Republican climate hawks in Congress say they can overcome the dismissiveness of others in their party, including President Trump, who reject, doubt, and mock a new United Nations report that warns the worst impacts of global warming are coming faster, and harder, than previously thought.
“People who speak that way will soon be recognized as part of a fringe movement,” Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., told the Washington Examiner in an interview.
"Those who choose to ignore it will pay a price. We all will ultimately," added Curbelo, who chairs the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, which has seen its ranks grow to 90 members, half of them Republican. "If we don't act meaningfully in the near future, we are going to see major problems. The first place people will look to blame is the people who dismissed climate change and resorted to the cheap petty rhetoric.”
The U.N. report issued Sunday night by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was produced by 91 scientists from 40 countries, including the U.S.
It concludes that world energy use must undergo a "rapid and far-reaching" transition by 2030 to prevent the worst effects of a 1.5-degree rise in the global temperature. It says the 1.5-degree stricter threshold should be the new target for the world, rather than the 2-degree goal set in the Paris climate change agreement. The climate has already warmed by 1 degree, delivering worse storms, heat waves, drought, and more wildfires, the report says.
Trump did not immediately accept the report’s conclusions, and instead called the report’s authors into question, a conspiratorial tone adopted by some Republican senators, who referred this week to its policy recommendations as expensive “fantasy.”
“Throughout the years, the IPCC and climate alarmists have shown that they will use increasingly dire warnings to try and advance their globalist agenda,” Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., told the Washington Examiner. “They are moving the goalposts yet again with their sensational new report.”
But other powerful Republicans, many representing states and districts already seeing the effects of climate change, accept the findings and are eager to use the report to gain support for their policies.
“I don't spend a lot of time arguing about who wrote reports or whether your science is good or bad,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told the Washington Examiner in an interview. “Part of my role is to engage in constructive conversation about this, and to be assessing it fairly. That is going to be an important thing for me to do going forward, not only with my role here on the committee, but more broadly coming from a state that sees the impact of climate change, and is wrestling with how we deal with that impact.”
Murkowski contends that Republicans first need to appreciate the realities of climate change before devising policy.
“It's hard to be able to find legislative solutions if you haven't been able to have a good base for that discussion,” she said. “And that's where we need to get to. Right now we are just barely in the getting started phase. We would all agree to that.”
Other Republicans say the problem can’t wait for further debate, and are ready to press their colleagues to consider steps urged by the U.N. report.
“The IPCC report should be a wake-up call for policymakers around the world,” Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., told the Washington Examiner. “Congress, led by the Climate Solutions Caucus, must engage on bipartisan policy solutions to combat climate change.”
In the U.N.'s estimation, the solution includes putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions, a linchpin policy that most economists view as the most efficient way to combat climate change, because it provides a financial incentive for energy companies to reduce their emissions through innovation, without government regulations. Exxon this week became the first oil and gas company to put lobbying money behind a carbon tax.
Curbelo, who is facing re-election in his purple South Florida district, introduced a carbon tax bill this summer, the first Republican in a decade to do so. He has two other Republican co-sponsors on his side — including Fitzpatrick — and expects to see “some significant movement” on attracting more GOP supporters during the next Congress, if he wins re-election.
“We need to eliminate the burning of coal and substitute natural gas, and incentivize alternative energy solutions like solar and wind,” Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Fla, a co-sponsor of Curbelo’s bill, told the Washington Examiner, adding he supports the stricter 1.5-degree target from the report. “The best way to eliminate the burning of coal is to enact a significant carbon tax.”
The U.N. report determined coal use for electricity must fall from nearly 40 percent today to 1 to 7 percent by 2050. It projects that zero-carbon renewable energy has to supply 70-85 percent of the world’s electricity by 2050, compared to about 25 percent now, in order to keep warming to 1.5 degrees.
Yet Republicans who might be sympathetic to these goals are signaling for Curbelo and his colleagues to slow down. Curbelo insists that Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has told him he is open to supporting his carbon tax bill, or something like it. But Graham’s office provided a curt response to a question from the Washington Examiner seeking to confirm that: “Haven’t introduced anything like that,” said Kevin Bishop, a spokesman.
Other climate-friendly Republicans in Curbelo's caucus do not want to talk about it until their re-election race passes, and declined comment to the Washington Examiner.
Some GOP lawmakers say the U.S. should do its part, but challenged other major greenhouse emitters to do so as well.
“Climate change is a serious threat, and we care about the countless lives this report shows it will impact,” Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., a Climate Solutions Caucus member, told the Washington Examiner. "Only when China and India make a firm commitment to this issue will we have a chance to make a difference."
Republican energy policy experts who encourage bipartisan solutions to curb climate change are not surprised by reactions like these, and doubt the U.N. report will alter the views of GOP voters.
“Members like Curbelo and Fitzpatrick — if they survive — and I very much hope they do, have all the incentive in the world to continue speaking out for climate action, but I’m not sure there is a lot of political incentive in most Republican districts to begin speaking out for the first time,” said Shane Skelton, a former energy adviser to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc. “Most voters, I imagine, are completely unaware of this report and its findings.”
Most Republicans, including Trump administration agencies such as the EPA and Energy Department, chose to downplay the U.N. report by bragging about how market forces have helped the U.S. become a world leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, mostly as a result of natural gas replacing coal as the dominant energy source.
“The U.S. must remain the global leader in developing innovative ways to reduce emissions,” Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, told the Washington Examiner, adding it must maintain an “energy mix” beyond only renewables.
Republicans who favor market-oriented solutions over government intervention say policymakers should approve bills introduced in Congress that incentivize the development of technologies such as carbon capture and storage, battery storage, and advanced nuclear reactors.
Those innovations are a key component of avoiding the worst climate outcomes, the U.N. report said, but they don’t go far enough.
“What I hope Republicans realize is of course we should all celebrate we are reducing emissions,” Curbelo said. “I just want to accelerate this trend. That's all. We are not proposing some dramatic overhaul and shock to the economy. Band-aids are not going to work. We need a bold solution.”