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Amid extreme weather, a shift among Republicans on climate change

Republicans want to spend billions to prepare communities to cope with extreme weather, but are trying to block efforts by Democrats to cut the emissions that are fueling the disasters in the first place.

By: New York Times | Washington |
Updated: August 15, 2021 9:47:23 am
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who says he wants to address climate change, but 'you can't do it where you're killing jobs,' during a news conference. (File Photo/The New York Times)

Written by: Lisa Friedman and Coral Davenport

After a decade of disputing the existence of climate change, many leading Republicans are shifting their posture amid deadly heatwaves, devastating drought and ferocious wildfires that have bludgeoned their districts and unnerved their constituents back home.

Members of Congress who long insisted that the climate is changing due to natural cycles have notably adjusted that view, with many now acknowledging the solid science that emissions from burning oil, gas and coal have raised Earth’s temperature.

But their growing acceptance of the reality of climate change has not translated into support for the one strategy that scientists said in a major United Nations report this week is imperative to avert an even more harrowing future: stop burning fossil fuels.

Instead, Republicans want to spend billions to prepare communities to cope with extreme weather, but are trying to block efforts by Democrats to cut the emissions that are fueling the disasters in the first place.

Dozens of Republicans in the House and Senate said in recent interviews that quickly switching to wind, solar and other clean energy will damage an economy that has been underpinned by fossil fuels for more than a century.

“I’m not doing anything to raise the cost of living for American families,” said Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, where climate-fueled disasters have cost the state more than $100 billion over the past decade according to estimates from the federal government.

Scott said he wants to address climate change, but “you can’t do it where you’re killing jobs.”

It’s a message supported by polling that shows Republican voters are more concerned with jobs than the environment. A Pew Research Center survey in May found just 10% of Republican and Republican-leaning independents were deeply concerned with addressing climate change, while a majority thought President Joe Biden’s ambitious plans to curb climate change would hurt the economy.

With the exception of young Republicans who have been agitating for their party to take climate change more seriously, conservative voters as a whole have not shifted much on the issue over the past 10 years. That scepticism may have reached a pinnacle with President Donald Trump, who famously derided climate science, loosened emissions rules and expanded oil and gas drilling on public lands.

But as the impacts of global warming becoming more apparent with each weather forecast, the message from Republicans and their allies has shifted. They now argue for investment in research and development, or technological solutions that are years away from viability, such as cleaning the air after oil, gas and coal are burned. Many also favour expanding nuclear energy, which does not produce greenhouse gases but poses other challenges including the lengthy time it takes to build new plants and concerns about the disposal of spent fuel and the risk of radioactive leaks.

A few Republicans, like Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have said they support charging companies for the carbon dioxide they generate, a strategy that economists say would create a powerful incentive to lower emissions. But neither man is championing such a measure with any urgency.

The majority of Republican lawmakers back less aggressive responses popular with their voters, like planting trees to absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or offering tax credits to businesses that capture carbon dioxide after it has been released into the air by power plants or industrial sites.

“What they are opposing is any program to meaningfully reduce emissions,” said David Victor, co-director of the Deep Decarbonization Initiative at the University of California, San Diego.

And while Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., allowed that climate change is driving the extreme drought that has devastated crops and decimated livestock in his state this summer, he said the gases produced by burning fossil fuels should be the target, not the fuels themselves.

“We need to be on an anti-carbon mission, not an anti-fuel mission,” said Cramer, whose state is also a top oil and gas producer.

Even Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who famously threw a snowball on the Senate floor to claim the planet is not getting hotter, insisted last month that he never called climate change a “hoax,” only that the dire consequences have been overblown. (Inhofe is the author of a book titled “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.”)

“They don’t want to look like they are denying the science, but they don’t want to look like they’re anti-free market and support regulation,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University. “But the fact is, there’s no way to solve this without regulating and mandating the cut of emissions. There’s no magical easy ‘innovation-only’ way out of this.”

Democrats say the tools exist now to stave off a hotter planet: rapidly expand wind and solar energy, beef up energy storage and the electric grid, electrify transportation, and make buildings energy efficient.

Many of those elements are tucked into a $3.5 trillion budget package that Democrats hope to pass in the fall. The budget bill includes a tool called a clean electricity payment program, designed to drive utilities to produce an increasing amount of electricity from low and zero-carbon sources like wind, solar and nuclear energy.

If approved, the measure would be the most consequential climate bill in United States history, putting the country on track to hit President Joe Biden’s goal of roughly halving domestic greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. But to get it through the evenly split Congress, every Democrat would need to support it and at least two, Sen. Joe Manchin of coal-rich West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have indicated they may oppose it.

Republican leaders, meanwhile, have made it clear they will vote against the budget bill, arguing that it is too expensive and that mandates like a clean electricity standard and government-funded electric vehicle expansion will hurt taxpayers and consumers.

Their messaging closely mirrors the position of major oil and gas companies, which are running advertising campaigns touting “technology innovation” as a response to global warming.

“They are acknowledging their role in climate change, but they want the public to believe they are on top of it,” Edward Maibach, director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, said of the fossil fuel companies. “They say they are innovating, they are evolving, they’ve got this. They don’t need policy — and Republicans are following that cue.”

Behind the scenes in Washington, oil and gas interests continue to lobby hard against policies that would reduce emissions, particularly tighter vehicle mileage rules that would prevent the burning of hundreds of billions of gallons of gasoline.

Those companies are donating overwhelmingly to Republicans. In the 2020 election cycle alone, oil, gas, coal mining and other energy companies gave $46 million to the Republican Party. That’s more than those industries donated to Democrats over the course of the last decade, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit group that tracks money in politics.

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