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House Republicans know they face a growing vulnerability with young voters on climate change — but their attempts to craft a greener message are running headlong into their allegiance to President Donald Trump.
Unlike Trump, the chamber’s GOP lawmakers have largely stopped scoffing at the scientific evidence that human-caused global warming is contributing to intensifying wildfires and extreme weather.
As the Democrats that control the House prepare to launch a broad legislative package of climate measures, Republican leaders are putting together their own more modest set of climate policies that their party can rally behind, one centered on planting a lot of trees, reducing plastic waste and encouraging clean energy technologies.
But those GOP proposals don’t aim to begin to wean the U.S. off fossil fuels, as scientists say is needed, and the lawmakers still support Trump’s moves to roll back the Obama administration’s regulations and burn more coal, oil and natural gas. And their attempts at striking a more moderate tone on the environment risk being drowned out by the president, who just this week derided the “prophets of doom” on climate change during a speech in Davos, Switzerland.
The result is a perhaps intractable quandary for Republicans who can read the poll results showing that climate change is a prime issue for younger voters. And some GOP allies outside Congress acknowledge that the steps they’re proposing would be too little to head off the disastrous effects of climate change.
“I feel like a parent whose child just took its first step and hear someone say, ‘That’s a really slow kid,’” said Alex Flint, executive director with the Alliance for Market Solutions, a group trying to persuade Republicans to support taxing carbon emissions.
“I respect those who have been working for years to make incremental progress with Republicans. That is an important step," he added. "It is an inadequate step."
The emerging GOP framework largely sidesteps confronting the primary driver of climate change: the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, primarily caused by decades of burning oil, gas and coal. The competing “Green New Deal” championed by progressive Democrats aims to take those sources head-on, calling for an aggressive – and expensive – effort to move the U.S. off fossil fuels in the coming decades.
Instead, legislation expected to be unveiled in the coming months by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is expected to lean on Republican standbys: chiefly, planting more trees, curbing plastic waste and boosting innovation and exporting cleaner, U.S.-made technology to help other countries address their share of the global problem. One of the top priorities will be the "promotion of cleaner, more efficient fossil fuels to meet global demand," according to slides presented to a closed-door GOP conference meeting last week.
"We've got to actually do something different than we've done to date," McCarthy said in an October interview with the Washington Examiner. "For a 28-year-old, the environment is the No. 1 and No. 2 issue."
The GOP framework is nowhere near what some Republicans were willing to support as recently as 2008, when Republican presidential nominee John McCain backed a sweeping cap-and-trade proposal. Eight House Republicans voted for a major cap-and-trade bill the following year; just one — Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey — is still in Congress.
"We're still working our way back up” to credibility on climate change, said Bob Inglis, a former GOP House member from South Carolina who lost his reelection bid in 2010 to a Tea Party-backed primary opponent, despite voting against cap-and-trade. He said the party “can’t claim to have a vision” on climate change because the proposals amount to only “incremental progress."
"Republicans lost the House in districts like Barbara Comstock’s," Inglis added, referring to a Republican who lost her Northern Virginia seat in 2018. “You can't win suburban districts with retro positions on climate.”
Inglis now runs RepublicEn, which advocates for a border-adjustable, revenue-neutral carbon tax.
Trump gave a nod to the new agenda at this week's World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he agreed to join a global initiative aimed at planting one trillion trees by 2050, an effort designed to reverse the 10 billion trees lost every year to deforestation, in hopes of taming carbon dioxide emissions. But he dismissed more serious warnings about climate change, a top concern at the conference.
“This is not a time for pessimism, it is a time for optimism. Fear and doubt is not a good thought process,” Trump said in a speech Tuesday. "To embrace the possibilities of today, we must reject the perennial prophets of doom and their predictions of the apocalypse. They are the heirs of yesterday's foolish fortune tellers.”
The House GOP policy meeting McCarthy convened last week marked the beginning of an information gathering process for a final product on climate change, though it’s not certain whether that results in one sweeping bill, a package of legislation or merely a framework, two House GOP aides said.
The House Republican aides noted that global fossil fuel consumption is expected to rise for decades, particularly in poorer Asian countries, and that the U.S. should invest in developing cheaper, next-generation technologies — fossil fuel and clean — that could be deployed abroad while ensuring U.S. firms reap the economic benefits.
In the short-term, House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans have settled on 12 bills they say should make up an immediate package to address climate change. But most of the measures have been introduced and advanced in prior Congresses without mentioning climate change, and several passed with minimal Democratic support. They have not yet reached out to Democrats about the new effort, one aide said.
"The GOP needs to have a Republican position on climate change. I would say it’s our hope that what we table would attract bipartisan support," the aide said. "We haven't had a coherent message in some time."
Environmentalists say the ideas the Republicans are considering are way too weak to address the global climate crisis.
"All they can come together on is useful, but really tiny stuff like tree planting and energy R&D,” said David Doniger, senior strategic director for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate and clean energy program. “Those are just not going to meet the climate crisis, which requires that we cut the pollution that’s driving this.”
Republicans have refused to embrace any specific timeframe for reducing emissions or specify how much to cut them. And senior GOP lawmakers continue to oppose proposals for economy-wide carbon pricing, such as a carbon tax, or so-called dividends that have attracted some support from prominent Republicans and oil companies.
“I’m certainly not patting them on the back,” said Ted Halstead, chairman and CEO of the Climate Leadership Council, a group backed by Republican elder statesmen like former Secretaries of State George Shultz and James Baker and oil giants like BP and Royal Dutch Shell. Halstead said the proposals are at least a “stepping stone.”
“That’s been an issue for us — the over-regulation, the over-taxation,” Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the ranking member of the House E&C Committee, said last week. “It’s something I don’t think we’d find common ground on when there are so many other opportunities to come together.”
Hanna Bogorowski, a spokesperson for McCarthy, said: “House Republicans will continue to build and roll out proposals through the spring.”
The White House declined to comment on the Republican package, but there’s little daylight between House Republicans and Trump on actions to upend some of the nation’s most aggressive emissions-fighting rules. Most have cheered Trump’s regulation-slashing swagger, including an expected softening of vehicle fuel efficiency rules.
While Republicans are calling for beefed up energy efficiency, the Department of Energy has dragged its feet on updating existing efficiency standards as required by law, and last week it implemented a new policy that will make it more difficult to create future efficiency rules. And while an expansion of credits for carbon capture technology passed under the last Congress passed easily, the IRS has yet to issue critical guidance industry needs to access that tax credit, stalling new projects.
The administration also has shown little interest in congressional efforts to drive what Republicans call the "innovation agenda." Trump has proposed slashing the budgets of DOE's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Office — the prime funder of new and applied science for renewable energy — in each of its budgets, including a proposed 70 percent reduction last year. Congress has typically increased the funding in final appropriations.
Republicans contend some Trump moves will aid combating climate change. A proposal earlier this month imposing deadlines for environmental reviews, for example, could ease construction for renewable energy and transmission lines to carry clean power. The American Wind Energy Association welcomed the proposal to update the National Environmental Policy Act regulations, pointing to "unnecessary costs and long project delays" under the current approach.
Many Democrats say it is not enough for Republicans to stop denying the scientific consensus on climate change.
“They’re evolving too slowly and a lot of it is fake,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) told POLITICO. “Inevitably, [their solution] comes down to new ways to extract more fossil fuel and sell fracked gas. When they do these things, they’re actually talking about making the climate problem worse, not better. We just have to be real about that because we don't have time for fake solutions.”