Conservatives hoping to convince Republicans to care about climate change have a new angle: Do it for the kids.
It’s the kind of moral argument that’s long resonated in environmental debates, but in this case, it’s a largely political calculus.
If the GOP doesn’t start talking up its own solutions to climate change more effectively, advocates argue, they risk losing out on younger voters who care about the issue and don’t deny the science that shows greenhouse gases are warming the planet.
That was the message the American Conservation Coalition, a campus eco-right group, was pushing at a “fly-in” day on Capitol Hill this week, which saw students from across the country present a new set of climate polling to Republican offices.
And it’s the same message that the Climate Leadership Council, the carbon-fee-and-dividend advocates backed by corporate America, pitched with its own polling, conducted by Luntz Global LLC, last month (E&E Daily, June 13).
It’s not clear, though, whether this will be enough to convince congressional Republicans to endorse solutions that reduce emissions fast enough to curb dangerous climate change.
Few support carbon pricing or other economywide policies, preferring instead to focus on natural gas, carbon capture and advanced nuclear, all while making sure to emphasize U.S. emissions reductions during the last 15 years.
Others continue to deny man-made climate change outright, underscoring how muddled Republican climate politics are in the age of the Green New Deal.
Nonetheless, some in the GOP, including close allies of President Trump, are taking notice and trying to reset the party’s image on climate issues, which for years was defined largely by climate science denial.
‘Great opportunity’ for Republicans
“I think we need to be talking about solutions, absolutely, and the challenge for a lot of conservatives in the climate discussion is less about solutions and more about the extent or the cause of climate change,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who advised Trump on energy issues during the 2016 campaign.
“And I think that’s an unhealthy place to have the debate because whether you believe the science is conclusive or not, the public generally does.”
But as the issue gets more attention in the Democratic presidential race, Republicans have sought in recent weeks to put a positive spin on their environmental record.
Although he denies climate science, Trump earlier this month offered a defense of his environmental record in a White House speech. And even the Republicans who are willing to talk about climate change find little to disagree with in his agenda.
Still, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a rare close ally of Trump who is outspoken on climate, said his party risks losing elections if it doesn’t take climate change more seriously.
At the same time, he said Trump has the chance to make an environmental case for his tariffs on steel and Chinese solar panels, which Gaetz argued have helped bolster American clean energy.
“I continue to work to be a positive influence on the president when it comes to the environment,” Gaetz told reporters recently.
Republicans gave climate change virtually no attention during the last eight years when they controlled the House.
But with Democrats giving it intense focus and polls showing a significant voter block cares, Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), ranking member on the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, said he sees an opening for Republicans.
“There’s a great opportunity to redefine the narrative on this issue, to look at the policies that have worked, that have yielded the environmental successes, the economic successes, and to figure out how to double down on those,” Graves said in an interview off the House floor, just before heading into a meeting with the ACC activists.
The millennial case
The ACC students on the Hill during the last two days said they didn’t hear any climate denial from the congressional offices they visited.
The roughly 50 activists met with representatives for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Roy Blunt of Missouri and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, among others.
On the House side, their meetings included the offices of Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, Rep. John Curtis of Utah, and Energy and Commerce ranking member Greg Walden of Oregon.
But they also stressed they weren’t asking for any specific policies. Rather, they said they asked for better Republican engagement on climate issues, pointing to a WPA Intelligence poll commissioned by ACC and Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, a conservative clean energy group.
It found 67% of millennial voters believe the party needs to do more on climate change, while about half believe that ignoring the issue will harm the party.
“We’re trying to tell them there’s a huge voting bloc out there that really cares about these issues that really aren’t being addressed publicly by the party,” Ian Baucke, a student at George Washington University, said after a meeting in Ernst’s office.
That leaves a gap for the left to fill the space with proposals such as the Green New Deal, the nonbinding resolution from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) that proposes a massive, 10-year economic mobilization to slash emissions.
“If voters just see that they’re the only ones with the plan, that’s where they’re going to go,” Baucke said.