BY ALEXANDER BOLTON
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who is emerging as a pragmatic leader among Senate Republicans, is at the center of private discussions among GOP senators about crafting a legislative response to climate change.
Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) has tried to put the focus on Senate Republicans for not having a plan to combat global warming, which has been linked to erratic weather events costing American communities billions of dollars in damages.
Amid that backdrop, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), who represents coal-rich Kentucky, is at the forefront of efforts to roll back federal regulations on coal-powered energy, making him a close ally of President Trump on that issue.
But a group of Republicans — Romney and Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), who worked with Democrats in 2009 and 2010 to cap carbon emissions, as well as others — have taken it upon themselves to come up with market-based approaches to addressing climate change.
“There’s no question that we’re experiencing climate change and that humans are a significant contributor to that,” Romney told The Hill. “In my view, the course forward is going to require innovation and technology breakthrough because nothing I’ve seen is going to reverse the warming trend other than that.”
“We’ve spoken about some ideas as to how we might encourage that,” Romney said of his conversations with GOP colleagues.
The group is looking at establishing a federal program that would incentivize businesses to come up with new technologies to reduce carbon emissions or even find economical ways to remove carbon pollution from the atmosphere.
And they hope to unleash that innovation through federal support.
Graham, who worked about a decade ago with then-Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) on a proposal to curb carbon emissions, agrees with Romney that spurring technological innovation to reduce carbon emissions or remove atmospheric carbon is better than penalizing companies for burning fossil fuels.
“I’ve talked to Romney. The Green New Deal is kind of a ridiculous proposal, but denying the problem is equally as bad,” Graham said, referring to the ambitious climate proposal championed by freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) that has sparked a contentious debate in Congress on both sides of the aisle.
McConnell and other Republicans have torched Democrats over the Green New Deal, which the American Action Forum, a Republican-allied think tank, estimates would cost between $51 trillion and $93 trillion over a decade.
The proposal calls on the federal government to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions while creating millions of high-wage jobs by investing in sustainable infrastructure. It proposes a 10-year national mobilization to meet 100 percent of the nation’s power demand through renewable, zero-emission energy sources by 2030 and upgrading all buildings in the United States to achieve maximum energy efficiency.
“With the so-called Green New Deal, Washington Democrats want our government to spend more money than the entire gross domestic product of the entire world on the new spending programs to forcibly remodel Americans’ homes, take away our cars, dramatically increase energy costs,” McConnell recently said on the Senate floor.
McConnell will force a floor vote on the Green New Deal after senators return from a weeklong recess on Monday.
Schumer has tried to go on offense by attacking Republicans for not having their own plan to address climate change.
“I heard leader McConnell knocking the Green New Deal. I would ask the leader, and we’re going to keep asking him, and every Republican in this chamber, what they would do about climate change,” Schumer said on the floor.
Graham and other Senate Republicans, such as Romney and Alexander, say their party can’t just sit back and pick on Democrats without proposing constructive solutions of their own.
“What I want to do is show that I’m a Republican who believes the greenhouse gas-effect is real, that climate change is being affected by manmade behavior and try to find technological solutions,” Graham said.
“Romney had the best line of anybody: ‘We better hope it’s man-made, because if it’s not we’re in trouble,’” Graham said. “That would be my approach, for the party to acknowledge that climate change is a problem.”
Asked how many of his Republican colleagues agree with his approach, Graham said, “a lot of people, I think [are] in this camp.”
“I think man is contributing significantly enough that we should do something about it,” he said.
Alexander, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water development and a longtime proponent of expanding nuclear power, plans to speak on the Senate floor in the coming days about finding solutions to climate change, according to a GOP aide familiar with his plans.
“He’s going to say that climate change is real but the solutions are not command-and-control, Soviet-style proposals but innovation, nuclear energy, research and development, and efficiency,” said the aide.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who said he plans to vote against the Green New Deal, thinks there would be Democratic support for increasing federal support of private-sector innovation to combat climate change.
“God bless ‘em. There’s a difference between elimination and innovation. I’m for innovation, I hope they are, too, because we need to fix the problem, we really do. Them acknowledging it openly is a big first step,” Manchin told The Hill, referring to Republican colleagues.
“I think they would be very receptive of any changes and any improvements we can make,” he said of Democratic reactions to GOP proposals on climate change. “You’re going to have some out there that have already dropped their hammer on where they want to be, but the majority will be very much receptive to” bolstering private-sector innovation.
Romney told E&E News after he was elected to the Senate in November that he saw climate change as a “critical area.” In 2017, he praised as “thought provoking” a plan endorsed by 27 Nobel laureates to place a fee on carbon to reduce greenhouse emissions.
Since then, Republicans have rallied more in the direction of supporting technological breakthroughs to reduce carbon without levying tax penalties on polluters, with the view that such penalties would stifle economic progress.
But Graham acknowledges that GOP lawmakers don’t yet know what innovative technologies will solve the problem.
“The solutions I see haven’t even been developed yet. They have to be so practical that other countries would employ them,” he said.
“The political space you’ll find is Republicans willing to put money into a system to encourage research and development. That’s sort of the Bill Gates model, where you create a pot of money at the federal level and really incentivize the private sector to do its thing,” Graham said.