LOS ANGELES — While President Donald Trump continues to dismantle Obama-era climate policies, an unlikely surge of Republican lawmakers has begun taking steps to distance themselves from the GOP’s hard line on climate change.
The House Climate Solutions Caucus, a bipartisan backwater when it formed early last year, has more than tripled in size since January, driven in part by Trump’s decision in June to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord.
And last month, 46 Republicans joined Democrats to defeat an amendment to the annual defense authorization bill that would have deleted a requirement that the Defense Department prepare for the effects of climate change.
The willingness of some Republicans to buck their party on climate change could help burnish their moderate credentials ahead of the 2018 elections. Of the 26 Republican caucus members, all but five represent districts targeted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee next year.
But it has also buoyed activists who view the House members’ positioning as a rare sign of GOP movement on climate change.
“Strangely, President Trump helped us,” said Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman whose views on climate change contributed to his defeat in a South Carolina primary in 2010. “His withdrawal from Paris dramatically increased the number of [internet] searches about climate change and increased interest … People are getting more and more uncomfortable with the nuttiness of these positions.”
In a Republican-held Congress, Inglis said, voting to reject a Republican-backed amendment to the defense authorization bill was “a big step for these members … Members of Congress who are attuned to their districts apparently are picking up on the reality that Americans on both left and right are concerned about climate change.”
If the Republican Party is undergoing a shift on climate, it is at its earliest, most incremental stage. Rejection of mainstream climate science remains widespread within the GOP. Trump has called climate change a “hoax,” and he infuriated environmentalists again this week when he repealed a flood standard for federally funded infrastructure projects.
The Climate Solutions Caucus itself represents only a minority of the Republican conference. And its members have been criticized by environmental activists for their records on issues ranging from oil drilling to climate research, some posting lifetime scores in single digits on the League of Conservation Voters’ environmental scorecard.
Rep. Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat who founded the climate caucus with fellow Floridian Carlos Curbelo, a Republican, said Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement was so jarring that “some of my colleagues were looking for ways to show that they actually do want to respond.” But at least two Republican members of the caucus — Reps. Tom Reed and Claudia Tenney of New York — supported Trump’s withdrawal from the accord.
“I tend to call it the ‘Climate Peacocks Caucus’ … people who express great concern and then vote the wrong way,” said R.L. Miller, founder of the super-PAC Climate Hawks Vote. “Obviously, the caucus is growing in popularity. But my overall sense is that it is being used as political cover. It is no coincidence that the Republicans who joined are on that red-to-blue flip-able list.”
Alex Taurel, deputy legislative director at the League of Conservation Voters, said “there is a wide variety of support for action on climate change, and not just sort of rhetorically accepting the science.”
Still, in their vote on the defense authorization bill, Republicans fought to keep language declaring “climate change is a direct threat to the national security of the United States and is impacting stability in areas of the world.”
Taurel said it is “still too early to know what that vote kind of signifies. But if it represents a harbinger that the caucus is going to start to support things together to reduce carbon pollution, then that’s a real development.”
Curbelo, one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the House, said this week that the Climate Solutions Caucus has grown faster than he expected and that “two years ago, I don’t think you could find more than two or three Republicans in the House who were willing to go on record in a significant way” on climate change. He said the group is now focused on “blocking and tackling … opposing anti-climate legislation.”
“I think the next phase, and hopefully we can get to that this Congress, is to turn the caucus into an ideas factory, get behind proactive legislation,” Curbelo said. “I think the vast majority of House Republicans are shifting toward accepting the science and openness toward at least modest policy prescriptions.”
For Republicans, the most politically palatable opening on climate change appears to be on spending, not regulation. Rep. John Faso, a top target of Democrats in New York, said Republicans should push in their infrastructure talks for money to help local and state governments “harden their infrastructure” to gird against climate change. He also suggested including incentives for agriculture-friendly carbon sequestration programs in the farm bill.
“Yes, we can show that the climate is changing, yes we can attribute at least some of that change to human activity. The question, ultimately, is if you adopt certain measures, does this appreciably slow the climate change and at what cost are those measures to be implemented,” Faso said. “I do think that if we concentrate on things that are economically viable and scientifically sustainable and approvable and achievable, then we can address this issue.”
Deutch said he is “confident that we will come up with an agenda that the caucus as a whole can support.”
Few politicians or strategists of either major political party expect climate change to factor more significantly in 2018 than the economy, health care or myriad other issues. But public polling suggests increasing public concern about the changing climate, and Democrats are already hitting Republicans on the issue in competitive districts.
Doug Applegate, who nearly toppled Rep. Darrell Issa in 2016 and is among the Democrats challenging him again in his Southern California district, said that “on certain days of the week … [Issa] pops up and tries to sound like a moderate Republican.” And Andy Thorburn, one of several Democrats vying to unseat Rep. Ed Royce in California’s Orange County, called Royce’s membership in the climate caucus “sheep’s clothing for the wolf … because his record there is abysmal.”
Dave Gilliard, a strategist for four of California’s seven targeted Republicans, including Issa and Royce, said of Issa’s membership in the climate caucus, “We haven’t talked about it from the political side … We have had no discussions on the campaign side about climate change being something we need to jump on from a political issue next year.”
“I would say that it matters to a very narrow constituency, probably,” Gilliard said.
Issa, who was once given a “Climate Change Denier” award by the League of Conservation Voters, said this week that he stands by his controversial, 2009 statement about the “wide range of scientific opinion” on climate change. Issa, who called Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement “ill-advised,” said “long-term trends for warming are settled,” as is “the fact that we are producing human CO2 emissions that are going into the atmosphere.” But he said calculations about dangerous tipping points are not resolved, and he criticized Obama for disregarding Republicans on the issue.
“There wasn’t that opportunity to say, ‘What are the things we can do … how can we increase sustainability?” Issa said, adding that Republicans now have an opportunity to address “what is our glidepath to a sustainable ecology.”
Jill Sigal, a former energy official in George W. Bush’s administration and executive vice president of the Climate Leadership Council, a conservative group pushing for a carbon tax, said growth in the Climate Solutions Caucus has given her “increasing hope” in the ability of Congress to work on climate change.
Inglis, who once dismissed climate change as “a bunch of hooey” but now advocates on the subject, called it “very exciting.”
“I don’t want to say that all the folks in the caucus are ready to, you know, charge the barricades on climate change,” he said. “They’re not all signed up for that. But they are enlisting for inquiry into action on climate change … And that we will take and celebrate.”
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