GOP climate messaging shift stresses need for innovation

Source: Nick Sobczyk, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, November 29, 2018

Some Republicans this week have spoken more forcefully about climate change than in the past, even making public acknowledgments that would have been startling just a few years ago.

That is one of the interesting developments to emerge in the wake of the climate report released last Friday by the Trump administration.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) — who previously said climate change is not real — made perhaps the strongest such statement on Twitter earlier this week, calling the second chapter of the National Climate Assessment “a glaring reminder of the long-term risks of climate change.”

“Both parties need to work together to deploy an innovative, market-driven strategy to combat the impacts of climate change,” Tillis wrote.

The statement is part of an emerging rhetorical playbook in some wings of the Republican Party. Several other GOP lawmakers have thrown around the term “innovation” or stressed technological advancement in public comments about climate change in the past few days, including Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Mike Lee of Utah and Marco Rubio of Florida.

Most have not elaborated much about what, if anything, innovation entails, and they often point out that the U.S. accounts for a fraction of global emissions.

Critics say “innovation” amounts to little more than a buzzword. They point out that most Republicans still oppose the kind of large-scale policies that most scientists and economists believe will be needed to halt the pace of warming in the coming decades.

Rubio, for example, made clear that he does not support carbon pricing, even though he’s interested in investing in adaptation measures and research and development to further low-carbon energy.

“I’ve never been supportive of carbon taxes in the past,” he told reporters this week. “I actually think to the extent that we want to truly limit carbon emissions, technology can get us there.”

Rubio said he sees measurable effects like sea-level rise, economic effects and potential emissions solutions as “three separate topics.”

“As far as the big changes that people are proposing that we make to this country’s economy to address it, that’s where really the debate comes in,” he said. “I’m not convinced that some of these changes they’re arguing would be sufficient even if it were all due to human activity.”

The 1,700-page congressionally mandated report explores a wide range of scenarios and predicts tens of billions of dollars in damages, a rise in deadly heat waves and coastal communities increasingly threatened by rising sea levels if nothing is done to stem planet-warming emissions.

Prepared by scientists across the federal government, the report warns, among other things, that unchecked climate change could slash the American economy by 10 percent by the end of the century and massively affect agricultural yields (Climatewire, Nov. 23).

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said she doesn’t think much of the innovation rhetoric, calling it “another way to deny the need to act right now.”

“If we want to have an innovation strategy to deal with climate change, sign me up. But that’s not what these folks are saying,” she told E&E News yesterday. “They’re saying, ‘Give me one more excuse not to do anything.’ I’m opposed to that.”

Meanwhile, Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) noted that emissions have declined in the past decade, in large part thanks to burgeoning natural gas production.

He pointed to his work on carbon capture and sequestration measures with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a leading climate hawk who has also introduced a carbon tax bill.

One such measure is the Furthering Carbon Capture, Utilization, Technology, Underground Storage and Reduced Emissions Act that became law this year, which more than doubled tax credits for sequestration of captured carbon dioxide.

“I’ve taken this seriously before that climate change report came out,” Barrasso said yesterday, adding that emissions are still rising in developing countries such as India and China.

Other Republicans are expressing more alarm in the wake of the report.

On the House side, a pair of Republicans — Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and Francis Rooney of Florida — are introducing an ambitious carbon fee and dividend bill alongside a group of Democrats (see related story).

And Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) yesterday called the report “a definitive call for action,” adding that she’s hoping the Trump administration does not follow through on its proposed rollbacks of Obama-era methane rules.

“I think we should reconsider some regulatory steps that the president has been eager to overturn,” she said.

Senate Democrats issued their own response yesterday. A group of 25, led by Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, introduced a resolution outlining and acknowledging the findings of both the federal report and the latest U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change study.

Senate EPW Committee ranking member Tom Carper (D-Del.) made a biblical reference when asked yesterday about the federal climate report.

“I’m reminded in the Old Testament of Moses going to see the pharaoh and saying, ‘If you don’t let our people go, then we’re going to make terrible things happen,'” Carper told reporters. “And then terrible things happened. And finally pharaoh said, ‘I yield, you can leave.'”

As the climate effects like wildfires and sea-level rise become more apparent, Carper added, “at some point in time I hope the ‘pharaohs’ in the other party say, ‘Enough already, let’s get serious.'”

Skeptics hold their ground

There remains, nonetheless, a strong counter-current to this week’s developments in the GOP, led by President Trump, who said earlier this week that he “doesn’t believe” last week’s fresh climate assessment from his own administration.

Yesterday in an Oval Office interview with The Washington Post, Trump elaborated, saying, “People like myself, we have very high levels of intelligence but we’re not necessarily such believers.”

Meanwhile, the Senate’s leading skeptic, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), dismissed the report as “hysterical results” based on faulty research.

“I don’t think it’s a lot different than the others,” Inhofe told reporters yesterday, linking the assessment to the recent United Nations report that time was running short for nations to take actions needed to reverse climate change.

Inhofe said both the U.N. report and federal assessment relied on research funded by Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg, both of whom have donated millions of dollars to call attention to global warming.

“I am not sure what the exact sources are,” said Inhofe, a senior member of the EPW Committee. “I do know that the money that was put into research that I believe was coming to the same hysterical results.”

Inhofe said he had no plans to attend next week’s annual U.N. climate summit, which is being held in Poland this year, noting a hectic Senate schedule. He caused a stir among greens when he attended past meetings.

Inhofe mocked the U.N. summits as little more than lavish parties. “All you have to do is go and say the world is coming to an end, and the caviar is flowing,” he added.

Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, whose state is among the most vulnerable in the country to sea-level rise, called the federal climate report “more of the same.”

“But I’ve studied this issue carefully, and there is no consensus among reputable scientists about this,” Kennedy said, though the vast majority of published climate scientists agree human activity has driven climate changes over the past century.

Kennedy is one of a handful of Republicans who have pushed the Trump administration to move on an Obama-era agreement to phase out potent greenhouse gases known as hydrofluorocarbons, which are widely used in air-conditioning units and as refrigerants (E&E Daily, Aug. 1).

He added yesterday that he’s interested in geoengineering as a way to “help cool the Earth.”

“It’s a controversial subject,” he told reporters yesterday. “I think that clearly the world is warming. You can debate the cause of that. I’ve seen many persuasive arguments that it’s just a continuation of the warming up from the little ice age.”

Reporters George Cahlink and Jeremy Dillon contributed.