Young Republicans: The new climate activists? Maybe.

By Zoya Teirstein, February 11, 2020

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by Grist. It appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Nowadays, the left’s definition of a climate hawk is clear. The progressive wing of the Democratic party has unified behind a shared litmus test: Does the person in question support the Green New Deal? Sterling environmental voting records and support for a carbon tax no longer cut the mustard. A Democrat worthy of the climate hawk label must have all those things plus enthusiasm for Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey’s economy-wide proposal to wean the United States off of fossil fuels while strengthening the social safety net.

But what about Republicans?

The GOP has had an aversion to climate science for decades now. It’s grown so severe that acknowledging the reality of climate change has been politically risky for virtually any Republican public figure. Politicians who dare touch the subject have been swiftly excommunicated (pour one out for Representative Bob Inglis of South Carolina).

But the party is beginning to shift, thanks in large part to young Republicans whose opinions on climate policy now align more closely with those of Democrats than with those of older members of their own party. For proof that the GOP is starting to budge on climate change, look no further than the House and Senate. Recently, bipartisan climate action groups in both chambers have attracted several unexpected members (including Lindsey Graham). A few GOPers have started to act more aggressively to combat rising temperatures locally, particularly in the wake of catastrophic wildfires, hurricanes, and floods.

And last month, House Republicans unveiled a new set of climate proposals coordinated by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California. The plan—the GOP’s response to Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal—won’t include an emissions-reduction target, Axios reported. Instead, it focuses on capturing carbon dioxide from the air with trees, reducing plastic pollution, and funding new clean-energy technology.

On the precipice of what could become a major party reversal on climate action from the right, how do conservatives who care about climate change discern Republican politicians who are actually serious about tackling the issue from those who are just jumping on the green bandwagon? More importantly, what are the markings of a genuine conservative climate plan versus a smokescreen plan aimed at waylaying real solutions?

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To answer these questions, Grist turned to three Republicans who’ve been beating the climate drum for years.

Alex Bozmoski, the managing director of a climate group founded by Inglis and aimed at building grassroots support for conservative climate solutions, starts by looking at rhetoric. Rhetoric might seem like a useless benchmark, as words aren’t binding, but Bozmoski says a lot can be gleaned from language. “There is substance in what politicians say about what they are doing,” he said. “When a lawmaker is talking about climate change, do the risks compel action or patience and demand for further certainty? Is it a calamity, or is it framed more as a nuisance?” Freshman Senator Mike Braun of Indiana, he says, is a good example of a Republican whose rhetoric hints at a genuine commitment to action. In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Braun called climate change the country’s “next biggest issue.”

Quillan Robinson, who graduated from the University of Washington in 2018, is government affairs director at the American Conservation Coalition, an environment group that’s dedicated to engaging young conservatives on environmental issues. His standard is simple and reflects the fact that Republican climate policy is just in its nascency. Robinson asks: Has the person put his or her name on a piece of climate legislation? “We’re looking for folks who are willing to actually put pen to paper when it comes to real policy solutions which will lower global greenhouse gas emissions—that should be the litmus test for climate action,” he said.

Kiera O’Brien, a recent Harvard graduate and president of Young Conservatives for Carbon Dividends, a group that galvanizes student support for a carbon tax, thinks it’s important to discern between Republicans who are climate hawks and Republicans who are just conservationists. “The reality these days is there’s a difference between conservation and issues of climate change,” she said. “Anyone who’s fundamentally serious about conservation should be serious about climate as well, but that’s not always the case, especially among elected Republicans.”

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For O’Brien, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s new climate plan doesn’t make the cut. “It does not take that step into what I would call a true Republican rebuttal to the Green New Deal by offering a comprehensive plan for reducing emissions,” she said.

She added, “You can say carbon capture, you can say we’re gonna plant a million trees, but if you’re not actually fundamentally serious about putting a price on carbon or putting another economy-wide mechanism for reducing carbon emissions, you’re not actually serious about climate change.” Going forward, she wants Republicans to advocate for a revenue-neutral carbon tax, which would return the revenue generated by the tax to Americans every year.

Bozmoski reached a different conclusion about the House Republican climate plan. “You measure ambition not by dollars, not by economic reorganization, not by risk. You measure the policy of climate change by the tons,” he said. “Does the policy that they’re supporting abate, avoid, capture, or sequester greenhouse gases and how much?” That’s why he thinks McCarthy’s plan to plant a bunch of trees isn’t half-bad—it will take tons of carbon dioxide out of the air, he said. (The science behind this is actually disputed.) “I know some environmentalists scoff because they’re more interested in attacking the supply side of greenhouse gases,” he said, “but if it makes a dent, that’s how you gauge the ambition of a climate policy.”

For Robinson, McCarthy’s plan is reason for optimism that serious climate change legislation is viable under President Trump. “It’s focusing on policies we can pass today which will reduce global greenhouse emissions,” he said. In general, however, Robinson’s under no illusions about where Trump stands. “Is the president where we want him to be on the issue? Absolutely not. But we’re really encouraged by some of the things that have happened recently,” he said.

As the coronavirus crisis shows, we need science now more than ever.

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