History is likely to show that 2020 is the year climate issues finally mattered enough to voters to guide their hands when it came time to mark their ballots.
Recognizing that it is no longer prudent or wise to continue playing the denial card Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has been attempting to bring House Republicans in from the cold on climate change. It appears that his closed-door discussions with certain members of the caucus have begun to pay dividends. The Minority Leader, along with allies like Represent-atives Graves (R-LA) and Westerman (R-AR), is promising to release a Republican strategy for responding to the climate crisis over the next several weeks.
McCarthy’s change of heart is most likely attributable to polling numbers that show Republicans vulnerable on climate matters than to a sudden immaculate conversion. His pitch to colleagues has been “for a 28-year old, the environment is the Number 1 and Number 2 issue.” There are hard numbers behind the claim.
Frank Luntz, a well-respected Republican pollster, circulated a memo to congressional Republicans last summer telling them that 55 percent of young GOP voters are very or extremely concerned about the party’s position on climate change. Luntz also noted that 69 percent of all GOP voters are concerned that the party's stance is “hurting itself with younger voters.”
Young Republicans are a doubly important cohort for the party to keep engaged. Changing demographics, e.g., younger, college-educated populations, are turning suburbs that were once solidly Republican into fertile recruitment fields for the Democrats. These areas are more closely aligned with the cultural and political beliefs of the cities they surround than in the past. Their economies inextricably bound.
Motivating McCarthy’s efforts to come up with climate-related policy and program proposals has been the Democrats’ emphasis on climate matters — both in the House and on the hustings. Every contender for the Democratic presidential nomination has made climate defense — to one degree or another — a prominent part of their pitch to primary voters. Exit and entrance polls in the just-announced Iowa caucuses found that climate was the second most important concern of Democratic voters — behind healthcare.
Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee recently released a 600-page draft of the Climate Leadership and Environmental Action for our Nation’s Future Act. Although still a work in progress, the Act lays out a multi-sectoral plan to reach zero-net national greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Many old-line establishment Republicans outside the Trump orbit are already on record in support of a carbon tax—notably the Baker-Shultz plan. In addition to companies like ExxonMobil, Ford, IBM, and MetLife, a growing number of college-based young Republican chapters are actively advocating on behalf of the plan.
McCarthy’s Republicans aren’t likely to endorse a carbon tax any time soon. Their proposals will be mundane when compared to a carbon tax and the Nation’s Future Act—to say nothing of the Green New Deal. Their final legislative plan is likely to include increased federal support for research in new energy technologies, including batteries, larger tax credits for carbon seques-tration, the planting of billions of trees, encouraging greater use of natural gas, and doing something about plastic waste. Trump has indicated some support for trees and refuse reduction and collection. Both have a part to play in creating a sustainable and just economy.
Notwithstanding what appears to be a purely political move on McCarthy’s part, the Minority Leader deserves credit. Today he’s Trump’s pal, but if he keeps pursuing an environmental agenda, his new best friend could turn on him—as could members of the Republican House caucus whose careers he may be risking should his calculations on voter support be wrong.
The important thing is that House Republicans have now admitted there’s a problem. Their talk must now turn to solutions.
If McCarthy and company think they’ll be able to get out of this cheaply by supporting long-term research and planting trees, they’ve badly under-estimated why the environment is issue Number 1 and 2 with that 28-year old and what they understand is necessary to begin solving the problem.
Increasingly, private lenders are refusing to support fossil fuel projects on a broadscale because renewables are cheaper, and climate-related risks are just too high for lenders and insurers to assume. Rising oceans are already threatening cities along the Gulf Coast and Eastern seaboard. How long can local and national economies sustain the billions of dollars of damages of increasingly frequent and intense weather-related disasters in middle America that are spawned by Earth’s warming?
In the wake of declining profits for companies like ExxonMobil, stock advisers are saying they’re done with fossil fuels. Chairman Powell admitted that the Federal Reserve has a role to play in keeping global warming from destabilizing banks and financial markets.
Whether conservative politicians choose to recognize it or not, the world is spinning away from them on climate matters. Republicans are wise to accept the findings of recent voter surveys and heed the counsel of House Minority Leader McCarthy. However, once they step across the threshold of denial, they — like their Democratic colleagues — will find themselves on a slippery slope as their constituents continue to demand more than quarter measures.
In the end, no demand will be greater than to meet the challenge of climate change head-on and to do what is required and not what is politically prudent to preserve the planet for future generations.
Photo credit: Matt ?@elevenphotographs
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Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, MA, JD., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.