Back in 2016, the Sierra Club was in South Florida to get out the vote during Rep. Carlos Curbelo's race. Curbelo, perhaps now the most vocal congressional Republican on climate change, was facing a challenge from a seasoned ex-lawmaker — the same one he'd ousted from office two years prior.
But the Sierra Club wasn't in town to support the moderate Republican who blames human activity for climbing temperatures.
Curbelo had kicked out a Democrat, Joe Garcia, and the environmental group wanted to help Garcia get his seat back. Its members canvassed the South Florida district, an area vulnerable to sea-level rise and any number of climate calamities.
Despite this, Curbelo won (and with backing from another legacy green group, the Environmental Defense Action Fund). Since then, he's emerged as a leading GOP critic of President Trump's climate policies as a member of the House Climate Solutions Caucus.
And still, that might not be enough to keep him in office — or even out of environmentalists' crosshairs — in an election year that some prognosticators say could yield a Democratic wave.
Environmental groups are at odds about how to treat a growing number of Republicans who are speaking out on climate change. They're caught between wanting to encourage GOP movement on the issue and the sense that Democrats are reliable votes willing to go further, faster, on climate change.
"It's encouraging that there are a small but slowly growing number of Republicans that acknowledge climate change is real. That's a pretty low bar, but we're glad there's a growing number of Republicans clearing it. We will work with Republicans to develop legislation," said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune. "When they prove themselves to be reliable and courageous champions for the environment, then those candidates like Curbelo and others would have their shot at earning the Sierra Club's support."
In a heightened midterm election year, one of the biggest climate stories is how a subset of Republicans in competitive races will try to distance themselves from Trump. The president's contrarian and misinformed views on climate change present a chance for many Republicans to seize on an issue that highlights their differences with a historically unpopular president.
How those Republicans act — and whether action meets oratory — on climate will be scrutinized by environmental groups and a new set of eco-right organizations and donors. At the same time, those green organizations will similarly be watched for how they handle elections in swing districts that, with a little push, Democratic candidates who traditionally prove more reliable votes on climate change might win.
"There are many environmental and climate groups like the Citizens Climate Lobby and Friends Committee on National Legislation that want to see genuine progress on climate issues," Curbelo spokeswoman Joanna Rodriguez said in an email. "They are part of the solution. It's unfortunate that some environmental groups are actually unregistered agents of the Democratic Party and put partisan interests over advancing sound environmental policy. They are part of the problem."
At the center of this experiment is the House Climate Solutions Caucus, a 62-member group split evenly between Democrats and Republicans whose purpose and utility has divided the environmental community.
One opinion holds that these GOP lawmakers are swing-district opportunists looking to cloak themselves in climate-friendly rhetoric to ward off anti-Trump sentiments. Critics contend those words are empty, with little policy or legislation coming from all the bluster.
Illustrating the vulnerability of these incumbents, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting all but three of the 28 Republicans running for re-election in an attempt to flip the seats blue. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report labels eight of those races as toss-ups, seven as "lean Republican" and four as "likely Republican," while two of the open seats are "lean Democrat" and another is "likely Republican" (Climatewire, Dec. 5, 2017).
While the ranks of the caucus, which aims to produce policies to curb greenhouse gas emissions, are growing, Brune and others said there's a lot to be desired. Simply put: What have those Republicans actually done?
"So Congress should solve this, they should do something, and yet we are supposed to jump up and down and spew happy talk because now there's a safe space for people to talk about climate change?" Brune said of the caucus. "Forgive me if I'm not happy."
Others say that Republicans will be unlikely to speak with GOP voters about climate change if environmental groups aren't willing to give them credit. Republicans also complain that environmental groups have unfairly targeted them for policy positions outside the realm of climate change.
"There is a narrative within the halls of Congress of why would you spend time with environmentalists when they're going to drop you at the first sign of a Democratic challenger?" said Danny Richter, vice president of federal affairs with Citizens' Climate Lobby. "And I think that rings true. And the fact that does ring true prevents the depoliticization of Congress."
Curbelo hadn't been as outspoken on climate change in 2016 when Sierra Club pounded the pavement for his opponent, Brune said. R.L. Miller, who runs the Climate Hawks Vote political action committee, said the reason Curbelo didn't garner environmental support was fairly obvious: His voting record wasn't good enough. He scored a 33 percent on the group's scorecard.
