By Melanie Zanona and Ella Nilsen, CNN
As global temperatures rise, some congressional Republicans are feeling the pressure to show they’re embracing climate change and offer up their own plan for how to deal with it.
But those same Republicans are also running smack dab into a familiar obstacle: former President Donald Trump, their de facto party leader and a potential 2024 presidential candidate who is still firmly in the denial camp.
Trump blasted out a statement as recently as this week doubling down on calling climate change “the Global Warming Hoax.” He followed it up with a fundraising email a few days later, dubbing climate change one of his top seven hoaxes, alongside the Russia investigation and the 2020 election.
With few in the party willing to directly push back on Trump over the issue for fear of alienating the base or angering the mercurial former President, the GOP’s push to shake its image as the party of climate change deniers is facing a steep climb.
It’s a conundrum that could manifest itself in the next elections. Republicans increasingly view climate change — which is a top priority for young voters of both parties — as an electoral weakness if they don’t make more of a concerted effort to acknowledge the problem and provide solutions.
“I keep telling Republicans we can win the solution debate, but if we’re in the denial camp, we’ve got a problem,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told CNN. “I think in 2024 we need to have a platform in our party that speaks to this issue.”
Yet some of the most vocal proponents of climate and environmental issues in the GOP acknowledge they are still encountering resistance on the far right, which is threatening to undermine their mission.
“We have our extremism (in the party). It tends to manifest itself in what I would call denial,” said Rep. John Curtis, a Utah Republican and co-founder of the Conservative Climate Caucus. “I think it’s fair to say that’s been out there, and there’s nobody to blame but ourselves. Because we’ve either been silent or all we do is tell people what we don’t like. This is different for us, speaking out and actually putting forth ideas.”
“Part of this branding problem … is our own fault,” he added.
Republicans are trying to craft their climate policy
Despite the long odds, there’s a group of Republicans determined to put their stamp on the climate policy debate.
A delegation of five Republicans is attending the UN’s annual climate summit, known as COP26, in Glasgow starting this weekend. Republicans are hoping to offer a counter-message to Democrats’ climate policies, while showing Republicans are similarly dedicated to combating the problem. It’s the first Republican-only delegation going to a COP.
“It’s incredibly important for the world to see Republicans are engaged on this issue, and that we do care, and that we do have ideas,” Curtis said. “We want to be at the climate table.”
Curtis also argued there’s a growing desire in the party to address the climate crisis, pointing out that 70 House Republicans, or roughly one-third of the conference, joined the newly formed Conservative Climate Caucus this year.
“It’s kind of a recent phenomenon in conservative politics, and really has developed well in the last few years,” said Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas, one of the Republicans traveling to the climate summit. “Independents want to hear it. Younger voters want to hear from you. We need to be showing that, look, we still care.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy held a three-day forum to highlight some of the GOP’s environmental proposals earlier this year and appointed a task force dedicated to the topic.
“The Republican Party is very forward-looking to find how we could be energy independent, instead of making gasoline prices so high,” the California Republican told CNN. “You wouldn’t want the world to think the message on climate was just with Nancy Pelosi. Republicans have solutions to these problems.”
Part of McCarthy’s motivation is electoral: A new generation of young conservative voters cares about climate change, and wants the Republican Party to take action on the issue. Gallup’s annual voter survey on climate change found that nearly two-thirds of Republicans aged 18-29 believed global warming was caused by human activity, compared with about a third of Republicans older than 55.
“They understand the electoral ticking time bomb,” Chris Barnard, policy director for the youth conservative climate group American Conservation Coalition. “If the movement doesn’t address this issue, we’re going to lose relevance with young voters. It’s really important to us on all fronts.”
Across the Capitol, Senate Republicans have ramped up efforts to outline their own policy vision, as Democrats try to pass their $1.75 trillion economic and climate package.
On Wednesday, Sens. Dan Sullivan of Alaska, Kevin Cramer of North Dakota and Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming released the “American Energy, Jobs and Climate Plan,” which aims to reduce global emissions by 40% below current levels by 2050.
“It’s unusual, but it’s got to be an important part of it,” Cramer told CNN of the plan’s greenhouse gas-reduction targets. “I think there’s a growing realization by politicians of all stripes that it’s an issue that Americans want us to deal with.”
