Trump’s climate denial shapes House GOP backbench

By Adam Aton | 02/22/2023 06:41 AM EST

Climate politics are becoming a feature of Republican culture warriors, with some of the most aggressive attacks coming from the party’s newest members.

Rep. Anna Paulina Luna (R-Fla.).

Rep. Anna Paulina Luna (R-Fla.) is pictured leaving the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 2 after House Republicans voted to remove Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) from the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

At a recent House hearing, two first-term Republicans took the mics after their more senior GOP colleagues had finished talking about federal permitting.

The lawmakers’ districts are polar opposites. Their backgrounds seem wildly different. But their message was the same: Democrats use climate policies as a form of punishment.

“It’s clear that the Biden administration and radical left want to impoverish Americans,” Rep. Anna Paulina Luna (R-Fla.) said this month at a hearing of the Natural Resources Committee.


The next lawmaker to speak, Rep. Harriet Hageman (R-Wyo.), hammered a similar point: “I believe that there is a special place in hell for those people who push policies that are intended to increase the cost of housing, food and energy.”

Climate politics are becoming a main course for Republican culture warriors. But the attacks aren’t just coming from old, white men. In a party seeking to diversify its ranks, some of the most aggressive climate criticism has come from the GOP’s freshest faces.

The hostility by Republican backbenchers toward broad elements of climate action is challenging long-held assumptions among political observers that Republicans would turn toward the issue as climate impacts worsen, as opportunities for green jobs spread and as the electorate sheds older voters for younger ones.

Instead, some climate-minded Republicans say, their party’s climate positions remain in the thrall of former President Donald Trump. Some of the loudest opponents of the clean energy transition took office after the 2016 election. And those junior members won their first primaries by forcefully echoing Trump, while the moderates who had once pulled the 2008-era GOP toward addressing climate change are now mostly gone or sidelined.

“It’s like civil rights — two steps forward, one step back,” said Bob Inglis, a former Republican lawmaker from South Carolina who lost his seat in 2010 after pushing his party to address climate change.

With little serious legislating expected under divided government, the next two years will offer Republicans the chance to coalesce around a common energy and climate agenda, much as Democrats did between winning a House majority in 2018 and taking full government control in 2021.

Some top Republicans have sought to lower the temperature around climate — sensing political danger in alienating relatively climate-conscious groups such as suburban women and business leaders, or angling for potential bipartisan policies.

Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), the chair of the Natural Resources Committee, has used appeals to climate action to build bipartisan support for changing permitting laws — even arguing that it’s the only way to maximize the climate programs Democrats passed under the Inflation Reduction Act. And Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), chair of the Financial Services Committee, has tried to redirect GOP attacks on Wall Street’s nascent climate actions toward federal regulations. But amid pressure from conservatives, McHenry has increasingly accommodated them (E&E Daily, Feb. 6).

That balancing act is one sign that, after House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s marathon struggle to win his gavel, Republicans have a keen awareness of how much power individual lawmakers can wield — regardless of their seniority.

Second-term Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) has become one of the loudest critics of climate action. After winning reelection by about 550 votes — one of the closest margins in the midterms — Boebert has spent the early days of Congress advocating for more coal power.

“I’m not here to deny climate change. I don’t think anyone here is. It happens four times a year — we’re very, very much aware of that,” she said at a February hearing of the Natural Resources Committee.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) — an increasingly influential voice in the House after helping McCarthy shore up his right flank during his speakership fight — has claimed global warming is “healthy” for the planet.

Other junior Republicans are throwing up opposition to decarbonization because of its side effects, rather than outright rejection of climate change. (Some Republican climate advocates said that is a big change from a decade ago.)

Second-term Rep. August Pfluger (R-Texas), sponsor of a bill to nix the Inflation Reduction Act’s methane fee, argued this month that renewable energy projects harm the environment and undercut electricity reliability.

During an Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on his bill, Pfluger challenged a witness to “come to my district to see the wind and the solar, and the problems that they actually have for the environment.”

‘A rowdy conversation’

Attacking renewable energy doesn’t stop at coal country or the oil patch. The issue has become a way for some junior lawmakers to signal to the conservative base that they’re fighting Democrats as aggressively as possible — even if their own districts are endangered by climate impacts.

That dynamic was on display earlier this month at the Natural Resources Committee, when Luna and Hageman delivered a one-two punch of attacks on climate action.

Hageman is a fixture of Wyoming’s GOP who defeated fellow Republican Liz Cheney to represent the country’s biggest coal-producing state. Luna, whose only political experience prior to Congress was working for the conservative activist group Turning Point USA, replaced a Democratic lawmaker to represent the St. Petersburg area, a particularly vulnerable region of Florida to sea-level rise and extreme weather.

Luna’s district is 99 percent urban, while Hageman’s is one of the most rural. But both were making the same arguments.

“Since day one, President Biden has chosen to punish Americans,” Luna said. “Those who are advocating for climate justice … are empowering a country [China] that is going to destroy us all.”

Hageman argued that the Biden administration had “weaponized” the federal government to impose “forced energy poverty” on Americans.