But even in the time since, some environmental groups question whether Curbelo and other GOP lawmakers in the Climate Solutions Caucus have done anything to warrant a green endorsement.
"These members have joined something called the Climate Solutions Caucus, so I think it's reasonable to hold them to the standard of what do they think are actual solutions for climate change?" said Alex Taurel, deputy legislative director with the League of Conservation Voters. "I think it's fair to conclude that some of them aren't exactly meeting the standard they set for themselves when they joined something called the Climate Solutions Caucus."
Snagging an endorsement, of course, would be a high bar. Environmental groups haven't backed Republicans in recent years as the party has grown more doctrinaire in its positions on climate change.
Helping, by holding a punch
Environmental groups are exploring some subtle ways to at least acknowledge the effort made by some Republicans on climate change. Endorsement may be a ways off, but what about staying out of a race that features a Republican who's shown climate chops? That's a possibility. Running advertisements to clear a path for a GOP candidate — in a primary, maybe, or even in a general election — without endorsing? Just maybe.
Such steps, while seemingly small, would invite controversy in the environmental community.
While environmental groups have in the past endorsed Republicans, they've been fairly safe picks like Maine Sen. Susan Collins. But the League of Conservation Voters in 2016 teased this electoral strategy when it decided not to enter the New Hampshire Senate race because the incumbent, then-Sen. Kelly Ayotte, was one of three Republicans — along with Susan Collins of Maine and Mark Kirk of Illinois — to formally support former President Obama's Clean Power Plan
"That felt like the right posture for us," Taurel said. Ayotte eventually lost to Democrat Maggie Hassan, the former governor.
The Sierra Club is also considering some measures below the level of endorsement in specific races. "It's not simply black-and-white 'do you endorse or not endorse a candidate'," Brune said.
Richter said he's talking to several environmental groups about those subendorsement options.
Still, some activists think environmental groups are trending in the wrong direction when it comes to building bipartisan support for climate change.
"It appears that some groups are kind of falling back into that trap where they just think if Democrats ran things we'd be OK. But we already know that doesn't work or didn't work," Rob Sisson, president of ConservAmerica, a conservative environmental group, said in a reference to the 2010 failure of cap-and-trade legislation in a Democratic Congress.
Richter, with the Citizens' Climate Lobby, is troubled by the expansion of the Sierra Club's metrics for support, which often include progressive causes like labor rights, abortion rights and social justice. Even LCV's scorecard, a sort of gold standard among lawmakers seeking environmental credentials, included votes on nonenvironmental matters that would face strong headwinds in the Republican caucus, such as building a wall along Mexico's border and repealing the Affordable Care Act.
Rather than focusing on a single issue where there may be some bipartisan agreement, like climate change, Richter said environmental groups are gravitating into the broader fabric of left-wing politics. That, in turn, could justify Republican criticisms that those groups are extensions of the Democratic Party, he said.
"They've bought into this idea that we need to move together, we being the left," Richter said. "I see that perpetuating the partisan split we've seen. I don't think it allows enough flexibility for coalition building on particular issues. I think that creates paralysis."
The 'peacock' caucus
For the Rev. Mitch Hescox, the idea that an environmental group would talk to his evangelical Christian parishioners about abortion rights or describe environmental degradation in terms of overpopulation is tone deaf. He said it's derivative of environmental organizations being more aligned with liberal politics than focusing on the issues those groups were founded to solve.
Hescox, who's president of the Evangelical Environmental Network, said his congregation cares about the planet, but it's a people-first philosophy. He's worked with Republicans in Congress on clean energy under a utilitarian framework — people are here, everyone needs to eat and support themselves financially, but we should do it in a responsible way. Hescox said he won't work with groups like the Sierra Club because they're hellbent on positioning climate change as a progressive cause, which, he said, doesn't help attract his members whose care for the environment comes from a different perspective.
"Every time they hear me say 'pro-life,' they get all red in the face. I say, 'Look, you don't have to be pro-life, but I am, and so is my community, so don't talk about population control,'" Hescox said. "Let that go, accept who we are because my community sees the Sierra Club as Earth worshippers, and that's a turnoff. We want to care about all of God's creation, but our priority is all our children."
