GOP leaders shift subtly on warming as Democrats talk boldly

By Jean Chemnick, Geof Koss | 07/30/2015 07:34 AM EDT

It’s not the seismic shift environmentalists hope to see one day, but there is evidence that a few Republicans both on and off the campaign trail are searching for a new language on climate change. GOP presidential contenders who hope to capture their party’s moderate votes in the primaries — notably former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham — have made statements acknowledging the man-made climate change that voters, according to polls, believe is occurring.

It’s not the seismic shift environmentalists hope to see one day, but there is evidence that a few Republicans both on and off the campaign trail are searching for a new language on climate change. GOP presidential contenders who hope to capture their party’s moderate votes in the primaries — notably former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham — have made statements acknowledging the man-made climate change that voters, according to polls, believe is occurring.

In Bush’s case, his "concern" was tempered by an even stronger concern for coal industry jobs, as he told a New Hampshire forum in April (ClimateWire, April 20). Graham has a longer history on climate change but shied away from talking about it for years after the carbon legislation he contributed to collapsed in 2010. Now he’s back promising to "address climate change, CO2 emissions in a business-friendly way."

And not all of the messaging revisions are emanating from the campaign trail in Iowa and New Hampshire.


Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), a former chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, opened an op-ed recently in the conservative National Review with, "Let’s stipulate two truths: yes, our climate is changing over time and, yes, humans have played some part in that change."

The column goes on to argue against "unilateral" regulatory action by the United States to address climate change, which he said was unlikely to be catastrophic in any case.

But if these GOP leaders are trying to edge their party incrementally closer to the position polls say a slim majority of voters now hold on warming — that it is occurring and man-made — liberal proponents of climate action show little inclination to give them any credit.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who has made climate a central focus of his congressional tenure, said they were motivated by pure political interest.

"I think they’re seeing the huge liability with voters that this issue is for the Republicans right now," Whitehouse told E&E Daily this week. "And they’re trying to come up with something, because right now they’ve got nothing."

Whitehouse said Republicans are starting to come to grips with polling that shows deep concern among key constituencies over climate.

"I think it’s a positive step that they’re recognizing what all the polling shows, they’ve totally lost independent voters on this issue, they’ve totally lost their own under-35-year-old Republican voters on this issue," he said. "They’re making themselves ridiculous in the eyes of many people."

Daniel Weiss, senior vice president for campaigns at the League of Conservation Voters, called Cornyn’s message "a smokescreen to obscure the fact that they refuse to act on climate." Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, who serves as top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said GOP presidential contenders had little latitude to change their climate positions without being accused of flip-flopping.

"In this world of getting everything on audio tape and videotape and cellphones, it’s just very hard for them to wiggle out of it," she said.

And Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, seems to see an opening to capitalize on the "Republicans as deniers" theme — whether or not some of her opponents are showing an eagerness to distance themselves from it. The former secretary of State introduced her 2016 energy and climate platform this weekend with a video message blasting Republicans contenders as "people who would rather remind us they’re not scientists than listen to those who are" (E&E Daily, July 27).

That’s a jab at the "I’m not a scientist" climate message that was the Republican Party line throughout the 2014 midterm cycle, but that has fallen out of fashion since.

It’s hard to say what has replaced it. Since the election, Republican climate messages seem to be more varied and confused. Fifteen Senate Republicans backed an amendment to legislation on the Keystone XL oil pipeline in January affirming that human emissions are at least partly responsible for global warming (E&E Daily, Jan. 28).

Five of those, including Graham, signed on to another amendment characterizing the man-made contribution as "significant." Cornyn did not back either amendment.

But while Republicans like Cornyn and Bush seem to be sending up messaging trial balloons, searching for middle ground between outright denial and the need for quick action, others are holding fast to what has been the Republican orthodoxy. They insist science casts genuine doubt on the causes of warming, even though the overwhelming consensus among scientists is that there is uncertainty about how fast and destructive it will be, not whether it is happening or driven by anthropogenic greenhouse gases.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a Republican presidential contender who draws most of his support from the party’s right wing, said he was not overly concerned that recent polls seem to show slightly more voter belief in climate change.

"In my view, public policy should follow the science and the data," he told E&E Daily. "That doesn’t mean the public opinion polling data."

Global warming "alarmists" and the media have shopped the idea that global surface temperatures are dramatically increasing, Cruz said, while satellites show that in fact warming has stopped. He referenced the "pause" theory, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rebutted with a report this spring (ClimateWire, June 5).

Cruz said he felt there was no political risk to Republicans in continuing to dispute man-made warming, despite some polls that indicate that voters disagree with that stance. Some polls show that younger voters are more concerned about warming than their elders, though that is not a consistent result.

