A small but growing number of Republican lawmakers are urging action on climate change, driven by shifting sentiment among GOP voters and the effects of global warming, from stronger hurricanes to more-destructive wildfires.
The group backs policies rooted in what they consider GOP principles, favoring market-based solutions rather than government regulations. Many are loyal supporters of President Trump, but they part with him on climate change, which he has dismissed as hyped.
In a memo circulated Wednesday to Republican congressional offices, the polling firm of longtime GOP strategist Frank Luntz warned that climate change was “a GOP vulnerability and a GOP opportunity.” The firm conducted a survey for the Climate Leadership Council, a policy group promoting its variation of a carbon tax, and said in the memo that 69% of Republican voters are concerned their party is “hurting itself with younger voters” because of its climate stance.
Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida says the GOP needs to advance sound conservative proposals to combat climate change and embrace science, or risk long-term political damage.
“How can we as a party stand up to the generational challenges we face with globalization and automation and climate change if we don’t look credible to the body politic,” Mr. Gaetz said in an interview.
In April, Mr. Gaetz announced his “Green Real Deal” plan that seeks to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by fostering innovation and entrepreneurship and reducing government regulations on the development of clean-energy technology. His plan is a counter to the “Green New Deal” proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) and others that involves large federal investments in buildings, industries and transportation systems to slash emissions.
Republican Rep. Garret Graves’s state of Louisiana depends on the oil-and-gas industry but is losing land partly as a result of sea-level rise. As the ranking minority member on the newly created House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, he has favored federally funded financial incentives for state and local investments in resiliency projects such as flood control.
“The conversation is certainly shifting toward not just acknowledging the threats of climate change, but starting to talk about policies and solutions,” said Ben Pendergrass, senior director of government affairs at Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a nonpartisan advocacy group that helped create the bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus. The caucus, formed in 2016, has about two dozen Republican members
Yet he and like-minded Republicans remain a small minority in the party. When the Democratically controlled House passed a resolution in May aimed at keeping the U.S. in the 2015 Paris climate agreement, from which Mr. Trump said he intended to withdraw, only three Republicans voted for it. And no Republicans have endorsed the Green New Deal.
“They’ve made a tiny pivot from being flat-earth, climate-change deniers to at least admitting climate change is real,” said Rep. Darren Soto (D., Fla.), member of the House subcommittee on environment and climate change. “We really need to have fundamental and bipartisan belief in the fact that climate change is human-caused and an existential threat to the human race.”
In the Senate, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska), who heads the committee on energy and natural resources, has declared reducing emissions a policy priority.
The state of Florida depends on its natural resources for its booming tourism industry, which in recent years has been affected by algae blooms that flourish in warm waters. As part of his environmental agenda, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis formed a task force to address the algae blooms. He also successfully pushed for more than $625 million in funding from the legislature this year for Everglades restoration and protection of water resources, and he created the position of chief science officer to coordinate research on pressing environmental concerns.
“What I think Republicans have an opening to do is really be good stewards of the environment,” Mr. DeSantis said last month at an event in Miami.
A 2018 Monmouth University poll found that 64% of Republicans believed in climate change, a 15-percentage-point jump from 2015, compared with 92% of Democrats. At the same time, 25% of Republicans called it a very serious problem, while 82% of Democrats did.
Millennial Republicans are nearly twice as likely as baby boomers and older GOP members to believe government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change or protect air quality, according to a Pew Research Center survey last year.
Mr. Rooney said his party needed to address such sentiment among younger generations. “Let’s get with the program here and reach some of these emerging voting blocs,” he said.
A group called RepublicEn aims to cultivate conservative support to address climate change by proposing free-enterprise policies. Among them is a carbon tax similar to that backed by Mr. Rooney that would reduce the use of fossil fuels and return the revenue from the tax to taxpayers—by, for instance, offsetting it with reduced payroll or income taxes. It also would include a “border adjustment” that imposes a fee on imports from countries that don’t have a carbon tax to prevent U.S. companies from suffering competitive disadvantage.
“Conservatives are starting to hear the message of climate action in their own language,” said Bob Inglis, executive director of the organization.
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