A growing number of congressional Republicans are acknowledging that climate change is real and that we need to do something about it. Even more interesting is the fact that House Republican leadership is encouraging this about-face. Let’s review:

  • Last December, Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee embraced 12 bipartisan bills to promote low-carbon energy use, climate-friendly R&D, and climate adaptation initiatives. 
  • At both Davos and during his State of the Union address, President Trump championed the case for planting 1 trillion trees, an idea first promoted by Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) as a means of removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. 
  •  Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) is co-sponsoring a bill with Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) to increase low-carbon energy R&D over 10 years and then impose new regulatory standards on greenhouse gas emissions.
  • And House Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy promises additional measures along these same lines to come.

Does this mean that Republicans are increasingly interested in solving the climate problem? We can’t read hearts and minds, but I suspect it means something else: that Republicans are increasingly interested in solving the “Blue Wave” problem. And those are two separate matters.

Vox’s David Roberts has it right: “Nobody who understands the facts of climate change could possibly view [these Republican initiatives] as a viable plan, or even a good-faith attempt at one.” Even so, most voters don’t understand the facts of climate change, so it may not be obvious to the GOP’s target audience — millennials, the college-educated, and white suburban voters — that Republicans are grossly overstating what these bills will accomplish. Even so, pollsters have been warning the GOP that if they want to be politically competitive now, and more importantly, in the future, they have to put climate solutions on the table.   

The challenge

If we are to accept the conclusions of mainstream climate science (which these Republicans purport to do), the world will have to decarbonize at a rate of 7.5 percent a year through 2070 to give us a two-thirds chance of holding global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius. The U.S. economy would have to decarbonize at a similar rate, but has averaged only a 2.5 percent annual pace of decarbonization from 2000-2018. And in the last year for which we have data (2017-2018), the U.S. economy only managed a decarbonization rate of 0.3 percent, far less than that achieved by any other western industrialized nation that year.

Accordingly, global warming requires a serious and, yes, disruptive policy response. Every year we delay ambitious action, economic damages from climate change increase by more than 2 percent, a cost that roughly increases with the square of years delayed.

Will this package of Republican legislation significantly increase the pace of decarbonization in the near term? No, it will not. Few in the GOP propose to limit emissions via regulation or taxation. Instead they propose minor increases in subsidies for low(er) carbon energy sources and modest increases in federal research budgets for low(er) carbon energy technology which may (or may not) pay off … someday. And they are careful to stay away from any stated emission-reduction goals or decarbonization commitments. In short, these initiatives would have a negligible impact on decarbonization rates over the foreseeable future.

The art of the possible

While this package of legislative initiatives does not constitute, in aggregate, much of a climate policy, that doesn’t necessarily make it worth rejecting. Some of these bills (such as the USE IT Act for carbon capture and utilization, the BEST Act for energy storage, the LEADING Act for carbon capture with natural gas, the Energy Sector Innovation Credit Act for deploying new energy technologies, the Securing American Leadership in Science and Technology Act to increase low-carbon energy research) have merit.

It would be one thing if the GOP were saying that these bills are the start, and not the end, of an important policy journey. After all, with President Trump in the White House, ambitious policy responses to climate change are simply not in the cards, especially in an election year in which the party’s strategy is to whip up the Republican base into a frothing rage against everything and anything that Democrats stand for. One can defend this legislation as the most that is realistically possible in the 116th Congress. 

But that’s not what they’re saying. The rollout of these bills over the past few months has been accompanied by sharp rhetorical attacks against anything that might actually do the job of decarbonization; e.g., regulations on emissions, carbon pricing, or more ambitious industrial policy to deploy zero-carbon energy. The GOP, they maintain, will do something about climate change, do it better than will the Democrats, and do it in such a manner as to cause no pain whatsoever to any producers, consumers, or taxpayers. 

End the soft bigotry of low expectations

Here is the lens through which we should judge the seriousness of climate rebels in the Republican Party. 

First, as long as Republicans are denouncing anything that might impose economic costs on anyone, they should not be taken seriously. Innovation fairies will not save us. Only ambitious mitigation will do that, and there’s no way to spare fossil fuel producers some costs. There are ways, however, to spare consumers those costs. For Republicans to pretend otherwise demonstrates that … they are pretending.

Second, Republicans need to stop attacking climate “alarmists” in the course of their policy work. While it’s an exaggeration to say, as some on the left do, that we only have 12 years to save the planet, there is ample reason to be very alarmed about climate change. Failing to appreciate that is failing to appreciate mainstream climate science and the fundamental need for serious risk management.

Third, Republicans should be embracing the most ambitious climate responses that political considerations will allow. If some of the excellent carbon tax bills that have been floated by a few House Republicans are too much for them, they should at least take their own innovation rhetoric seriously. That would mean supplementing the legislation they’ve forwarded with much more ambitious initiatives consistent with the demand for deep decarbonization. That means more federal resources need to be marshalled in general, and more attention needs to be paid in particular to long-duration energy storage, carbon-neutral fuels, low-carbon heat sources for industry, and decarbonizing the agricultural sector. 

Fourth, they should be willing to join with Democrats to pass an infrastructure bill that meaningfully invests in the industries and infrastructures we need to achieve decarbonization. 

Up from Luntz

Republicans who want to compete with Democrats on climate change have a tremendous opportunity. With that party’s leftward move on climate, significant space has been opened for the GOP to offer serious proposals that are better focused and less costly than the Green New Deal or the mega-regulation proposal recently put forward by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. 

Thus far, however, most climate-minded Republicans have been disinclined to occupy that space with anything save for weak and unambitious fossil fuel-friendly initiatives that accomplish little.

By going down this road, Republicans are simply retreating to the more politically sophisticated denialism embraced by the GOP almost two decades ago. In his famous 2002 memo to the Bush White House, Republican pollster Frank Luntz argued that opposition to climate action was best accompanied by exactly the sort of airy innovation agenda that Republicans are reviving today. In the course of opposing meaningful climate action, Luntz recommended that Republican legislators tell stories like this:

Don’t confuse my opposition to excessive regulation with a desire for inaction. We don’t need an international treaty with rules and regulations that will handcuff the American economy or our ability to make our environment cleaner, safer, and healthier. 

On the contrary, what we need to do is to put American creativity and American innovation to work. It’s time to call on the leaders of science and technology to find new forms of fuel that burn cleaner and more efficiently. We need to invest in research and development that will restore polluted air and water to pristine conditions — just as we have done for Lake Erie. We should take an active role in helping other nations save their forests and build safer energy sources. 

Luntz has recently expressed regret for that memo, and has come to accept that climate change is a real and pressing danger that demands real and meaningful action, such as carbon taxation. “I’m here before you to say that I was wrong in 2001,” Luntz told the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis last year. “Just stop using something that I wrote 18 years ago, because it’s not accurate today.”

Republicans should listen up.

Photo Credit: Mark Dixon under CC by 2.0.