4 takeaways from lawmakers at COP28

By Emma Dumain, Sara Schonhardt, Zack Colman | 12/11/2023 06:32 AM EST

There was agreement on bolstering nuclear power and solving the permitting conundrum, but the trip showed how Republicans and Democrats remain far apart on big climate issues.

Reps. John Curtis and Scott Peters.

Reps. John Curtis (R-Utah) and Scott Peters (D-Calif.) during an event at the COP28 climate summit Saturday in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Joshua Bickel/AP

Members of Congress sought to put on a show of bipartisan unity during appearances at COP28 climate talks in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, over the weekend, as some Republicans even touted the benefits of the climate-infused Inflation Reduction Act.

But behind those flashes of camaraderie from U.S. lawmakers on matters like nuclear energy and carbon tariffs, there remain big differences on fossil fuels that won’t be ironed out in the near future.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) proclaimed that the talks should end with a declaration to “end this addiction” to fossil fuels. Republicans argued that with demand for fossil fuels expected to continue for decades, the U.S. should lead the way on efficiency.


Both parties met with climate envoy John Kerry. They also held bilateral discussions with countries such as Bahrain, South Korea and Australia — the latter of which focused on critical mineral supply chains.

They also sat together for panel discussions on nuclear energy, permitting reform and trade, in an attempt to showcase how U.S. policy is putting the U.S. at the forefront of efforts to tackle climate change.

Here are some of the takeaways from the 48-hour visit from lawmakers.

Partisan rifts

Many House Republicans — who said repeatedly they were only going to COP28 to tout U.S. leadership on domestic emissions reductions, not explore how their country can join the international fight against climate change more broadly — used face time with Kerry to, among other things, blast proposed EPA regulations to crack down on tailpipe emissions and incentivize a switch to electric vehicles. In interviews with reporters, other GOP members derided the Biden administration’s “rush to green” agenda.

“We’ve seen the Biden administration go all-in on the Green New Deal and, in my opinion, make an overemphasis in wind and solar at the expense of making investments in nuclear,” said Rep. Brandon Williams (R-N.Y.) in an interview.

Some House Democrats, meanwhile, pointed to Republican reticence in supporting climate action, saying the international community is questioning U.S. commitment.

“One of the things that we heard … from John Kerry was that he’s getting asked all the time, is the U.S. still committed? Basically, because the House of Republicans are in charge, can we trust the United States? And this is why I think it’s so important that we’re here,” Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.) told a small group of reporters.

Progressive lawmakers also made clear they wouldn’t be satisfied with anything short of a commitment at the conclusion of COP28 to phase out fossil fuels — an outcome conservatives would never tolerate.

“So we need to phase out fossil fuels from this planet,” said Markey at a press conference at the conclusion of the Senate’s trip.

He began his visit to Dubai by saying the summit was in danger of becoming the “Cartel of Oil Pushers” thanks to the outsize presence of oil and gas lobbyists.

“This COP should conclude with a final statement that says that the world wants to end this addiction … [to] fossil fuels,” Markey said.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) essentially challenged the European Union to move forward with its carbon tariff framework, in hopes the U.S. would be compelled to implement one of its own in response — a risky position given how difficult it will be to harness the political will around imposing a levy on carbon-intensive goods.

“Stand by your guns,” Whitehouse said was his message to the EU. “And let us step up in the same way that we stepped up with the [Inflation Reduction Act and] made an enormous difference in subsidizing the transition. This is their version of that, and we need to be standing up ourselves.”

Kerry cites permitting ’emergency’

The two official bipartisan congressional delegations — one led by Senate Democrats, the other by House Republicans — met with Kerry.

Lawmakers in each group said they pressed him about his commitment to supporting Congress in its long-standing quest to overhaul the energy permitting process to speed up new projects — for traditional energy sources and renewables — even though permitting isn’t in the climate envoy’s purview at the State Department and not at the top of his agenda at COP28.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) reported that Kerry told senators the current permitting system, which many argue moves far too slowly, constitutes an “emergency.”

Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah), the chair of the House Conservative Climate Caucus, said he told Kerry that “there’s one thing everybody agrees on in this room. And that’s true that we need permit reform. Permitting reform right now is stopping every climate and energy goal we have, and not just that it’s chips and it’s broadband and everything. So we talked a lot about that.”

Conversations with Kerry on permitting followed a panel with House members on the subject, where Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) noted President Joe Biden’s climate envoy reiterated a desire to see changes to how environmental litigation is pursued to remove more onerous barriers to the siting of energy permitting projects.

Graves, who helped secure a modest suite of changes to the National Environmental Policy Act relating to permitting as part of the debt ceiling agreement from earlier this year, said the moment called for a “bipartisan working group … that is meeting on a regular basis to talk about what is actually doable.”

Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.).
Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) speaks during an event at COP28 this weekend. | Joshua Bickel/AP

But House Energy and Commerce Vice Chair Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.), who led this chamber’s delegation after full committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) unexpectedly pulled out, later said he “wouldn’t bet” on a bipartisan permitting deal — one that accounted for oil and gas projects as well as expanded transmission deployment — before the 2024 elections.

Members also took the chance to push Kerry on their own home-state priorities. For instance, Rep. Tim Walberg, a Republican from Michigan — a central automobile manufacturing hub — made his case against the EPA tailpipe rule, arguing that it constituted in essence a “mandate” to buy EVs.

Murkowski used the opportunity to remind Kerry he needed to take voices of the Alaska Indigenous communities into account at the negotiating table.

“We’ve got the loss and damage fund, but that is directed to southern global countries,” she explained. “And you have people in the north, you have Indigenous peoples in the north — whether it’s in Alaska or in other areas — that are threatened by climate change.”

