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How the Republican Party is awakening to the reality of the climate crisis

Extreme weather has caused some Republicans to act on climate change, but their plans for action are not always in line with the science.

By Nick Ferris

After months of hard-fought negotiation, President Joe Biden passed a $1.2trn bill through Congress to transform America’s infrastructure at the start of November. Containing $80bn of climate measures, the bill forms a key part of Biden’s climate change response, alongside $555bn of measures in the more transformative $1.75trn Build Back Better Bill.

Just 13 House Republicans supported the Infrastructure Bill – and they have since faced a torrent of abuse from other party members. Yet a growing group of Republicans are claiming to now support action against climate change, in contrast to the determined climate scepticism seen under former president Donald Trump.

Democrats including House speaker Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Biden and former president Barack Obama all made an appearance at Cop26. Also in appearance, for the first time at a UN climate conference, was a solely Republican congressional delegation.

“I am here to show the world that Republicans also care about climate change,” John Curtis, representative for Utah’s third congressional district, told the New Statesman. “We have not been as vocal as we should be and I want to change that.” 

Curtis founded the Conservative Climate Caucus in June 2021, with the aim of pushing for greater climate action from those on the right of the political spectrum in the US. Seventy out of 213 Republican members of the House of Representatives are now members. Also in attendance with the delegation at Cop26 were representatives Dan Crenshaw of Texas, David McKinley of West Virginia and Garret Graves of Louisiana. 

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“Louisiana is coastal and is among the states most vulnerable to climate change in the United States,” said Graves. “Our state already has some of the fastest rates of coastal subsidence in the world. Storm intensity is also growing, with Hurricane Ida hitting the area I represent this summer.” 

Data shows extreme weather like hurricanes or drought is increasing across the US. Two-thirds of adults said they were experiencing more extreme weather than in the past, shows a recent survey from the think tank Pew Research Center. 

The state of Utah is enduring its longest drought on record, added Curtis. “We are also seeing more forest fires, and our ski season is getting shorter. So I would say yes, we are absolutely feeling the effects of climate change.” 

Indeed, both Republican and Democrat voters are showing increasing concern about climate change. Recent analysis from UK think tank E3G found that a majority of voters in key battleground districts ahead of the 2022 midterm elections want Congress to do more about the issue. 

However, while people may agree on the need for climate action, opinions over what this means in practice differs widely.

The Republican delegation's appearance at Cop26 was arranged by right-wing climate advocacy group Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions (CRES). “We advocate tackling climate change and clean-energy solutions, but we are Republicans, and so it is not about growing government and giving away our liberties,” said Heather Reams, CRES’s executive director. “Instead of the pendulum swing of a different president coming to power every four or eight years, we are looking for more pragmatic climate solutions that can garner bipartisan support.” 

Climate science shows that it is necessary to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 to hold global heating to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and prevent catastrophic climate change. However, Curtis would not be drawn on whether the caucus supports a net zero emissions ambition, and the group has not presented any kind of policy plan. Members of the caucus also have a poor track record when it comes to voting for environmental bills, shows data from the League of Conservation Voters – Curtis has only voted in favour of 2 per cent of environmental bills since joining the House in 2017.

Utah is a major coal producer, while offshore oil and gas are key industries in Louisiana. Curtis and Graves believe the US can decarbonise while protecting jobs in those industries. This assumption flies in the face of the evidence presented by energy transition experts showing that fossil fuels are largely incompatible with climate action, and that coal, in particular, needs phasing out. Meanwhile, carbon capture and storage technologies, which ostensibly allow fossil fuels to be burned without releasing massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, remain financially unviable without big subsidies.

“Our economy is based on fossil fuels, and so I think it is very important we don’t move forward in an emotional way that demonises traditional energy sources,” said Graves. “The future is going to not just see renewables, but ‘all of the above’, with wind and solar, as well as nuclear, hydropower and fossil fuels with technology like carbon capture and storage.”

Data shows this “all of the above” strategy is essentially what is already happening across the US, with annual renewables generation increasing 223 per cent last decade, and oil and gas production increasing 135 per cent and 67 per cent respectively thanks to the shale revolution

At the beginning of November, three Republican senators published an “American Energy, Jobs, and Climate” plan. A “realistic, achievable solution” to reduce emissions by 40 per cent by 2050. But such a goal is miles away from the net zero holy grail. Analysis from Massachusetts-based think tank Climate Interactive found the plan would likely deliver just a 14 per cent drop in emissions.

Nonetheless, Climate Interactive’s founder Andrew Jones believes the formation of the Conservative Climate Caucus in the House of Representatives is a positive step forward, despite the huge gap between its proposals and what needs to happen. “The science of climate change shows we must bring emissions of coal, oil and gas to zero mid-century,” said Jones. “What is politically possible in the Republican Party remains unclear, but the science is completely clear.”

[See also: America’s leaders are old. That’s a problem]

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