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Rising Waters at Home Cause Republicans to Buck Party in D.C.

Moderate Republicans are out front on climate change threat

New York Rep. John J. Faso is one of several GOP freshmen concerned about climate change. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
New York Rep. John J. Faso is one of several GOP freshmen concerned about climate change. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Whipping out his iPhone, New York Rep. John J. Faso scrolled through text messages from his wife until he found the photo he sought. 

“There’s my wife’s car in the driveway,” he said, pointing to a lump covered in snow. “So there was no climate change that we were worried about in the last couple of days.”

The freshman Republican from the Hudson Valley was joking, of course. 

Faso — unlike the majority of his conference in Congress, the president and the new head of the EPA — believes in man-made climate change. 

But he’s not alone in the Republican party. The ranks of the Bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus have grown this year, bolstered by moderate Republicans, who also happen to be top Democratic targets in 2018. 

Last Wednesday — the day before President Donald Trump unveiled a budget proposing steep cuts to the EPA — many of the Republicans in the caucus signed onto a resolution committing to address climate change. Most of the same Republicans voted against their party’s effort earlier this year to nullify a rule limiting the release of methane from oil and gas operations on federal land.

It was just two years ago that Oklahoma Sen. James M. Inhofe, the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee at the time, threw a snowball on the Senate floor to disprove climate change. 

“That’s just weather,” Faso said, referring to the snowstorm that blanketed much of the Northeast last week.

“Just like when some of my friends on the left talk about, ‘Gee, it’s really hot this August and it’s all because of climate change,’ you can’t take a particular snowstorm and ascribe it to that,” the freshman lawmaker said in an interview in the Speaker’s Lobby last week.

From a nonissue to an issue

The climate solutions caucus, founded in February 2016 and co-chaired by Florida lawmakers Carlos Curbelo, a Republican, and Ted Deutch, a Democrat, seeks to put partisanship aside and advance policies that make economic and environmental sense for their districts, with a focus on innovation. 

That may sound like boilerplate optimism any congressional caucus would tout. And the caucus — Curbelo calls it an “ideas factory” — hasn’t yet convened this year. 

But the group’s significance may be in its even partisan split: 13 Democrats and 13 Republicans. (One member of each party has to join concurrently to keep the numbers balanced.) 

“Just a couple of years ago, this was completely a nonissue on our side of the aisle,” Curbelo said.

The two-term Republican attributed the polarization around climate change to the partisan aftermath of the 2000 election. “Many Republicans just grew into the habit of assuming that, ‘The climate change issue, that’s Al Gore’s thing,’ and we’re supposed to be against it,” he said. 

But Curbelo has noticed increased engagement on the topic over the last three years. “And most importantly, a willingness to put a name next to this issue,” he said. 

The leaders of the GOP climate change resolution, New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, Pennsylvania Rep. Ryan Costello and Curbelo, have already been reaching out to other members about signing on. 

What it looks like at home

Making the case to their more skeptical Republican colleagues comes down to evidence — “what people can see, touch and feel,” Curbelo said.

“In my case, all I have to do is shine a light on south Florida,” he said, explaining how Miami Beach has had to invest in pump systems to prevent chronic flooding.  

Like Curbelo, Florida GOP freshman Brian Mast is worried about eroding coastlines in their state. Unlike Curbelo, Mast sits in a district Trump won. But he disagrees with the administration on climate change and some of its proposed cuts to the EPA.

“It’s a fight I’ll be happy to have,” Mast said, when asked how he’d approach a Republican White House on the issue.

“You can alter an ecosystem the size of a fish tank with carbon dioxide or with methane gas or greenhouse gas,” Mast said, nodding toward the giant tank across from him in his Capitol Hill office.

“It shouldn’t be that much of a jump to say, ‘Should we be thinking about how we can alter our global environment?’”

Mast’s time in the military, where climate change has long been acknowledged as a strategic threat, and his environmental studies at Harvard put the issue at the forefront of his mind long before he entered politics.

On Friday, he and Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist sent a letter to the president urging him to prioritize restoration of the Everglades in his infrastructure plan. Sixteen other members of the Florida delegation — mostly Republicans — signed on.

Beyond politics

Nationally, climate change is still highly politicized, Republicans in the caucus agreed.

It’s little wonder that many of the Republicans who publicly recognize the threat hail from more moderate districts. Of the 17 resolution signatories, seven of them represent districts carried by Hillary Clinton last fall: Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock, Costello, New York Rep. John Katko, Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Pennsylvania Rep. Patrick Meehan, Washington Rep. Dave Reichert and Curbelo.

Eleven of the 17 Republicans who joined the resolution are targets of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee next year — and two others were targets last cycle. Two other Democratic targets in 2016 and 2018, New York Rep. Lee Zeldin and California Rep. Darrell Issa, didn’t sign onto the resolution but are part of the caucus. On the climate issue, at least, these incumbents’ break from the party could help them in their re-election efforts next year.  

But at home, climate change often isn’t so polarized. “In my district, it’s not a partisan issue,” Stefanik said, noting the ways business and environmental interests have joined forces in her 21st District, home to the Adirondack Mountains.

South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford isn’t a member of the caucus, but he did sign Stefanik’s resolution. He hails from a safe GOP seat — so safe, in fact, there’s talk the Freedom Caucus member could be in for a primary challenge. But it’s also a coastal seat confronted by the threat of climate change.

Calling himself a “conservative conservationist” in a 2007 Washington Post op-ed, Sanford, then the Palmetto State governor, wrote, “I believe human activity is having a measurable effect on the environment.”

His call for conservatives to “respond to climate change with innovation, not regulation” foreshadows much of the spirit of Stefanik’s resolution.

Today’s GOP lawmakers concerned about climate change agree that making an economic argument — both about the risks of and ways to mitigate climate change — is the best way to convince other members of their party. Curbelo even compares the risk of ignoring climate change to the risk of ignoring the national debt. 

But if the current conference can’t make that connection, Curbelo is still optimistic his party will get onboard — eventually.

“Sometimes people ask, ‘What kind of Republican are you that you’re concerned about this issue?’” Curbelo said. “I say, ‘a 37-year-old one.’”