BY ELVINA NAWAGUNA
When a Republican congressman in July tried to strip the 2018 defense spending bill of its requirement to plan for global warming and rising sea level threats, a group of House GOP lawmakers joined Democrats to kill the effort.
It was a rare win in the fight to slow climate change, in a Congress where the Republican majority consistently votes against climate action.
Almost every Republican who crossed the aisle that day belongs to the growing House Climate Solutions Caucus. All but one caucus member voted against the amendment, which was proposed by GOP Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania.
“The Perry amendment was really the first test” that called on the group to vote as a bloc, said Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Florida Republican who co-founded the caucus. “There will be more tests in the future.”
7 Major Battles Ahead on the Environment
At the time of the vote, the caucus had 48 members — 24 from each party. New York Republican Rep. Peter T. King was the lone member voting in favor of the amendment. Since then, six more Republicans and six more Democrats have joined, bringing the group’s number to 60, up from 12 at the start of the 115th Congress.
“We know for sure that we can block bad policy,” said Curbelo, “and that’s significant.”
On the defense
While there is no similar caucus in the Senate, advocates for climate action cheered when South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham endorsed a carbon tax to reduce greenhouse gases and pledged to work with Democrats on legislation to bring it about.
Meanwhile, the House Climate Solutions Caucus has not endorsed a carbon tax or any other specific policy proposal.
Many Republicans who acknowledge the reality of climate change have been shy of supporting any legislation that addresses the problem for fear of a primary challenge.
Only three Republicans in the caucus signed an Oct. 13 letter affirming the group’s support for the Clean Power Plan after the Trump administration announced it would repeal the 2015 climate rule aimed at cutting carbon emissions across the U.S. power sector. Those Republicans were Curbelo and Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania. Twenty-two Democrats signed the letter.
But caucus members are confident the group will grow to a point where it can make legislative changes.
Formed in 2016 with only a handful of members, the caucus uses the so-called Noah’s Ark rule, where a lawmaker can join only if he or she brings along a colleague from the other party. “The thinking is that the conversation is different when there is an even number of members, where it is a fully bipartisan effort,” said Rep. Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat who co-founded the caucus with Curbelo.
The group’s momentum is important because it comes as the Trump administration is taking drastic steps to roll back environmental protections promulgated by the Obama administration. Its prospects so far are exciting to the environmental community.
“It is the gateway to the kind of action we need,” said Bob Deans, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s director of strategic engagement.
Citizens’ Climate Lobby, an organization focused on addressing climate change, helped lay the groundwork for the caucus and uses careful grass-roots efforts to coax more lawmakers to join.
“We are not trying to shame or intimidate them into joining our cause,” said Steve Valk, a spokesman for the organization. “We take the approach that everybody is an opportunity.”
It started in 2013 in the Rayburn House Office Building cafeteria. Deutch and Citizens’ Climate Lobby’s senior congressional liaison, Jay Butera, both happened to be waiting for their food orders.
Butera mentioned his hopes for a bipartisan forum on climate change, and the two scheduled a meeting in Deutch’s office.
“Congressman Deutch struck me as a very reasonable person on climate change and someone who would be able to reach out across the aisle and work with Republicans,” Butera said.
But the congressman lobbed the challenge right back to Butera: find a Republican who could go along, Deutch told him.
“At first people laughed when I told them I was trying to get Republicans and Democrats together on climate change,” Butera recalled.
He approached dozens of Republicans only to be turned down. Some, he said, were put off simply because the word “climate” was in the name of the proposed caucus. While many showed interest, they said they would join only if others were in.
The Florida delegation was considered the “most fertile ground” because of their constituents’ exposure to rising seas and destructive storms, he said. But it would take nearly three years, with weekly updates to Deutch’s office, before Butera found a Republican — Curbelo — willing to help found the caucus.
Curbelo and Deutch both represent parts of South Florida that face a higher risk from sea level rises and flooding. Curbelo’s district starts just below Miami and extends to the southern tip of the state, which includes the vulnerable Keys. Deutch’s district stretches along the eastern coast from Fort Lauderdale north beyond Boca Raton.
To encourage more lawmakers to join, Citizens’ Climate Lobby recruits volunteers and constituents to approach them using a nonjudgmental, nonpartisan approach that does not endorse any specific policy. It appears to be working.
“Participating in a group is positive, but it is not going to be enough for voters who expect action,” Deutch said. “The next thing is to craft a legislative agenda that we can all get behind.”
Curbelo views the group’s current role as a blocking minority within the majority. After that, he said, he wants the coalition to be an “ideas factory.”
Deutch cautioned that change is likely to be slow. “I don’t think we should expect a huge shift at this point for a whole variety of reasons,” he said, adding that there are still too many lawmakers whose positions are driven by special interests and who continue to deny climate change.
For many conservatives, taking action to mitigate climate change is at odds with their declared goals of job creation and energy development. Others argue that climate change is natural and cyclical and therefore does not require any mitigation by humans.
Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which scientists say were made worse by climate change, have not immediately shifted the debate among climate skeptics in Congress. House Science, Space and Technology Chairman Lamar Smith of Texas and Senate Environment and Public Works member James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma have dismissed any association between the storms and climate change. Texas GOP Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, whose constituents were hammered by flooding from Harvey, did not return requests for comment.
“The people who have been dragging their heels … they are not debating against some hypothetical condition,” the NRDC’s Deans said, adding that those lawmakers are going against public opinion.
About 70 percent of people in the U.S. believe that global warming is underway, according to a May report from Yale University’s climate change communication program.
“What we are seeing is that these problems are not about a red state problem or a blue state problem,” Deans said. “The big picture is that people are paying a price.”
Safety in numbers
If Republicans in the Climate Solutions Caucus see themselves as key to breaking the GOP climate firewall and passing new legislation — assuming all Democrats are on board — they will need at least 17 more in their party to join and be disciplined enough to stick together. Former Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan has said he is considering joining, though his office said he has not made a final decision.
“I am optimistic support will continue to grow,” said Rep. Dave Reichert, a Washington Republican in the caucus. “Living in the Pacific Northwest has … taught me that economic development and job creation does not have to come at the expense of environmental stewardship.”
In March, a group of 17 Republicans led by Reps. Elise Stefanik of New York, Ryan A. Costello of Pennsylvania and Curbelo introduced a Republican Climate Resolution, stating that it is a “conservative principle to protect, conserve, and be good stewards of our environment, responsibly plan for all market factors, and base our policy decisions in science and quantifiable facts on the ground.” Five more Republicans have since signed on to the resolution.
Curbelo said the more Republicans express a desire to find climate solutions, the more others will join. “All the psychological influences that we see in the real world apply in Congress,” he said. “Republicans are moving toward a rational, science-based position on the environment as opposed to a radical, politically driven position.”
Republicans in the House Climate Solutions Caucus
Carlos Curbelo, Florida
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida
Ryan A. Costello, Pennsylvania
Patrick Meehan, Pennsylvania
Steve Knight, California — voted against Perry amendment before joining caucus
Ed Royce, California — voted against Perry amendment before joining caucus
Pat Tiberi, Ohio — voted for Perry amendment before joining caucus
Chris Collins, New York — voted for Perry amendment before joining caucus
Jack Bergman, Michigan — voted for Perry amendment before joining caucus
Mimi Walters, California — voted against Perry amendment before joining caucus