Miller of Climate Hawks Vote PAC is tired of the illusion that Republicans can be brought into a constructive climate change conversation.
It's the GOP that has drifted from sensibility on environmental issues, not the left or environmental organizations, Miller said. Voting patterns on that are clear, she said, and the influence of dark money tied to fossil fuel companies has only exacerbated the split. And if a group is judged by its weakest link, Miller said the Climate Solutions Caucus is deserving of criticism.
Miller, who has taken to calling it the climate "peacock" caucus, has called for the disbandment of the group because she says it's too weak on climate. Just one member — Curbelo — scored above 50 percent on the LCV's 2016 scorecard.
"The caucus is a joke. I don't actually want to call it a joke because it's dangerous. The Republicans aren't actually doing anything helpful, and the Democrats are giving them political cover," Miller said. "The last straw for me was the admission of Matt Gaetz — Matt 'terminate the EPA' Gaetz."
Gaetz, a Florida Republican congressman, has sponsored legislation titled "To terminate the Environmental Protection Agency." It reads: "The Environmental Protection Agency shall terminate on December 31, 2018."
Other Republicans have drawn sideways glances from the climate community. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who was sharply critical of Obama's green jobs initiative, is a member of the caucus. So, too, is Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.), who professes not to know whether humans play a role in climate change — though he does know Tesla Inc. is locating its battery factory in his district.
Environmental groups are growing impatient, believing many in the group are wearing climate camouflage to fool moderates into voting for them.
"Look at what this Congress has done," Brune said. "They have not passed strong environmental legislation, period."
Even when lawmakers have taken a verbal stand, they've sometimes failed to live up to their own words: A number of caucus members signed a letter against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — the undisturbed Alaskan wilderness area that's been at the heart of environmental campaigns for decades — included in a tax cut bill passed last month. Several, including Curbelo, voted for the measure anyway.
"They all failed the test," Miller said.
Vote 'em out
The caucus' supporters, though, are urging patience.
"I think it's true that if there's not a policy test to join the Climate Solutions Caucus you can't control what individual members are saying," said Emily Wirzba, a legislative representative with Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker organization. "It's our job to both push and pull."
Wirzba has been recruiting Republicans to the caucus for nearly five years and has seen "tremendous" progress, she said. She said that joining the caucus is the first thing many of the GOP lawmakers have done on climate change. Now that they're in, Wirzba is trying to find ways to advance legislation or take pro-climate votes that work for each member.
That process is gradual. She said the caucus at least can help "create this notion of a positive feedback loop" in which Republicans can feel confident for taking a climate-friendly stance rather than fear the retribution from populist conservative voters that have generally ignored or rejected climate change.
Sisson of ConservAmerica added that critics of the caucus ignore the potential pitfalls for GOP lawmakers. The chance of caucus membership striking a sour note with the conservative base is significant and could open the door to a well-funded primary challenger.
"If you're a Republican in Congress, they're taking a substantial risk in joining this caucus," he said.
Rather than picking off some pro-climate Republicans in vulnerable swing districts for the benefit of flipping the House to Democrats, groups backing the Climate Solutions Caucus said a long-term climate strategy would include fostering relationships with GOP lawmakers taking substantive steps toward addressing emissions.
"We tried this eight years ago, and it didn't work," Wirzba said, referring to cap and trade. "The policy will be stronger if even Democrats take control of Congress, you know you'll have Republicans that support climate policy."
Added Hescox: "If we don't make this what I like to call an 'all-American issue,' we will never have an energy plan for the United States, and we will never address the climate."
But look at the flip side, Miller said. The White House and Congress are in Republican hands, and given the pace of rollbacks, they're enjoying quite a bit of success dismantling Obama's climate policies.
All the while, the planet is getting warmer. The world can't wait for U.S. climate politics to cool off, Miller said.
It's time to fight fire with fire.
"We are right now seeing a stable anti-climate policy and a one-party governing system. So I think if we have one good party, we could have a stable and sane climate policy," she said. "We don't want to reason with Republicans. We don't want to bring them to the table. We don't want to bring them into proceedings. We just want to vote them out."
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the Republicans who formally supported the Clean Power Plan.