The Republican plan would not try to end reliance on fossil fuels and puts emphasis on the US continuing to sell and use natural gas. But the plan would promote jobs in renewable energy such as nuclear, and mining for critical minerals that are used to make electric vehicle batteries. Beyond broad goals, the plan is short on specific policies. Senators said they are still negotiating with their Republican colleagues — and some Democrats, including moderate Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia — on what exactly should be included.
The senators also acknowledged that while they’ve been working on the plan for months, they don’t have total buy-in from other Senate and House Republicans. Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana — one of the members traveling to COP — told CNN he opposes the emissions target the Senate plan sets.
“I have not seen it in great detail,” Graves said. “I support the international component and focusing on that. But, personally, I don’t like to set targets if I don’t have a plan to get there or the technology to get there. So that’s where I get concerned.”
Where Republicans do agree is they don’t want to actively lower US carbon emissions, arguing that’s happening enough on its own. President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats have been putting all their emphasis on reducing US greenhouse gas emissions, while Republicans want to push countries like China and India to do more.
“China is by far the biggest polluter in the world, by far. India’s right behind them,” Lummis said during a news conference (the US is the second-biggest polluter in the world, between China and India). “If we would export our technology, our liquid natural gas … we would do more for global climate change then we can do by spending the amount of money that the Biden administration wants to throw at the word climate change without solving the problems.”
The GOP also agrees it wants to tarnish Democrats’ plan as much as possible — linking a future transition to clean energy to the current energy crunch. During the Wednesday news conference, Republicans referred to Biden’s climate plan as the “Green New Deal” about 20 times.
Still, negatively messaging on Democrats’ plan is the easy part; the more difficult thing for Republicans is to come up with their own solution.
There’s disagreement within the GOP on climate policy
But the Republicans’ proposals are facing pushback from both sides. Democrats say the GOP’s plans — which include a bill to plant 1 trillion trees in order to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — are far from adequate to deal with the crisis.
Conservatives, meanwhile, are expressing uneasiness with the Republican climate push.
“I’m always wondering what their constituency is for this or who it’s aimed at,” said Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “These efforts are well intended … but I don’t think they’re particularly well considered.”
Ebell added that the Republicans’ modest proposals are essentially trying to have it “both ways.”
“It’s saying, ‘I want energy production. I don’t want to do anything to harm energy production in our economy. But on the other hand, I want to say I’m doing something about the climate,'” he said.
At a news conference this week, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana — whose home state has been hit hard by climate crisis-related natural disasters — echoed some of the skepticism that has been prevalent on the right.
When asked what the GOP is doing to address climate change, Scalise downplayed the impacts of global warming on natural disasters, saying that “we had hurricanes a lot longer than we’ve had changes in carbon emissions.”
“Ten thousand years ago, you can look at the record and we have warmer temperatures on the Earth than we do today. Because it goes up and down,” he said. “We’ve had freezing periods in the 1970s. They said it was going to be a new cooling period. And now it gets warmer and gets colder, and that’s called Mother Nature. But the idea that hurricanes or wildfires were caused just in the last few years is just fallacy.”
In August, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change delivered a clear message: Human-caused climate change is undoubtedly intensifying extreme weather events around the planet, which is warming faster now than they had previously observed.
Graves, also from Louisiana, said that while he doesn’t think a changing climate is causing more frequent storms, he believes it’s now producing stronger storms.
“I have seen data that indicates that you have greater storm intensity,” Graves said.
Former South Carolina Republican lawmaker Bob Inglis, who is outspoken on the issue, said he’s heard from many of his former colleagues that their children and grandchildren are pushing them to act on climate change.
“Former colleagues, they’re impacted by their kids and grandkids, and many are looking for a way out of this,” Inglis told CNN. “They’ve got to figure out whether they’re going to be Trumped in some way or whether they can skate past him on this and be all right.”
Cramer, however, dismissed the idea that Trump’s continued climate change denialism was clouding the debate or deterring the GOP’s efforts to address the issue.
“Donald Trump asked me five to six years ago what I thought about global climate change, and I said it doesn’t matter, the American people want us to deal with it and I’d rather have our solutions than the Democrats’,” he said. “So he and I have — we have a disagreement on climate change, but certainly from a public service responsibility standpoint, we have a responsibility to deal with it in a responsible way, and that’s where I’m focused.”
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