want to challenge you there because we reported on a bill rolled out by Congressman Jamaal Bowman this morning called the "Green New Deal for Public Schools," which includes a $446 billion provision to do a green retrofitting of every public school in America, and along with this proposal was a report done by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania that found that the proposal would fund 1.3 million jobs and eliminate 78 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. There's some other statistics and findings and projections that they have that I won't bore you, but is this something, for example, that you think that Republicans might get behind, this marriage of infrastructure, education, and climate initiatives?

REP. CURTIS: Well, so let me, first of all, say--and I have to be a little bit careful. I speak for myself, not for the greater caucus in some of these opinions. Let me just put that out there.

Certainly, I welcome that kind of data. What's missing is--let's compare that to other opportunities that we have, and this is kind of my point is, okay, we know that it will reduce a certain amount of carbon. How does that compare to something else where we would invest those same types of dollars, and are we putting those dollars in the right place? For instance, if we simply replace the fleet of buses around the country for schools, would that yield higher results? And that's the type of data I think that's frequently missing in these conversations so that we can make better decisions.

MS. ALEMANY: Well, I suppose that gets us back to your initial point that you made about you regretting that Republicans had not been at the table during this conversation. Are there any specific alternatives that the caucus is currently weighing policy-wise that, you know, to counterbalance these proposals being put forward by Democrats?

REP. CURTIS: So, this is where I smile a little bit and say, okay, wait a minute. We just formed two weeks ago, and so you've got to give us a little bit of time to get our feet underneath this.

But let me tell you, I think, kind of what's shaping up and what's happening with Republicans. Kevin McCarthy has supported--and Garret Graves has done an amazing job with the Select Climate Committee. In addition, we have formed a climate task force as Republicans, and I think if you'll look back on our China task force of last year, you'll see a model where we plan on going through a very intense number of months to do exactly what you're asking us to do, to put the specifics with our plan and so it's not just, you know, nebulous ideas out there.

And I think if you look at the combination of this caucus with what's happening with the committees of jurisdiction and this committee that Kevin McCarthy is putting together, I think you'll see a tremendous framework for doing what people have asked us to do for a very long time, and if they'll give us the several months, probably a half a year that it's going to take us to go through that process and come out at the end of it with our blueprint, I am confident that we'll have those ideas to be at the table and be able to put our ideas forward.

MS. ALEMANY: I'm looking forward to seeing that blueprint.

I want to ask you about a breaking development that just came out this morning. The EU and China both launched ambitious plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Is there anything in their plans that you would like to see the U.S. possibly adopt?

REP. CURTIS: So, I did briefly hear that same news story. I haven't had the chance to dig into it, so let me go on some generalities, right, if that's okay, not knowing the real specifics.

Our friends in the EU, I think, in many ways are ahead of us on this dialogue. At the same time, I think that we also shouldn't be afraid to point out where we're actually doing a better job than they're doing as well. The United States has reduced more carbon emissions during the last decade than the next 10 carbon-reducing countries combined. So, I think we shouldn't be--you know, we don't need to stand on the sidelines and say we're not doing everything.

But they have been very forward-leaning in the EU. Yesterday I was on a conference call with three MPs from the United Kingdom talking about what they're doing, and I think there's a lot that we could learn there.

Let me just discuss China briefly. I was on the China task force last year. I've lived over in the Orient. I speak Mandarin Chinese. I'm very concerned about what's happening in China, and I have no reason to have any confidence that they're serious about reducing carbon, and I need to dig into their details. But we know for a fact that they're opening coal-producing plants at a breakneck pace. We know for a fact that they're not good actors and they can't be trusted.

So we need to turn that, though. We need to build the type of relationship with China where we do have that relationship of trust because we cannot be successful at our climate goals without engaging China. We just can't. They're too big and they emit too much carbon for us to simply say we can ignore that relationship, and that's a heavy lift not just on the climate but on economics and military. I mean, there's a lot of levels where that's applicable with China, and we have a lot of work to do.

MS. ALEMANY: That's really interesting because I think it is a more progressive viewpoint on the relationship with China since, you know, we are at odds with them on many different things, but you believe that we should be working more closely with them on climate initiatives.

REP. CURTIS: Well, if you'll excuse the analogy here, I like to tell people what we need is marriage counseling, not a divorce with China, because we just can't--you know, a lot of people when I was on the China Task Force last year, we started kind of with the dialogue of decoupling, right, like just totally cutting off our relationship with China.

MS. ALEMANY: Mm-hmm.

