Many Republicans Privately Support Action On Climate

Photographer: Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg

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Photographer: Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg

Bloomberg BNA -- In stark contrast to their party's public stance on Capitol Hill, many Republicans privately acknowledge the scientific consensus that human activity is at least partially responsible for climate change and recognize the need to address the problem.

However, they see little political benefit to speaking out on the issue, since congressional action is probably years away, according to former congressmen, former congressional aides and other sources.

In Bloomberg BNA interviews with several dozen former senior congressional aides, nongovernmental organizations, lobbyists and others conducted over a period of several months, the sources cited fears of attracting an electoral primary challenger as one of the main reasons many Republicans choose not to speak out.

Most say the reluctance to publicly support efforts to address climate change has grown discernibly since the 2010 congressional elections, when Tea Party-backed candidates helped the Republican Party win control of the House, in part by targeting vulnerable Democrats for their support of legislation establishing a national emissions cap-and-trade system.

Needs to Be Part of Mix

“Climate change needs to be in the mix of all of our other discussions,” former Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio), who represented his Ohio district from 1995 through 2013 in the House and is now president of McDonald Hopkins Government Strategies, told Bloomberg BNA. “I do think privately—and some not so privately—Republicans are coming to the point where this has been an issue that's been pretty much settled with regard to the science. A lot of it has to do with people calming down and saying let's have a conversation.”

Sources cited a variety of reasons for the gap between public statements and private opinions among Republicans: the devastating impacts of the economic crisis, the low priority Americans place on addressing climate change and what Republicans say is overheated rhetoric from Democrats. Also playing a role in the reluctance to speak out is skepticism among Republican voters about federal government intervention and the increasing role of special interest money in elections.

Most said they did not think Republicans will feel free to speak about climate change until the Tea Party loses some of its power to influence elections, a severe weather event forces serious discussion of the issue or the rhetoric on climate is dialed back among both Democrats and Republicans.

No Action Until 2017

Meaningful discussions in Congress appear unlikely until at least 2017, when a new president takes office. Republicans generally have lost faith in President Barack Obama's willingness to work together toward common solutions to climate change, multiple sources said.

“I do believe there is some resistance to come out publicly and say what's happening here,” Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), who served in Congress from 1993 through 2011 and is now a partner at the law firm DLA Piper, told Bloomberg BNA. “One thing that would be helpful would be having a president who could articulate the issue well and who the Republicans have some confidence in.”

Republicans have been highly critical of executive actions taken by Obama to address climate change, namely the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed carbon dioxide standards for power plants. Several who previously have spoken about climate change—Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska)—faulted Obama for circumventing Congress and have accused the president of ignoring the will of the American people.

Climate Threat Downplayed Publicly

At least publicly, congressional Republican leaders have downplayed the threat of climate change or openly challenged the scientific consensus—shared by 97 percent of scientists, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—that one of the principal factors contributing to climate change is human activity.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a frequent critic of Obama's efforts to address climate change through regulation of emissions from coal-fired power plants, told the Cincinnati Enquirer in March he did not believe in human-caused climate change.

“For everybody who thinks [the planet] is warming, I can find somebody who thinks it isn't,” McConnell told the newspaper.

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) has taken a more nuanced approach to the issue and told reporters he lacks the expertise to evaluate the science of climate change.

“Listen, I'm not qualified to debate the science over climate change,” Boehner told reporters in May. “I am astute enough to understand that every proposal that has come out of this administration to deal with climate change involves hurting our economy and killing American jobs. That can't be the prescription for dealing with changes to our climate.”

In contrast to those statements from party leadership, 52 percent of Republicans nationwide actually believe climate change is real, according to Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. He called Republicans a “diverse set,” but he said the rise of the Tea Party “changed the political climate of climate change” and caused many moderate Republicans to go silent on the issue to avoid primary challengers.

Primary Threats Are Real

Many Republicans have elected not to engage in the debate on climate change to avoid attracting a primary challenge and potentially losing their seat. One frequently cited example to justify the concern is that of former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), who lost a primary challenge in 2010 after saying climate change is real and calling for a carbon tax.

Inglis, now executive director of the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, is one of a small group of Republicans who are pushing their party to actively engage on the issue, and he continues to advocate for a carbon tax.

“There are conservative members of Congress who realize that we need a free enterprise solution on energy and climate, and once the pain of the Great Recession is over, they will feel comfortable leading toward those free enterprise solutions,” Inglis told Bloomberg BNA. “What we are trying to do is go out and build support in their constituencies for that sort of proposition.”

Inglis argued that a carbon tax fits well with conservative principles and says a core component of his plan would be removing all energy subsidies—whether they are the production tax credit for wind energy production or subsidies for the oil and gas industry.

Eli Lehrer, president of the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank, also believes there are many Republicans in Congress who recognize the party should lead on climate change solutions but are reluctant to say so because the current debate has become “toxic.”

“I think both sides have to be willing to give something up in the end, and that's what we're missing,” Lehrer said. “You probably need some give and take in the political process. Both sides need to recognize their rank and file opponent is not someone with a sinister purpose.”

Tea Party, Green Groups Faulted

Former House and Senate aides faulted both the Tea Party and environmental groups for making it nearly impossible for thoughtful Republicans to speak out on climate change.

Several former senior committee aides, who did not want to be identified so that they could speak freely, said the environmental movement has become partisan since the 1980s, and Republicans receive little support from groups if they take pro-environment positions.