“I know and firmly believe that coal is the energy of the future,” she said. “And as radical environmentalists [around the world] try to force their countries into an electrified transition, the world is not ready for it in terms of minerals mined and processed.”

Other junior Republicans have levied more restrained versions of those criticisms — such as increasing reliance on rare earth metals sourced abroad.

At an Armed Services Committee hearing this month, Rep. Carlos Giménez (R-Fla.) said the United States risked sacrificing “energy dominance” to China. And junior California Republicans such as Reps. Michelle Steel and Jay Obernolte this month have used hearings to argue the Golden State’s climate programs are too costly to businesses and workers.

Meaningful Republican climate policy can emerge from those criticisms, some say, arguing that serious policymaking often gets overshadowed by the party’s loudest extremists.

But for those seeking bipartisan climate policy, the line between good-faith critiques and partisan theater is getting blurry.

Jason Walsh, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of environmental groups and unions that work on fossil fuel projects, said he wants to work with Republicans on trade and rebuilding the domestic manufacturing sector. But the early messaging from the new House majority suggests very narrow room for a deal.

Energy and Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) “referred to the Inflation Reduction Act as ‘Solyndra on steroids,’” Walsh said, referring to the subsidized solar company whose 2011 bankruptcy became a GOP rallying cry against climate spending.

“That’s a one-liner,” Walsh continued. But when that rhetoric is coupled with her committee considering legislation to repeal climate programs in the Inflation Reduction Act, “that’s cause for concern.”

For about half of the 222 House Republican members, this is the first time they’re serving in a congressional majority. The scale and complexity of climate issues will demand serious policymaking, observers say. But that delicate process coincides with new opportunities for junior Republicans to trumpet their anti-green bona fides at hearings, in legislative negotiations and, soon, on the presidential campaign trail.

“There is very little likelihood that partisan climate and energy proposals will be enacted in the next two years, which frees people to throw ideas against the wall to see what sticks,” said Alex Flint, a former Republican Senate staffer who served on Trump’s transition team.

What’s most important during that time is how the GOP conversation evolves. The party still hasn’t identified policies that will stabilize atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, said Flint, now executive director of the Alliance for Market Solutions.

“But,” he said, “they are now willing to engage in a rowdy conversation about what the party’s climate agenda should be.”

Why? ‘Nothing to lose’

Republicans can be all over the place on climate because it’s a low-priority issue for their voters, said Frank Maisano, a senior principal at Bracewell LLP, a law and lobbying firm.

That means GOP lawmakers can engage seriously on it without risking too much — but it also means Republicans don’t worry about blowback from attacking renewables.

“A lot of newer members will throw the political water balloon at [climate], because they have nothing to lose,” Maisano said. “It’s red meat for the base.”

That said, he argued that Republicans are getting increasingly serious about this area of policymaking. Permitting reform — one of the only bipartisan climate proposals that could move this Congress — has been conspicuously absent from the GOP’s early messaging bills as lawmakers assess whether they can strike a deal.

An agreement on that issue could set the table for bigger policies, he said, especially as more renewable projects spring up in rural, Republican areas.

“The reality is, a longer-term movement has been underway for some time. It’s not as recognizable as people think, because the Republican voter doesn’t hold this issue in very high regard — whether you like that or not,” Maisano said.

“If you talk to a Republican about wind [energy] in his district, he is for it,” he continued, saying that was especially true for more senior lawmakers. “They’ve seen the benefits, they’ve seen the opportunity, they’ve seen the jobs, they’ve seen the revenue.”

Indeed, some new lawmakers are already moving that way. Rep. Jen Kiggans (R-Va.), who last year unseated a Democrat in a swing district, has talked in hearings about the importance of renewable energy to her district.

An optimist might look at those trends — worsening climate impacts, a growing renewables sector — and see a path for Republicans to embrace climate action, said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

But it might take more than that, he added. British conservatives came to embrace climate action only after losing elections for more than two straight decades.

“The whole point of the culture war stuff [on climate] is to pander to the radicals in the base, and that’s the competition now in the Republican Party,” Leiserowitz said.

But that’s a hard sell to the suburban women and Latino voters who care about climate and are becoming pivotal swing voters. “In the end, this is not a good calculation. The number of people you’re going to be able to inspire to go to the polls because of attacks on clean energy — I mean, good luck with that.”

Climate-minded Republicans are still figuring their way out of that corner. Some are even appealing to environmental groups to circumvent lawmakers and make the case directly to conservative voters.

“At the end of the day, lawmakers are responsive to the voters in their own states and districts,” former GOP Reps. Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania and Francis Rooney of Florida wrote last week in POLITICO.

The two former members of the House Climate Solutions Caucus urged environmentalists to direct money and time toward conservative-leaning voters, if not lawmakers. “Only with a greater mandate to lead, in Republican and Democratic districts alike, can we create the conditions necessary for bipartisan action on Capitol Hill,” they wrote.

Until then, center-right climate advocates are hoping that the next two years of congressional drama and presidential campaigning will leave them better positioned — and out from under Trump’s shadow.

“It’s a building year, coach,” said Inglis, who founded republicEN to advocate for conservative climate solutions. “When your team ain’t winning yet, you gotta look to the future.”