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Are US Republicans finally waking up to the climate crisis?

Karlijn Van Houwelingen
September 23, 2021

Climate change denial has been rampant in conservative America, but something is shifting. A growing movement is advocating for climate action — in its own fossil fuel-friendly way.

ACC activists stand with bags of garbage as they gather to clean up South Florida beaches
American Conservation Coalition activists took part in a recent cleanup in FloridaImage: Kaleigh Cunningham

In February, 25 Republican lawmakers got together in Utah, to meet youth party members and environmental groups and brainstorm a conservative approach to tackling the climate crisis. But it was something of a clandestine meeting,with some politicians only attending after organizers promised they would stay anonymous. 

That's how sensitive this subject still is in the Republican Party post-Trump. The former president called human-caused climate change "a hoax," withdrew from the Paris Agreement and railed against water-conserving showerheads that failed to keep his hair perfect. 

Donald Trump was more worried about his hairdo than climate change Image: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

But as younger voters in particular demand a response to the crisis, things are changing, said Chris Barnard of the American Conservation Coalition (ACC), a group of young conservatives that helped organize the gathering in Salt Lake City. "If they want to stay relevant, they need our vote," said the 23-year-old. 

When John Curtis, a Republican from Utah, formed a Conservative Climate Caucus in June, almost a third of his fellow party House members signed up. In the midst of a summer of extreme heat and wildfires, they declared that the "climate is changing," acknowledging that the prosperity of industrialization has come at a price.

Too often, Republicans simply have opposed climate solutions without putting forward any ideas of their own, Curtis told reporters. "We, too, want to leave this Earth better than we found it." 

Right before Earth Day in April, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican, presented a plan to capture carbon, plant trees and expand nuclear energy. A few weeks later, he created a Republican task force to develop a climate and energy agenda. 

A new generational divide

Among Republicans younger than 40, a majority is concerned about the changing climate, opinion polls show. By contrast, 65% of Republican baby boomers have said climate change was not an important concern to them. 

This age gap was illustrated in Miami in June, when the ACC held a rally dubbed "the first conservative climate protest in the US." Speakers had to shout over heckling by a group of older men who waved signs reading: "There is no climate crisis."

ACC head Benji Backer (right) met with Miami Mayor Francis Suarez at the 'first-ever conservative climate rally' in JuneImage: Maxim Podhaisky

Staunch climate denial is still seen in the rhetoric of Republican lawmakers, too. When large parts of Texas lost power in frigid weather last winter, Republican Governor Greg Abbott falsely blamed solar and wind energy. And when President Joe Biden announced his goal of cutting greenhouse emissions in half at a climate summit earlier this year, some Republicans and right-wing media stoked resistance by spreading misinformation suggesting the president planned to restrict meat consumption.

Market mechanisms and 'energy choices'

But if the thought of giving up burgers is a turnoff for many Americans, the ACC believes there are ways to frame climate action more positively for the GOP's supporters. 

Barnard points to the promises of innovation and emphasizing conservation of wildlife and natural resources, a long-time interest of many farmers and hunters in rural America. "A lot of Americans want to be positive. They don't want to feel guilty for the collapse of the planet," he said.

Most climate-conscious conservatives emphasize investment in new technology to reduce emissions, regulatory reform to allow easier development of clean energy projects and so-called natural climate solutions — using soil, trees and grassland to capture and store carbon. "We need to empower market action, scientists and entrepreneurs, rather than expect the government to throw money at the problem," Barnard said.

Younger conservatives, like those who make up The Conservation Coalition, can't ignore the climate crisisImage: The Conservation Coalition

Some Republicans have said they support carbon pricing and many favor nuclear energy. But most insist fossil fuels still have a role to play in the energy system. Curtis wants the United States to export gas to China to replace coal, which is heavier on carbon emissions. "Reducing emissions is the goal, not reducing energy choices," he proclaimed in the founding statement of his caucus. 

Green washing and distractions?

On the other side the aisle, some Democrats suspect their Republican colleagues of "greenwashing," of promoting solutions as good for the environment when they really aren't. Although both parties receive campaign contributions from the oil and gas sector, "the vast majority" of this funding goes to Republicans, according to researchers at Open Secrets, a research and government transparency group.

Republicans in Congress are against Biden's climate plan to phase out fossil fuels. And many climate scientists are also skeptical about the solutions conservatives have proposed. Planting trees and carbon sequestration will not be enough, according to Rachel Cleetus, policy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "There are limits to how much we can rely on these natural carbon sinks," she said. "That's why we have to get to the core of the problem, which is fossil fuel dependence. We cannot get distracted." 

Interview: Benji Backer, American Conservation Coalition

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Scientists also point out that purely market-based efforts to cut emissions have often failed to make an impact. "The US is making some significant progress in the direction of cutting emissions. Almost all that progress is not coming from the market, but from mechanisms that are in place through regulation," said David Victor, director of the Deep Decarbonization Initiative at the University of California San Diego. 

And Cleetus isn't impressed by comparisons with China. "I think this is not a moment where responsible nations can point at each other and try to evade responsibility," she said. 

Steps in the right direction?

Barnard said there is no "perfect silver bullet" to fight climate change. "One of the frustrations we have is that a lot of the young people with the progressive climate movement make the perfect the enemy of the good." Rather than disparaging policies that don't rapidly eliminate fossil fuels, he said we should welcome steps in the right direction.

Could ever-more frequent wildfires — like those in California this summer — put climate change beyond party politics?Image: Neal Waters/AA/picture alliance

In Coral Gables, Florida, 43-year-old Republican Mayor Vince Lago is showing what such steps might look like. He passed legislation requiring new buildings to be energy efficient and expedited the approval process for solar panel permits. 

His city of 51,000 residents employs one of Florida's largest electric car fleets, and Lago himself lives in a home that runs on solar energy. He also drives an electric BMW i3 subcompact car — "bought used," he stressed — charged by his own solar panels.

The mayor said he often invites residents to his home to answer questions about solar energy. His close-to-zero electricity bill proves environmental policies can be financially savvy, too, he said. "When we elected officials lead by example, when you're showing that you're walking the walk, not just talking, people have more faith in their government."

Another thing that might improve public perception of politicians' handling of the crisis would be an end to partisan bickering. 

"As you talk about sea-level rise, global warming, deforestation and the destruction of our fish hatcheries and our water quality, I think eventually this is no longer going to be party politics as usual," Lago predicts. "This is not really an issue about conservatives or liberals, Democrats or Republicans. This is an issue about our future."

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