REP. CURTIS: I don't really believe that's an option. They're too big. They're too dominant in the world economy, but that doesn't mean we should let them push us around either. And we're on the moral high ground here, and there are serious--I mean, we've got problems here at home, but let me just tell you, whatever we've got here is magnified by a hundred or a thousand over there with human rights violations, with the lack of freedom, and the things that are great values to us.

But knowing the Chinese people as I do--and also, I think it's really important to point out--our beef is not with the Chinese people. It's with the dictatorship that is oppressive to those Chinese people, and I have confidence long term. I actually think this is one of President Biden's biggest challenges that he faces is the relationship with China, and he'll find at least me and all of us, I think, willing to jump in and be supportive of him as he works on this relationship.

MS. ALEMANY: That's a perfect segue to my next question, which is since you are so in the weeds or at least you were last year, I'm wondering if you are concerned and if you've been following the issue of forced labor in Xinjiang affecting the supply chain of solar panels and whether you think that might potentially imperil President Biden's domestic climate agenda and international climate agenda.

REP. CURTIS: Well, yeah. Let me just say if Americans are not aware of what's happening over there, what you're referring to, they really need to spend some time to see what's going on. Many people will call it a genocide. It's a human rights tragedy, and I think we need to be more in tune here in the United States to some degree that we add to that as we are consumer of those products. And I think we need to--this is one area where we need to buckle down and find some independence from China. If we're going to reach our goals, President Biden's goals, we can't be reliant on a country that produces with forced labor and in the conditions that are happening over there, and clearly, this is a call for U.S. manufacturers to step up. As consumers, we need to support U.S. manufacturers. Too often, we want to go with the low-price leader, and if we're concerned about the climate, we need to think more about the products that we buy that are made here in the U.S., with U.S. standards, versus products that are made over in China with literally no standards for environmental or human rights.

MS. ALEMANY: Would you like to potentially see the administration invoke something like the Defense Production Act in order to sort of kickstart this process of interrupting the solar supply chain issue from China?

REP. CURTIS: Yeah. I don't know what the exact tool is. I would love if--I'm not on President Biden's speed dial, but I would love to be involved in that conversation with him about this challenge ahead of us.

It was very painful a number of years ago, you know, three or four years ago when President Trump started putting in the tariffs. It was very painful for Utah businesses--


REP. CURTIS: --and I was not an original fan of that because I saw the pain and particularly with small businesses, but those are steps that have been taken that President Biden needs to figure out exactly, you know, which ones he will mature and how exactly will he handle this problem that we've got. And I think Americans need to be ready for a little bit of pain as we break away from some of these cheap prices and labor and things like that. It won't come easy, and I, for one, stand ready to support the president in this very, very difficult task.

MS. ALEMANY: I'm wondering, actually, you know, you being from Utah and representing such a beautiful place whose economy is really dependent on the tourism in all different seasons because of the National Parks, beautiful ski mountains, how does this influence your decision to tackle the climate issue?

REP. CURTIS: You know, it's hard to say exactly how much, but I can tell you it's substantial. And as a young man that grew up in these mountains here in the Wasatch Front and the beauty of my district, my father instilled within me, this deep, deep love of the outdoors.

And I tease Utahans and say, "You know, you're actually really big environmentalists. You just don't like to be called 'environmentalists,'" but we are. We care deeply and want to preserve this, and it has had a profound impact on me.

I tell the story of I was a young man of 13 years old. My scout master took me up to the top of Kings Peak. It's the tallest peak here in Utah, and as a 13-year-old, I looked out over this vast, you know, miles and miles and miles of beauty undisturbed by man. And I think it implanted inside of me deeply a desire to go back and not only to go back but to take my kids, which I've done, but to take my grandkids and to make sure that their grandkids and their grandkids have that same view and that same beauty available to them.

And I think that's--you know, we talked earlier about how do we appeal to people. I think that's the level at which we appeal to people to be good stewards. I don't think the science is very motivating. I just don't, and I don't think crisis is very motivating. You can look around at lots of examples in the crisis and the science. It doesn't really change human behavior. Look no further than COVID, right? Our youth knew that if they gathered on beaches or in bars that the science said they were more likely to get COVID. It didn't stop them. So I think sometimes we need to, like, back off the--like, the guilt and the shaming of the crisis and the science and just appeal to people's innate desire to leave this earth better than we found it.

MS. ALEMANY: But do you think Republicans who are spreading some vaccine-hesitant messages, you know, have a responsibility to be more accurate or, I guess, a responsibility to be more responsible about then way that they treat science and their messaging?

REP. CURTIS: Well, can we just say everybody has that same responsibility? I think there's a lot of blame here all around on the mixed messages on vaccines.