Murkowski said she “raised it with Secretary Kerry. He acknowledged that the Indigenous voices are not heard like they need to be. We need to work on that. We need to address that.”

Broad agreement on nuclear

Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.).
Senior House Energy and Commerce Republican Jeff Duncan of South Carolina during the COP28 climate summit this weekend. | Joshua Bickel/AP

Members of Congress also participated Saturday in a series of panel discussions hosted by the Conservative Climate Foundation and the Atlantic Council, designed by nature of the subject matter to highlight areas of bipartisan agreement.

One session focused on the role of nuclear energy in driving down emissions, giving the top lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy, Climate and Grid Security — Chair Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) and ranking member Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) — a platform to tout their bipartisan legislation that passed out of the full E&C Committee the day before members departed for COP, 47-2.

Their “Atomic Energy Advancement Act,” H.R. 6544, would combine several bills to ensure that the next generation of reactors are licensed on a timely and cost-effective basis. The members said they believed they were on the cusp of a House floor vote “in the coming weeks.”

Duncan said he recalled DeGette marveling, at a recent E&C meeting, “‘when I came to Congress, no Democrat would talk about nuclear … and now here I am embracing it, and that is really how far we’ve come.’”

He said that the talks had become the “nuclear COP,” owing to the agreements that have been made at the conference so far to foster the technology in the context of climate action, including a declaration by 21 counties and the U.S. to triple nuclear energy capacity by 2050.

DeGette remarked that she, in turn, once “sat through a lot of those hearings where my colleagues on the other side of the aisle said climate change is not real. … Now we have the chair of the Energy Committee talking about our climate goals.”

Senate leaders were hoping to include the “Accelerating Deployment of Versatile, Advanced Nuclear for Clean Energy (ADVANCE) Act,” S. 1111, in the fiscal 2024 defense authorization, but the House wanted more time to process its own package.

Another panel gave members of both chambers a chance to talk up the growing bipartisan interest in finding ways to tie trade policy to climate policy.

Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Chris Coons at COP28.
Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) during an event at COP28 on Saturday. | Joshua Bickel/AP

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Murkowski joined Curtis and Democratic Reps. Scott Peters of California and Kathy Castor of Florida for a panel moderated by Greg Bertelsen, the CEO of the Climate Leadership Council.

It focused largely on legislation Coons has championed in the Senate, which is soon to be reintroduced, with some changes, by Curtis and Peters in the House: the “Providing Reliable, Objective, Verifiable Emissions Intensity and Transparency (PROVE IT) Act,” which would require a federal government study on the carbon intensity of industrial goods produced domestically compared to those produced by certain foreign countries.

The “PROVE IT Act” continues to be viewed as the low-hanging fruit in this arena that could pave the way for a carbon border adjustment mechanism, or CBAM, which the EU is beginning to implement. The United Kingdom is poised to follow with its own CBAM in 2026.

“If you take one encouraging thing from this panel, it’s that serious, engaged senators and members of the House [are working] on a bipartisan basis,” said Coons.

He added that “to the extent folks are watching the choppy surface, give them some optimism that beneath the daily waves … there is a tremendous amount of meaningful work going on that will continue going forward.”

GOP trumpets fossil fuels; Dems tout IRA

Yet for all the attempts made by lawmakers to showcase bipartisan camaraderie, members throughout the weekend in Dubai remained largely focused on hammering their own political and ideological narratives.

House Republicans were emphatic about the need to reduce emissions while also supporting traditional energy sources, like oil and gas, and to empower the United States to continue to burn fossil fuels as long as it’s done more cleanly than anywhere else.

“Democracy, capitalism, [and] cheap and affordable energy have lifted more people in the world out of poverty than pretty much anything else combined,” said Armstrong on Sunday. “The United States has a great story to tell.’

Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.) asserted the U.S. cannot be “the only one” working on decarbonization, complaining the nation has not gotten “the credit we deserve” for decreasing its emissions.

“What we should do is we should follow math and science,” Graves weighed in, arguing that the Biden administration itself has said that demand for fossil fuels will continue for decades.

“So if you know that, and if your own administration is saying it, what you should do is you should ensure that those resources are coming from the most efficient place, the place that has the lowest carbon intensity in the world,” he continued. “You know where that is? It’s actually in the United States.”

Democrats, meanwhile, were making good on their own promise to make sure they spent time at COP singing the praises of the Inflation Reduction Act, the party’s signature 2022 legislative achievement and the biggest U.S. climate investment in history — and which every Republican opposed.

They also didn’t fail to point out how Republicans were observed in Dubai talking about the benefits of the Inflation Reduction Act, too.

“It’s also been really interesting to hear our Republican colleagues talk about the major investments in their own districts — the battery plants, the cars, the new electric vehicles, the renewable energy,” said Castor.

“And a lot of that they’re not saying back home publicly. I haven’t heard them say anything like that in our Energy and Commerce Committee meetings. So it’s gratifying to hear them talk in these bilateral discussions with other countries and other leaders about progress.”

Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.), the chair of the moderate New Democrat Coalition, added, “Buddy Carter was very excited in the meeting with South Korea to talk about the new Hyundai plant, in his district, the biggest electric vehicle plant ever in the entire country … that’s because of the Inflation Reduction Act.”

The one Republican at COP willing to acknowledge the gains of the Inflation Reduction Act without reservation was Murkowski, who said during her remarks at a press conference closing out the Senate delegation’s visit that she was “not afraid to sit up here and tell you that we’re seeing” investments flow from the Inflation Reduction Act that are helping drive a new clean energy economy.

“It’s real, and it’s meaningful,” she said, “so let’s talk about that in a positive vein going forward.”

This story also appears in Climatewire.