Republicans grasp for a climate change message
Tuesday’s Senate vote rejecting the Green New Deal masks a striking reality: In a matter of months, liberal activists have upended the conversation about climate change among both parties in Washington.
Democratic presidential candidates are rallying around calls from their base for immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, although some moderate members are bristling at the aggressive ideas being promoted by progressives like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But even as Republicans seek to exploit that divide, many GOP lawmakers are offering climate solutions of their own. And few besides President Donald Trump still dispute that the changing climate is a problem.
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Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) presented one of the latest examples Monday by calling for a “new Manhattan Project for Clean Energy” that would double energy research funding and promote GOP-friendly approaches to reducing greenhouse gas pollution, such as nuclear energy or technology to capture carbon dioxide from coal plants. And Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), one of Trump’s closest allies, is drafting a “Green Real Deal” resolution that would acknowledge climate change as a security threat while avoiding calls for sharp reductions in fossil fuels.
“It’s important to have a Republican message on climate change that’s clear,” Alexander told reporters after a floor speech on the topic. “It’s clear why we’re opposed to the Green New Deal — it’s an assault on cars and cows and combustion — but it’s not as clear what we’re for.”
“I believe climate change is real,” Alexander added. “I believe humans are a major cause of it, and I think a new ‘Manhattan Project for Clean Energy’ is something that most Republicans could support, and I would hope most Democrats could too.”
For his part, Trump has done little to change his tone on climate change in recent months, and he told Republicans at a closed-door lunch Tuesday that he sees opposition to the Green New Deal as a political winner in 2020.
“Make sure you don’t kill it too much because I want to run against it,” Trump said of the resolution ahead of the Senate vote, according to close ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
Alexander said he is working with fellow Republicans like Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina on possible GOP climate approaches. Republican House members also say they are eager to put forward their own ideas.
“I want us to frame our position, not the other side tell Americans what we are or not [for] through their lens. It’s important for us to speak for ourselves,” Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a recent interview.
The shift in perspective comes as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell held a vote Tuesday afternoon on the Green New Deal resolution from Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).
Democrats saw a few defections but mostly voted “present” while accusing McConnell of staging a cynical stunt meant to divide their party. Democratic Sens. Doug Jones (Ala.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) joined all Republicans in voting no, as did Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats.
McConnell has said Democrats — especially the six Senate co-sponsors of the resolution who are running for president — should be willing to vote yes for something they say they support, but lawmakers have foreshadowed the outcome in the Senate for weeks.
The divide between the two parties remains sharp: Democrats accuse Republicans of failing to do anything about climate change, while GOP lawmakers are already building campaign ads around the Green New Deal, which they’ve described as “a socialist nightmare.”
Senate Energy Chairman Lisa Murkowski, whose home state of Alaska is warming more quickly than the rest of the country, has said the government must do something about climate change, but she says Democrats’ focus on climate policy in the context of immediate natural disasters is unhelpful.
“But if somebody says, ‘My gosh, you have to stop the hurricanes from coming,’ I don’t know that any of us have the solution to that as of today,” the Alaska Republican told reporters Tuesday. “But I do think what we need to be doing today and tomorrow is to be making sure we’re putting in place practical, pragmatic solutions that work toward addressing our level of emissions and moving us toward a lower carbon future. But that’s not something that’s going to stop the next hurricane.”
Buoyed by the enthusiasm the Green New Deal has generated, Democrats are emboldened when speaking about climate change. They argue that shifting to a carbon-free economy — which scientists say must happen to avoid the worst effects of climate change — will create millions of jobs and allow the U.S. to dominate new industries like renewable power or electric transportation.
Polls back up the importance of the issue for 2020. Likely Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa, home of the nation’s first presidential caucus, now rank climate change as the second-most important topic facing the nation.
“We need to treat global climate change like the existential threat that it is,” Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a co-sponsor of the resolution, said at a presidential campaign rally Sunday in her native New York. “We need to pass the Green New Deal. Let’s make this our generation’s moonshot. “
Fellow presidential hopefuls Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.), Bernie Sanders (Vt.), Kamala Harris (Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) also are co-sponsoring the Green New Deal resolution in the Senate.
“It is beyond belief that when the scientists tell us we have 12 years before there will be irreparable damage to this planet, you have leadership here that is playing political games,” Sanders told reporters in the Capitol before joining Democrats in voting present on the resolution.
Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman from Texas who has been criticized by progressive activists for contributions he’s received from the oil and gas industry, also has sought to capitalize on the left’s newfound enthusiasm for aggressive policies.
“So, some will criticize the Green New Deal for being too bold, or being unmanageable,” O’Rourke said March 14 in Iowa. “But I’ll tell you what. I haven’t seen anything better that addresses this singular crisis that we face, a crisis that could, at its worst, lead to extinction.”
Still, most Democratic candidates have not yet offered any detailed policy proposals for how they would bring down greenhouse gas emissions, especially on the scale scientists say would be necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate change. A few weeks before protesters first stormed Nancy Pelosi’s Capitol Hill office in November, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report finding that net carbon pollution worldwide would have to fall to zero by mid-century to keep temperature increases below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the level scientists call critical to avoiding major damage.
“We don’t know if we can get to net-zero carbon emissions in 10 years, but we should certainly try,” Gillibrand said at a news conference Tuesday in Washington. “Why not this be a measure of how great we are as a nation? Why not this be a measure of how innovative and entrepreneurial and capable our scientists and engineers are? Why not be the world leader in doing something extraordinary and showing what this country is made of? That’s what this opportunity is.”
The nonbinding Green New Deal resolution calls for Congress to craft legislation that would hit that 1.5-degree target, but its supporters acknowledge there are ample details to be decided.
“It certainly isn’t my intention that we pass one bill that is equal in the scale to the Green New Deal,” Ocasio-Cortez told POLITICO earlier this month. “What it’s saying is that whether it’s five bills, whether it’s a hundred bills — in the same way that the New Deal had New Deal projects, that’s what we’re really trying to say.”
Other Democrats such as Rep. Doris Matsui (Calif.), a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee who is co-sponsoring the Green New Deal resolution, see a renewed chance for bipartisanship as Republicans respond to renewed voter interest and angst over climate change.
“They might not want to get there as fast as we do, but I believe in a sense with some of the other members across the aisle I think they probably are expecting us to keep pushing them forward,” Matsui said of Republicans.
Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), who chairs the Energy and Commerce subcommittee where any climate legislation would start, has not endorsed the Green New Deal but last week put forward his own set of narrower principles for carbon pricing legislation.
“I think there’s a growing sentiment from the general public that climate change is real. I think that’s being exchanged with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle,” Tonko told POLITICO last month. “And I think for people to respond to that — I think it’s becoming very difficult to just say no.”
Republicans are entering the fray, too, after a long period of climate dormancy. Gaetz, who as a freshman introduced legislation to abolish the EPA in the previous Congress, is now circulating a non-binding climate change resolution.
GOP lawmakers have settled on technological innovation, in areas like carbon capture and nuclear energy, as their preferred approach to curbing greenhouse gas emissions. They have rejected more comprehensive approaches like carbon pricing or cap and trade that Democrats have put forward.
“My solutions are out there,” Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said in a recent interview. “I’m not the guy that thinks comprehensive is the way to go — whether it’s health care or climate. I’m putting forth bills that can actually make a difference and can actually get passed.”