I think what you said, I would say yeah, I've seen that, and that's wrong. I personally tried to change that. I think it's been equally wrong to try to take President Trump's success out of getting the vaccine to market. We had a chance to give President Trump credit for that, and I think that would have gone a long ways to those who follow him and follow on his every word. So I think all around, we've just not done a good job with politicize this.

I'll use this moment--I always do whenever asked about this--to say I had the vaccine. I had it early. Please, please, if you're not getting the vaccine, please take a deep look at the risk of not having the vaccine. Too many acquaintances have been stricken and even some have passed away of mine who were not vaccinated, and it doesn't have to be that way.

MS. ALEMANY: And I agree with you. It is incumbent on all of us to spread accurate and positive messages here, but someone that you interact with and work with and is your colleague on a consistent basis like Marjorie Taylor Greene, would you recommend or suggest that she tweak her messaging to align with what you just said?

REP. CURTIS: I'm smiling because just as I'm not on President Biden's speed dial, I'm not on Marjorie Taylor Greene's speed dial, and I would. I'm uncomfortable with her message and absolutely. I feel like at the very least in this debate, I can make sure my message is accurate and that I'm portraying an accurate message in doing my best personally, and that's what I've tried very hard to do.

MS. ALEMANY: And I want to get back to Utah quickly.


MS. ALEMANY: What are the most urgent needs in terms of dealing with drought and heat and fires?

REP. CURTIS: Yeah. So I mentioned that the science is not really motivating, but let me tell you right now, Utahans are paying attention because we’re in an extreme drought, extreme, and it’s, by some measures, the largest drought we’ve ever had in our state’s history. And we’ve had extreme heats, and we’re seeing the impact that that will have economically, health-wise, for all of us. And I would say, when you say what’s most pressing right now is the heat and the drought that people are seeing and feeling and realizing we’ve got some serious challenges ahead of us.

MS. ALEMANY: I'm wondering, you talk about language being more powerful than science and emotion in terms of communication. Do you think something like naming droughts or naming forest fires or heatwaves, the way that we do with hurricanes, for example, would put people on higher alert or instill some more urgency here?

REP. CURTIS: I'll tell you what. Utahans, for the last couple of weeks have looked out the window in the mornings and seen a haze of smoke. I don't think it needs to be named. They can see it. They can actually almost touch it right there, out there, right? It is so thick. These are forest--smoke coming from forest fires from Oregon and from California. We haven't had--we've had some fires this year. We haven't had our extreme fires yet. I'm expecting them, but in years past, these forest fires have threatened homes and lives. And I'm just telling you I think you could name them. Maybe that helps, but I guarantee you, Utahans are very in tune with the danger of these fires and the drought that we're experiencing right now. We experience it firsthand literally every day here.

MS. ALEMANY: And, Congressman, we've got time for one more question. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Tuesday that he's decided who he's going to name on the January 6th Select Committee and whether he would appoint any Republicans to sit on that committee. Are you one of those Republicans?

[*Correction: We misstated that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said on Tuesday who he has decided to name on the January 6th Select Committee. We regret the error.]

REP. CURTIS: I doubt it. I haven't been approached on that.

I will just say, you know, my preference was for the original committee that we voted on a number of months ago. This current committee is going to put members of Congress on it. If you think about it, the victims are going to be the jury, and I think I'm a little worried about that setup, if that makes sense. I think we need people who can step back, people who have legal and criminal expertise, which most of us don't in Congress. So I'm not sure which way the leader will go. I think it's a tough task in front of him to pick people that are really going to bring the answers that I want, that I think many of the American people want.

MS. ALEMANY: What are the biggest unanswered questions for you about what happened on that day?

REP. CURTIS: Yeah. Just off the top of my head, like, who knew what when? Who knew--I mean, as I understand it, we knew this threat was there. Who made the decisions not to beef up security? Who made the decisions? The big one for me is, who held the National Guard back, and why? These are serious questions, right? And I think I want to know all around, not just the president but the speaker and the leader and everybody, what was happening and who knew what and what decisions were made. I think those are critical for the American people.

MS. ALEMANY: Congressman, thank you so much for joining us. Unfortunately, that's all the time we have today, but hopefully, we can have you back once you have that blueprint on climate hammered out with your caucus.

REP. CURTIS: Thanks so much. I've enjoyed it, and I hope we speak again soon.

MS. ALEMANY: Thanks, everyone else, for joining us as well. Please join my colleague, Eugene Scott, at 12:00 p.m. today for a conversation about education equity, and then I'll be back at 2:30 for a conversation with Democratic Senator Michael Bennet about the child's tax credit that's taking effect today.

I'm Jackie Alemany. Thanks so much for watching.

[End recorded session]