Moderate House Republicans call for action ahead of papal visit

By Jean Chemnick, Evan Lehmann | 09/17/2015 07:09 AM EDT

At least 10 House Republicans will sign on to a resolution today committing to work “constructively” to address climate change, “including mitigation efforts and efforts to balance human activities that have been found to have an impact” on warming.

At least 10 House Republicans will sign on to a resolution today committing to work "constructively" to address climate change, "including mitigation efforts and efforts to balance human activities that have been found to have an impact" on warming.

Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.) will introduce the resolution today, which will put some of his moderate Republican colleagues on the record for the first time in support of climate action. The resolution text assigns human emissions some responsibility for driving harmful warming, and it states that "if left unaddressed, the consequences of a changing climate have the potential to adversely impact all Americans, hitting vulnerable populations hardest." It goes on to call for "broadly supported private and public solutions."

Gibson’s list of original co-sponsors includes Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo of Florida; Robert Dold of Illinois; Dave Reichert of Washington; Pat Meehan, Ryan Costello and Mike Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania; Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey; and Richard Hanna and Elise Stefanik of New York, as National Journal first reported and E&E Daily confirmed. A handful of other moderate Republicans are expected to sign on later today and will be counted as original co-sponsors, according to those familiar with the resolution.


Reichert and LoBiondo are the only co-sponsors who also voted for cap-and-trade legislation that cleared the House six years ago. Republican Rep. Leonard Lance of New Jersey supported the measure by former Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) but has yet to sign on as a co-sponsor of Gibson’s resolution.

Dold, an Eagle Scout, said it’s time for lawmakers to go beyond the partisanship around climate action to enhance public health.

"Climate change is occurring and human contributions to this change are important to acknowledge and understand," he said in a statement. "Protecting the environment is not a partisan issue, which is why we must work together to find a sensible path forward that improves our planet for future generations."

The resolution goes further than a set of amendments the Senate voted on in January that affirmed that human emissions were driving climate change by calling for action to address the problem (E&E Daily, Jan. 28).

The Gibson text doesn’t emphasize people’s influence on the climate, but it embraces the impacts that scientists say are already occurring or are likely to in the future. The document doesn’t mention humans except in the last sentence, when it asserts that Congress should "balance" the impacts of our species through mitigation and other undefined policies.

That statement was softened over the summer. An earlier draft of the resolution obtained by E&E Daily stated that Congress should seek to "proactively reverse or balance human activities that have been found to be contributing factors."

The final resolution says that Congress should support "economically viable, and broadly supported private and public solutions to study and address the causes and effects of measured changes to our global and regional climates, including mitigation efforts and efforts to balance human activities that have been found to have an impact."

The resolution begins by saying "it is a conservative principle to protect, conserve, and be good stewards of our environment," perhaps marking the discomfort that some Republicans feel about their party’s positions on environmental policies.

It also embraces mainstream climate science by citing the "noticeable, negative impacts" that warming could have "in every region of the United States." It points to "longer and hotter heat waves, more severe storms, worsening flood and drought cycles, growing invasive species and insect problems, threatened native plant and wildlife populations, rising sea levels, and, when combined with a lack of proper forest management, increased wildfire risk."

Pope’s visit a catalyst?

Gibson’s resolution comes one week before Pope Francis will address a joint session of Congress on issues including his highly publicized papal encyclical titled Laudato si’. The papal letter, released in June, made a moral case for urgent action on climate change and the environment (Greenwire, June 18).

It was lauded by environmentalists and Democrats who hoped the pontiff would help bridge the gap between people of faith — often Republicans — who dispute man-made climate change and a secular climate movement frustrated by partisan gridlock. Thirty-four faith groups from traditions as diverse as Catholicism, Judaism and the Quakers released a letter yesterday asking members of Congress to consider co-signing Gibson’s resolution "as a statement of our shared moral authority."

"We see this resolution as a much-needed step toward creating, within Congress, bipartisan resolve for action," they wrote.

Jose Aguto of the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), which signed the letter, said Gibson’s text was "in line with Pope Francis’ call for dialogue by all peoples to address the care of our common home."

But while the pope’s effectiveness in prompting congressional action has yet to be seen, Gibson’s resolution is the product of a grass-roots coalition of faith and environmental groups that has been working quietly behind the scenes for two years under the umbrella name Call to Conscience on Climate Disruption (CCCD). The coalition, which included the FCNL, Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN), Environmental Defense Action Fund, and Citizens’ Climate Lobby, among others, has been meeting discreetly with moderate House and Senate members of both parties in the hopes of defusing the partisan vitriol that clings to the climate issue and eventually forging policy.

After meeting with a CCCD delegation last September, Gibson agreed to spearhead the effort. Since then, both the congressman and coalition members have been searching for other moderate Republicans to join him — a roster that has only come together in the past few months.

Some of Gibson’s 10-plus original co-sponsors were compelled by religious considerations, Aguto said, while others were more concerned about economic or national security impacts.

Gibson and Fitzpatrick are retiring at the end of this Congress — though both could seek other offices in the future. Several moderate Republicans, particularly Dold, are top Democratic targets this election cycle.

"We’re hoping that this opens the door for bipartisan dialogue on solutions, moving the marker from whether we should talk about climate change to how we should talk about climate change," Aguto said.

Most legislators privately accept the science and the impacts of climate change, Aguto contends, and the group aims to meet them where they are politically rather than emphasize partisan divisions. The next goal is to help lay the groundwork for bipartisan legislation to curb emissions to move as soon as next Congress, he said.

Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), a member of the House’s Democratic Safe Climate Caucus, mixed praise for Gibson and his co-sponsors with criticism for the GOP as a whole.

"I hope that the bold leadership of these 10 Republicans and of Pope Francis in his call for environmental action can finally give the political cover for forward movement by other members of the Republican caucus who I know agree with this resolution, but are hesitant to make waves within their party or upset their fossil fuel industry campaign donors," he said in a statement.

Meanwhile, a poll released yesterday shows that the pope’s words are resonating with churchgoing Catholics who may not be as receptive to other messages about climate change.

The poll by the Catholic University of America and Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies showed that Catholics who frequently attend Mass were more likely to support U.S. government actions to combat climate change after reading about the pope’s encyclical (59 percent) than after receiving the message from an alternative source (50 percent).

While young Catholics are among the biggest boosters of the pope’s climate message, they were the least likely to be more persuaded by his message than they were by alternative messengers. They agreed with alternative sources who argued the need to protect the environment (81 percent) slightly more than they agreed with the pope (80 percent).

The survey of 1,000 American Catholics was taken July 22-31 by the polling firm YouGov. It did not list a margin of error.