Republicans Who Couldn’t Beat Climate Debate Now Seek to Join It

Representative John Shimkus once issued a forceful rejection of climate science at a congressional hearing, invoking the Bible and declaring that “Earth will end only when God declares it’s time to be over.”

Last month, in a turnabout, the Illinois Republican signed onto a letter with the top Republican of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that said “prudent steps should be taken to address current and future climate risks.”

“It’s just not worth the fight anymore,” Shimkus said in an interview when asked about his changing stance on climate change. “Let’s just see what we can do to address it and not hurt the economy.”

Shimkus is among a number of Republicans who — after years of sowing doubt about climate change or ignoring it altogether — are scrambling to confront the science they once rejected. They are holding hearings on the issue, beginning with one Tuesday. And they have pledged to invest in technologies to mitigate its impact and are openly talking about the need for taking action.

The shift in posture follows the public’s growing anxiety after catastrophic hurricanes, flooding and wildfires linked to global warming. Fully 74 percent of registered voters think global warming is happening and 67 percent said they are worried it, according to polling conducted by Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Among conservative Republicans, just 42 percent think global warming is happening but that is up five percentage points since a poll taken in 2017.

Moreover, Democrats have seized the issue with populist fever — even proposing a sweeping plan to phase out climate-warming gas emissions through a “Green New Deal.”

“Members are openly using the term climate change,” Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, from oil-rich Alaska, said of her GOP colleagues in an interview. “You are not seeing this kind of dismissive attitude but more open conversations about some of the challenges, some of the technologies we can look to, some of the solutions.”

To be sure, the party hasn’t gone completely green. It hasn’t passed any major proposals to combat climate change and generally supports Trump administration policies to roll back environmental regulation.

“It’s a baby step forward,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, a senior vice president with the League of Conservation Voters. “It remains to be seen whether they are sincere or whether they are just starting to engage in deceitful rhetoric.”

Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and has long acknowledged climate change, vowed on Tuesday to prioritize the phenomena during the panel’s first hearing on the topic since 2012, where she outlined how global warming has been devastating her home state from thinning sea ice to drought.

“In Alaska, our view is that we have no choice here,” Murkowski said.

Additional GOP controlled-committees plan to follow with a focus on greenhouse gas emissions, Murkowski said in an interview. “It is very much a multicommittee effort,” she said.

In addition to Murkowski, other Republicans have been meeting in small groups to come up with a strategy on the issue: Senators John Cornyn of Texas, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Susan Collins of Maine, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Rob Portman of Ohio, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and former 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, now a senator representing Utah.

“There is a growing consensus on our side that man-made emissions are contributing to global warming, that the ‘green deal’ is absurd, and we should be able to find a more appropriate solution to the problem,” Graham said in an interview, adding he had recently been discussing the issue with Romney, who has called climate change a critical issue.

Cassidy said he’s in talks with Republican senators about climate legislation centered around increasing the use of use of natural gas abundant in his state of Louisiana. The fuel source has about 50 percent less carbon dioxide emissions than coal, but is opposed by some environmentalists because of the fracking process used to develop it and associated leaks of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

Other policies under discussion among Republicans include expanding the use of nuclear energy and research on technology to capture carbon emissions from smokestacks and the development of renewable energy.

Critics say those ideas don’t go far enough to address the problem.

“The window for moderate action has completely closed,” said Lukas Ross, a senior policy analyst with Friends of the Earth. “A small minority of Republicans don’t deserve a pat on the back for acknowledging 40 years of scientific consensus.”

‘Right Thinkers’

Some Republicans, too, aren’t happy with the shift.

“Eventually, the right thinkers in the caucus will reassert themselves,” GOP energy strategist Mike McKenna said in an email. “Or lots of members will find themselves on the business end of a primary.”

President Donald Trump has rejected a landmark report by experts from 13 of his own agencies and studded the administration with skeptics. The White House is currently considering establishing a panel of scientists to re-evaluate the scientific consensus around climate change — to be led by a man who has hypothesized that more carbon in the air is good.

Tillis, who noted the North Carolina state legislature passed renewable portfolio standards and credits for renewable energy while he was a member, said his discussions have focused on “things that are still more or less driven by free-markets but stimulating innovation.”

Change of Heart

In 2015, Cornyn, the senior Republican from the oil state of Texas, joined with most of his Republican colleagues to vote against an amendment that stated climate change was real and caused by human activities. Nowadays the senator, who is seen as an eventual candidate to become Senate majority leader, is talking behind the scenes with his Republican colleagues about the phenomenon.

“We are having conversations about how to address the problem, which is emissions,” Cornyn said in an interview, adding his goal is to “to do it in a way that continues to let the economy flourish and and come up with solutions.”

Some in the GOP may still be trying to find ways to address climate change that fall within their party’s ideology.

“I think the Republicans are being very genuine about recognizing this is a problem, but they are at the beginning of trying to identify policy responses that are consistent with their values,” Alex Flint, the executive director of Alliance for Market Solutions, a conservative carbon tax group, said in an interview. “They are struggling to identify what policy responses to support and the politics on engaging on climate change.”

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