"I am quite happy to stand on the debate stage next to Hillary Clinton and have her explain to young people that she wants to drive up their electric bills, she wants to drive up their gas bills, she wants to drive up their cost of living, she wants to continue the taxes and regulations that have produced unprecedented stagnation for 6½ years that are hurting young people," he said.

Cruz said he only finished paying off his own student debt six years ago and could relate to younger voters’ strongest concerns, which aren’t over climate change.

But citing polling, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said Republicans ignore younger voters’ climate views at their own peril.

"Young people all over this country, on college campuses, in communities all over America, understand that this a very serious problem," Sanders told E&E Daily yesterday.

But he doesn’t see Republicans paying more than lip service to climate going forward.

"Look, I think also we should not be naive in not understanding that this also has a lot to do with campaign finance, that I suspect that people like the Koch brothers and other big energy people would pull the plug on those Republicans who have the courage to acknowledge climate change reality and want to do something about it."

Nor are Republicans like Bush and Cornyn eager to be seen to have changed their position. The Texas senator told E&EDaily last week that his op-ed was borne of frustration with the polarized politics of climate

"I just think we need to change the conversation," he said. "It just seems like two ships passing in the night between people who think this is the No. 1 most important issue and those who believe it has been overstated."

His conclusion is "not more and bigger government and more taxes and regulations necessarily, but let’s do more research."

GOP political strategist Mike McKenna said Cornyn was right — his op-ed did not show a shift in position.

"I would hesitate to read too much into it," McKenna said. "The senator from Texas is never going to be in favor of anything that makes energy more expensive or makes the government larger. Nor should he be."

‘A clear progression’

But former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), who has taken on the sometimes lonely task of trying to convince his party that free market policies are a better climate change message than refusal to acknowledge science, said he was heartened by Cornyn’s National Review column.

"This is a clear progression toward what will be the position of the champions of free enterprise, which will be, ‘Of course we can solve this, and of course we can solve this better through a price signal than through clumsy government regulations,’" he said.

Cornyn’s piece paints climate change as a problem worth solving — just not by the government.

"When the government tries to play savior, we find that overbearing, intrusive Washington ‘solutions’ do far more harm than good. Let’s instead promote innovation-driven answers that fit the diverse needs of consumers, businesses, and a growing economy alike," he wrote.

Inglis, who now heads, a group devoted to drumming up grass-roots support for a revenue-neutral carbon tax, said a policy trigger is needed, albeit a nonregulatory one.

But he said Cornyn’s acknowledgement that climate change is an issue on some level is still a first step.

"Change starts in the heart and then goes to the head," he said. A subsequent step would be support for incremental policies to address energy efficiency and renewable energy and then a more comprehensive carbon price trigger.

Some Senate Republicans already back energy policies partly on the grounds that they will mitigate climate change. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who with then-Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) authored the first cap-and-trade bill to curb carbon emissions in 2003, has been reluctant to talk about warming for years. But he still touts new nuclear energy investment as a means of addressing power sector emissions.

And Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — one of the handful of Republicans who, like Graham, still discuss climate change — said last week that while a bipartisan energy package that’s being marked up in her committee lacks a specific climate title, "it contains numerous provisions to boost efficiency, renewables and technologies that reduce carbon."

"Everything that we’ve done in this leads you to a place where you have reduced emissions and just greater efficiency that leads to a better planet," she said last week.

Yet, Murkowski joined all committee Republicans in opposing a nonbinding amendment offered to the bill yesterday by Sanders that declared climate change "has already caused devastating problems in the United States and around the world." Sanders’ amendment, which was also opposed by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), further calls it "imperative" that the United States wean itself from fossil fuels and toward cleaner sources "as rapidly as possible" (Greenwire, July 29).

Murkowski after the markup told E&E Daily that Sanders’ amendment was unnecessary, noting that the earlier Senate voted on a similar nonbinding amendment on the issue.

Meanwhile, as Republicans grapple with how — or whether — to talk about climate change on the campaign trail, Democratic contenders are jockeying to see who can promise the most.

Paul Bledsoe, a former climate adviser in the Clinton White House who also worked in the Senate, said Clinton’s offering over the weekend showed the front-runner competing with rivals like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has sponsored legislation to price carbon, and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), who has also made climate one of his campaign’s top issues.

"I think this was definitely a primary, as opposed to a general election document in the sense that climate change has become a critically important issue to the Democratic Party base, and especially to activists," he said. "And it’s clear that Clinton felt she couldn’t take that wing of the party for granted and had to make proposals that those considering the Sanders candidacy would find appealing."

Bledsoe added that by casting support for renewable energy as a household issue rather than an environmental one — Clinton’s video featured children playing and cast the candidate in her role as mother and grandmother — the Clinton campaign was also tilling the soil for the general election. Independents and some Republicans have shown support for distributed generation when it is sold as a consumer choice issue, he said.