Opinion

Congressional Republicans provide hope for climate change under Trump

Surprisingly, congressional Republicans provide the greatest reasons to be optimistic about climate change. Have you heard of the Bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, which boasts eleven Republican members as well as eleven Democrats? Did you know that Tea-Party member Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC 1st) along with 16 other Republicans co-sponsored a resolution urging climate action? It is well known that President Trump ran his campaign on an utter disregard for climate science and has acted on that belief since his election. Though his election is a setback for climate change, progress in Congress provides reason for hope.

The reality is that many Republicans, behind closed doors, believe in human-caused climate change and are concerned about it. Politically, it is difficult for them to speak publicly about the issue and support legislation to address it. Longtime champion of addressing climate change Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) recently wrote in the Washington Post that “A climate solution will require safe passage for Republicans through the political killzone.” He cites big-money fossil fuel interests as their principal threat though Republican primary voters, party unity, and ideological disagreements with Democrats over solutions also hold them back. Former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC 4th) introduced carbon pricing legislation and was heavily defeated in the next Republican primary. They are not without reason to be cautious. No one wants to get Inglised.

Since it is bad politics to recognize a problem if one cannot support the solutions, most Republicans have chosen to deny or downplay a changing climate and humans’ role. Republicans must feel confident that they can keep their jobs and address climate change. This often means proceeding gradually–talking about climate change and gauging the public’s reaction before supporting major climate legislation. This is why Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) worked for years behind the scenes to create the Climate Solutions Caucus. Members of Congress need to feel supported when they take risks, they need to feel confident the risks will pay off, and they need to be thanked for taking them.

Take former Congressman David Jolly (R-FL 13th), who started out privately concerned about climate, and, especially as candidate for Senate during the primary, felt unable to talk about climate change publicly. After working with CCL for a year, he found a public voice on climate change joining the Climate Solutions Caucus and addressing a CCL Conference in Florida. During his House reelection campaign, which he lost to a Democrat in a tight race, Jolly faced attacks from various environmental groups. Though Jolly did receive some support, Republicans must be made to feel more confident that there is political upside to their speaking publicly about and passing legislation to address climate change.

CCL’s mission is to provide the political will for a livable world. CCL is nonpartisan and believes in trying to find common ground with everyone. This approach is politically effective, politically necessary, and a service to the country at a time of great division. Republicans do not want to increase the size of government and prefer free markets to regulation. CCL proposes a revenue-neutral, market based policy called Carbon Fee and Dividend (CF&D), an approach supported by Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz. CF&D puts an initially low and steadily rising fee on greenhouse gases and then refunds all the money to households. The fee makes low carbon sources of energy relatively less expensive causing a shift to a low carbon economy and the dividend ensures that low income people are not burdened by mildly higher energy prices. A border adjustment provision ensures that American firms are not placed at a disadvantage. Reaching out to Republicans does not mean reducing emissions any less aggressively. Regional Economic Modeling Inc. projects that CF&D will reduce all U.S. emissions to below 50 percent of 1990 levels 20 years after implementation. By contrast, the Clean Power Plan was projected to reduce emissions from U.S. power plants by 32 percent after 15 years.

Though it unlikely that Congress will take up CF&D before the 2018 mid-term elections, I feel confident that it will eventually become law. Exactly a week after the election, I was in Washington D.C., meeting with congressional offices. A senior staff member of a Republican Senator told me that the lack of regulatory climate policy in the Trump administration will leave a vacuum for carbon pricing like CF&D to fill. In another meeting, a legislative staffer for a house Republican said of CF&D that “we [the Republican Party] are not there yet.” The “yet” spoke volumes. Furthermore, current Republican support for addressing climate change is far more durable that it has been in the past; instead of being tied to specific legislation, there is more general concern about the problem with a permanent bipartisan caucus devoted to it.

Here in the Twin Cities, CCL is generating the support for local members of Congress to address climate change. CCL is working with Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-MN 3rd) who last year along with 32 other Republicans joined Democrats to defeat an amendment that would have stripped funding for EPA climate change research, as well as building relationships with second term Rep. Tom Emmer (R-MN 6th) and freshman Rep. Jason Lewis (R-MN 2nd), whose districts surround the Twin Cities.

The 2015 Paris Accords, the Clean Power Plan, state climate policies, and denying certain fossil fuel projects are all meaningful and significant achievements that are or would have been momentous. Combined, however, these policies would not put the U.S. on the emissions reduction path that scientists tell us is necessary. Climate policies that are as big as the problems they address can only come from Congress, and Congress is beginning to act.

February 10, 2017

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