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How House Republicans won over conservatives to gain consensus on a climate agenda

Republicans have long been skeptical of federal efforts to curb climate change. But now, even conservative Republicans are embracing a “clean energy innovation” legislative agenda, primed for release this spring and advanced by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and his top energy and climate lieutenants.

“Climate denial is a bad political strategy,” said Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, a 37-year-old member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus and an ally of President Trump. “At some point, you have to be for something to fix it.”

Republicans, alarmed by polling showing vulnerability among young and suburban voters, sidelined the most strident and skeptical conservative outside groups to recognize climate change as an urgent problem requiring a response to the liberal “Green New Deal,” according to more than a dozen Republican representatives and others familiar with congressional GOP plans.

The major themes of the pending agenda are capturing carbon dioxide (through technology and planting trees), curbing plastic waste, exporting natural gas, and promoting “resilience” or adaptation to sea-level rise and other effects of climate change.

“You can call it political calculus or representing the people you represent,” said Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a 35-year-old freshman Republican from Texas. “It’s absolutely true a lot of people have concerns about the environment, and we do need a message for them.”

To land on a message that appealed to everybody, Republicans had to navigate potential fault lines among themselves by setting aside difficult questions and sticking broadly to a “free market” approach.

“What we are asking our members to do is to double down on what’s actually worked to reduce emissions, and those are, by the way, conservative solutions,” said Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana, the top Republican on the select climate committee created last year by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “So it’s not that we’ve gone out there to the Freedom Caucus to say, ‘We are asking you to take a hard left turn.'”

That stay-in-the-lines strategy meant rejecting carbon taxes and regulations in favor of repackaging support for tax subsidies and funding of new science and technologies into a low-risk (and to critics, low-reward) proposal for limiting climate change. It also meant clearing the way for using more fossil fuels, the biggest contributor to climate change.

“Fossil fuels aren’t the enemy,” Graves said. “It’s emissions. So let’s devise strategies that are based on emissions strategies, not based on eliminating fossil fuels.”

The concession to fossil fuels means the Republican agenda won’t be able to match the ambition of Democratic plans that call for decarbonizing the economy by 2050, a timeline suggested by U.N. scientists. Republicans have no plans to set a target for reducing emissions, arguing renewables and energy storage aren’t advanced enough and that carbon capture technologies for fossil fuels aren’t widespread enough.

“It’s refreshing to hear that some Republicans are finally acknowledging that climate change is real and an emergency, but we simply cannot innovate our way out of this existential threat,” said Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Nonetheless, to longtime observers of climate politics, the unified Republican acceptance of a federal role in combating global warming represents a significant step that could open the door for bigger bipartisan action in the future.

While it’s true that eight House Republicans voted for a Democratic cap-and-trade bill in 2009, only one, Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, is still in Congress. (2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain also backed cap and trade). After Democrats lost the House in 2010, Republicans spent most of the next decade running away from climate change mitigation proposals such as carbon taxes.

“People on the far-left, for political reasons, want to mock this and diminish it, but put in context, it’s undeniable this is a historical and positive development,” said Carlos Curbelo, a centrist former House Republican who co-founded the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus in 2016 before losing his Florida seat in 2018.

McCarthy, who represents an agricultural district in California, recognized the politics were changing when House Republicans became the minority party in 2019.

He quickly tasked Graves and the Republican staff of the climate committee, along with Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, the GOP leader of the Energy and Commerce Committee, to develop a strategy for combating climate change.

The three led a Republican caucuswide meeting this month, attended by more than 100 members.

House Republican aides said there was little opposition to the plans in the meeting, during which 50 or so members spoke.

“It’s encouraging to see some of these ideas gaining momentum on Capitol Hill,” said Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, a Freedom Caucus member who was a skeptic of federal government action to combat climate change. Gosar said he now supported “commonsense solutions to combating our changing climate.”

The conference meeting was the culmination of individual interactions Graves said he held throughout the past year with members ranging from Freedom Caucus to the centrist Tuesday Group.

Separately, Walden engaged in a similar exercise, hosting two dozen Republican members of the energy committee in his office shortly after Democrats took control of the House. He said that all agreed, when polled, that climate change was a problem that requires a GOP-led response.

“There wasn’t a science denier among us,” said Walden, a former chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee who is retiring in 2020.

In December, Energy and Commerce Republicans unveiled a package of a dozen short-term bills to address climate change, some new but most old, including measures to boost carbon capture, advanced nuclear technology, and energy storage.

Some of those bills could be a part of the broader Republican caucuswide climate package.

“There is an enormous comfort level when you say you are doing what’s working,” Graves said.

Another conservative, Rep. David Schweikert of Arizona, said it’s been natural for Freedom Caucus members to support the climate agenda, given the emergence of solar in Sunbelt states such as his and wind in rural conservative states. He denied conservatives were shifting their views at all, blaming Democrats for dominating the discourse related to climate change and defining Republicans as skeptics.

“I am one of the founding members of the Freedom Caucus, and yet for years now, I’ve been doing presentations talking about the disruptive clean energy technology that is rolling out,” Schweikert said. “That is a revolution that our brothers and sisters on the Left don’t want to know about because it blows up their control-freak agenda.”

Outside conservative groups and more liberal GOP members left out of negotiations, however, promise to test House Republicans’ projection of unity.

Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, dismissed McCarthy’s effort as a toothless messaging agenda of “wasting taxpayer dollars to pay off special interests and nutty plans to plant a trillion trees.”

“I would have to be convinced that global warming is a crisis and that carbon dioxide emissions must be reduced before supporting such a package,” Ebell said.

Rep. Francis Rooney of Florida, one of only two House Republicans who support a carbon tax, says he, too, has not been consulted by McCarthy, Graves, or Walden.

“They are not ready to talk about the things I am ready to talk about, so they probably didn’t ask me,” Rooney said.

Gaetz, meanwhile, met with Graves as recently as this week to discuss the climate agenda, which he wishes did more to confront fossil fuel use.

“Of course, we need to use less fossil fuels,” Gaetz said. “For those who don’t believe we should use less fossil fuels, what are we innovating toward?”

The White House is also unlikely to endorse the House Republican plan and has not been consulted on it, according to a Trump administration official. Despite modifying his rhetoric when asked about climate change, Trump has not proposed addressing it.

“These are Kevin McCarthy’s bills,” the Trump administration official said. “They are messaging bills and all about the next election, and that’s great. But the president has been pretty clear he cares about affordable energy, energy independence, and clean air and clean water. He is not particularly obsessed about climate change.”

Walden insists House Republicans have struck the right chord.

“We have found harmony between good policy and good politics,” he said.