“Republicans don't gain votes or positive recognition from environmentalists but [they] do alienate their base when they vote green,” one former Republican Senate aide said. “So, it's not surprising that most Republicans don't spend a lot of time talking about climate change.”

David Goldston, speaking on behalf of the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, said there is “real concern” within the environmental community about the appearance of only supporting one party, but he said the rise of Tea Party groups opposed to basic environmental principles makes it harder to support Republican candidates.

“We don't want to become a one-party movement,” Goldston said. “Environmentalists would jump at the chance to back a Republican who was solid on at least some basic environmental issues. They're searching for that.”

Both the NRDC Action Fund and League of Conservation Voters Action Fund have supported Sen. Susan Collins's (R-Maine) reelection campaign. Collins has expressed concern about climate change and voted to preserve the ability of the EPA to protect human health and the environment through regulations.

Afraid to Speak the Truth?

While environmental groups continue to search for Republican candidates to back, Goldston said the Tea Party movement has swept many more deniers of climate change into Congress than ever before, and it has pushed Republicans away from basic environmental principles. He disagreed with others who said many Republicans privately acknowledge the risks of climate change, even if they don't say so publicly.

“It's very comforting for people to think that these people are pretending,” Goldston said. “It's not true. The problem would be in many ways easier to solve if it was true.”

Chris Miller, who served as a senior energy policy adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), agreed with Goldston's assessment that the Tea Party has made it “impossible” for Republicans to speak on the issue.

“I have had no or very few private and honest interactions with Republicans on the topic,” Miller told Bloomberg BNA. “They're all too scared of speaking the truth.”

Need to Raise Profile

Several others attributed Republican silence to the lack of focus on the issue by Americans.

Former Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), who chaired the House Science, Space and Technology Committee from 2001 until 2007, said awareness about climate change continues to rise among Americans but will take more time before politicians feel pressure to act.

“Poll after poll shows an increasing awareness of the reality of climate change and the peril of inaction,” Boehlert said. “The trend is consistent in the direction of positive awareness. That's what it's going to take. This is not something that's going to happen overnight.”

Many Republicans who previously spoke about the need for action to address climate change have not lost interest in the issue, according to Boehlert, but they have made other issues a higher priority. He said he could not fault those members of Congress—he cited McCain as an example—for not tackling those other priorities given current congressional gridlock.

Signs of Belief

The stalled debate on climate change policy in Congress is a relatively recent development. In 2008, while running for president against Obama, McCain featured a market-based, emissions cap-and-trade system as one of the key proposals in his campaign.

“Global warming presents a test of foresight, of political courage, and of the unselfish concern that one generation owes to the next,” McCain said in a May 12, 2008, speech in Portland while unveiling his plan for addressing climate change. “We need to think straight about the dangers ahead and to meet the problem with all the resources of human ingenuity at our disposal.”

Following McCain's loss in the 2008 election, the House passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, also known as the Waxman-Markey bill. Just eight Republicans, including now-Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), voted for the measure.

Over in the Senate, Graham worked with then-Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) on compromise legislation that ultimately never came to a vote on the Senate floor. But Graham stressed through public statements that he believes something should be done to address climate change.

“Carbon pollution is altering the earth's climate,” the three senators said in a December 2009 framework. “The impacts have already been seen and felt throughout our country and around the world.”

Will Talk if Pressed

Many of those Republicans who previously have acknowledged the risks of climate change will continue to do so if pressed, but they have declined to make the issue a focus of their legislative efforts.

Murkowski, ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told Bloomberg BNA in March that she did not think it was worth “quibbling” over what percentage of climate change stemmed from human activities. but she called for a balanced approach to address the problem.

During a January 2009 hearing, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said, “I wish we would just talk about a carbon tax.” However, he declined to tell Bloomberg BNA in March whether comprehensive climate change legislation would be a good idea. Corker instead said he was “focused right now on other ‘today' issues”.

McCain and Graham have both expressed openness to possible action on climate change when asked by reporters, but McCain has maintained no progress on the issue is likely within the next several years in Congress.

One of the few Republicans who does not shy away from discussing climate change openly is Collins. She has told Bloomberg BNA several times this year she remains concerned by climate change, and she joined Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) in late June on draft legislation to cut emissions of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), methane and other “short-lived” climate pollutants.

Calls From Other Republicans

Over the last several months, a flurry of former Republican officials have called for quick action to address the effects of climate change.

Four former administrators of the EPA, all of whom served Republican presidents, told a Senate subcommittee in late June that Republican senators should abandon efforts to block regulations on greenhouse gases and should support action on climate change.

Separately, high-level Republicans such as former Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine); Henry Paulson, treasury secretary during the administration of President George W. Bush; and George Shultz, secretary of state during the administration of President Ronald Reagan, warned that climate change could cause hundreds of billions of dollars in economic losses by the end of this century without significant action.

State and local Republican leaders also have embraced action to address the on-the-ground effects of climate change, such as wildfires, prolonged droughts and coastal flooding, albeit without framing the debate in terms of climate change.

“What we've clearly found is, you can build consensus around solutions when people are given the opportunity to get specific,” Thomas Peterson, president of the Center for Climate Strategies, said. “You see really significant and different fractures at the national level than you see at the local level. As long as what we're doing is this very open, practical, businesslike approach, [Republicans] are fine with that.”

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