By Michael Wilner and Emma Dumain Tribune News Service
WASHINGTON — Republicans long divided over the scale, scope and science of climate change are unifying behind legislation geared toward a constituency they cannot afford to lose: young conservative voters.
Their efforts to reach this key group for the 2020 election are rapidly accelerating.
Within the course of a month, a little-known initiative to plant a trillion trees worldwide has attracted the attention and endorsement of President Donald Trump, who touted the concept at the World Economic Forum in Davos and during the State of the Union address to Congress.
House Republican leaders are now building on the momentum to produce legislation from this proposal, which calls for private-public partnerships to plant a trillion trees around the world in an effort to capture harmful carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere.
While this is not the only component of the new House GOP climate platform – the plan also doubles down on “carbon capture” technology, which would capture fossil fuel emissions before they can reach the atmosphere – it is the clearest example yet of an emerging Republican strategy to propose low-cost, high-reward political fixes on climate change.
It allows Trump and Republican lawmakers to appeal to young and old conservatives alike – those who fear the effects of climate change and those concerned that federal regulations meant to curb emissions, as frequently proposed by Democrats, will hamper the economy.
“The trees – it’s a simple and beautiful thing,” said Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, a supporter of the proposal. “Nothing takes CO2 more out of the air than a tree does.”
Trump’s shift on the issue of climate change, which is now being replicated by a growing number of Republicans on Capitol Hill, began in earnest in 2018, when his senior advisers debated whether to create a panel that would challenge the basic science fueling fears of a warming Earth.
The president’s closest confidants – including Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, his daughter and son-in-law – warned of political repercussions to his continued denial of climate change and the government’s role in fighting it, according to one former National Security Council official.
This precipitated a series of private surveys that showed increasing concern among young Republicans with the effects that climate change will have across the country’s coasts and plains.
In December, 25 presidents of statewide college Republican groups formed an advocacy organization to lobby Congress for conservative solutions to the climate crisis, after the College Republican National Committee proposed an anti-carbon tax resolution at their annual Thanksgiving meeting.
Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster who has consulted Republican senators and governors for over three decades, characterized the party’s shift toward recognition of climate change as an “evolution” similar to the Democrats’ movement in the 2010s toward support for gay marriage.
At that time, polls showed the issue split along an unusually stark generational line.
“It’s been pretty clear for some time that more and more people are concerned about climate change,” Ayres said.
“In some ways it’s like gay marriage – age is not usually a particular issue, but it certainly is the case with climate change, as it was with gay marriage. There’s a strong relationship where the younger the voter, the greater the concern.”
For retiring Republican Rep. Francis Rooney of Florida, who has long urged his party to be more aggressive on this issue, it’s obvious why Republicans are acting now, with a decisive presidential election just months away and a concerted effort to retake control of the House.
“I think it’s evidence they realize the world we live in now, with younger voters, suburban voters that are at risk under recent elections, that climate is a very important issue to them,” Rooney said. “The polling’s very clear.”
Fellow Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, who drafted a resolution last year echoing Democratic talking points that climate change is a threat to national security, agreed.
“I am encouraged that my Republican colleagues are abandoning climate denial,” he said.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who is close with Trump, confirmed that he had spoken to the administration about the series of proposals he and his members will be rolling out in the weeks and months ahead.
His approach mirrors fresh talking points from the White House, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Trump campaign, all of which told McClatchy that the president has adopted the small-government policy recognizing the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“The Trump administration’s policies are proof you can have a strong, growing economy while preserving a healthy environment for generations to come,” said Sarah Matthews, deputy press secretary for the Trump campaign, who noted a decline in U.S. emissions from 2016 to 2018.
Yet Republicans involved in crafting the new environmental platform on Capitol Hill denied they were acting now out of a sense of acute anxiety about their political fortunes in November.
“Someone asked me this yesterday, ‘why now?’ It’s not ‘why now,’ we have been doing it,” said McCarthy in an interview with McClatchy, mentioning the recent enactment of a newly enhanced tax incentive for carbon capture, utilization and storage – an initiative pushed by Republicans.
Asked specifically whether Republicans needed to be more aggressive in pitching their environmental policies to voters, McCarthy said simply, “Republican can do a better job on all the issues and that’s why we continue improvement.”
Still, some GOP lawmakers working with McCarthy on the climate bills conceded it was important for the party to go on the offensive.
Wenstrup objected to the GOP being called “climate change deniers” – as he said he has been – just because they have a different proposal for addressing climate change than Democrats. “You do have to make the case,” he said.
Another House Republican working with McCarthy, Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana, said the party needed to combat the perception that “the United States is some demon” for withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement under Trump’s orders.
McCarthy and fellow House Republicans know they have to tread carefully.
While polling shows a clear desire among the voting public for elected officials to address climate change, there is little consensus among Republicans about the best way to do that – and they are contending with a vocal conservative base wary of any policy recommendation that would result in regulatory burdens.
“Club for Growth PAC will not endorse any candidate that supports the liberal environmental policies being pushed by Leader McCarthy,” David McIntosh, the president of the conservative Club for Growth’s political action arm, said in a blast email statement.
“Besides hurting our economy, these measures will not make a single environmentalist vote for a Republican and only alienate conservatives across the country.”
House Republicans are also unlikely to be able to do much in the current Congress to see their bills become law, as Democrats seek more government regulations on climate change than most Republicans are willing to accept.
Democrats quickly criticized the new Republican legislative effort, with House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., saying GOP lawmakers shouldn’t get credit for “a feel-good participatory gesture” that would not ultimately combat climate change.
Grijalva told McClatchy he had spoken to his staff about the Republican bill and said the trillion trees concept was “not a bad idea.”
He suggested the proposal could be one element of a larger legislative effort to zero out greenhouse gas emissions from public lands and waters by 2040 – a plan that few, if any, Republicans would likely support.