Republicans send mixed messages on Madrid talks

Source: By Nick Sobczyk, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, December 8, 2019

Republicans are unified in their opposition to the Paris climate agreement, but they’re sending inconsistent messages on the United States’ role in international climate negotiations.

Shortly after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi landed back in Washington, D.C., after taking 14 other Democrats to Madrid for United Nations climate talks over the weekend, Republican senators were on the floor blasting the California Democrat for wasting her time.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has acknowledged man-made climate change, called the trip a “performance art for the coastal elites.”

“We’re still trying to recover from Democrats’ last war on coal. We certainly don’t need Speaker Pelosi to promise the Europeans she is going to start a new one,” McConnell said on the floor, after noting the delegation had taken an international flight to discuss carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, some GOP House members were complaining they weren’t included in the trip at all. Energy and Commerce ranking member Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said he would have been happy to go to Madrid. He had no qualms with the speaker’s trip besides the fact it wasn’t bipartisan, as other congressional delegations to climate talks have been in the past.

“We probably would have had different talking points, but the point is there’s a lot of bipartisan work we could and should be doing together,” Walden said. “America has led the world in carbon reductions.”

The rhetorical split is one of many in the nascent Republican climate messaging campaign, part of a larger battle over the future of the party’s energy policy. In some ways, it demonstrates the GOP is still feeling out how to talk about climate change after years of denial.

‘Undermine the president’

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) questioned on the Senate floor why climate change was such a priority.

“Rather than working to iron out the final details so we can get the [United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement] moving before Christmas, the speaker kicked off the week in Spain, talking about the Paris accord and climate change,” Cornyn said.

“Unfortunately, our Democratic colleagues seem to want to talk about anything and everything other than the priorities we should have here in the Congress.”

Whatever the GOP arguments, the Democrats who went on this weekend’s delegation to Madrid universally said they were met with praise from foreign leaders, although they were careful not to bad-mouth President Trump abroad.

House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said Pelosi was treated like “a visiting head of state” by foreign hosts and participants.

“The speaker of the House of Representatives and four powerful chairmen took the trouble to haul ass across the Atlantic and back for basically one full day there to send a message that we’re still engaged,” added Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), the only senator on the delegation trip. “We were supremely well-received.”

That reception, and the message Democrats presented, is what concerns Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who questioned the political motivations of the Democratic delegation.

“To me, they went there to undermine the president and to push their radical Green New Deal,” Barrasso said on the floor, though Pelosi and some other members of the delegation are not Green New Deal supporters.

“They told the international group that the United States is committed to the Paris climate deal. Madam President, that’s just not true.”

GOP leadership in the House has framed climate as a bipartisan priority, one that it says Republicans worked on in the 115th Congress under different labels.

Democrats, however, generally laugh off that idea, and House Republicans still use climate change, namely the Green New Deal, as a political bludgeon.

But Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee complained Pelosi left them out of the trip, though she did invite the GOP side of the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis to come along. None came due to scheduling conflicts because the invitation came at the last minute, according to select committee ranking member Garret Graves (R-La.).

Graves said he has asked House leadership for a trip to the conference this coming weekend, when talks will start to heat up.

Paris squabbles

U.N. climate talks have always been something of a political flashpoint.

Democrats are still bitter that then-Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) canceled a bipartisan delegation to Paris in 2015, and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) infamously brought a one-man climate skeptic “truth squad” to the media covering the 2009 U.N. talks in Copenhagen, Denmark.

More recently, Republicans are still railing against the Paris Agreement.

“Paris failed,” Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) said yesterday during a subcommittee hearing, after asking how the U.S. could “get engaged” with the international community on climate.

“I hear rumblings by my colleagues over here, and it’s my time, and I appreciate that, but even in the testimony today — Paris has not met its agreements or its levels.”

Most Republicans agree with Trump that the Paris Agreement is unfair to the U.S. because China and India have less stringent emissions targets, even though those targets are nonbinding.

Now that the Trump administration has formally pulled out of the agreement, Walden and Graves said American negotiators should hold that line and focus on energy in the developing world.

The Trump administration sent State Department career negotiators — but no political appointees — to Madrid, and they are continuing to participate in talks about carbon trading systems under the Paris Agreement (Climatewire, Dec. 4).

Graves said he still wants to engage with U.S. allies and “explain our Paris decision,” as well as what possible future solutions look like.

“If the objective of the Paris accords is to reduce emissions, yet under the accords you’re increasing — duh. That doesn’t make sense,” Graves said, referring to the targets set by India and China.

“What needs to happen is you’ve got to come together as the international community, and you’ve got to strike a multilateral agreement that actually makes sense, that actually puts you on the right trajectory and does so in a way that is fair.”

Those arguments sometimes frustrate Democrats, who view Paris as a hard-fought political compromise, but Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee Chairman Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) suggested he would take any movement on climate he can get.

“I put it in context with where we were, and now where we are,” he told reporters yesterday. “There was a lot of denial and delay on the climate crisis. We’re getting to the point now where there’s acknowledgement, across the board nearly, that there is a climate crisis.”

Reporter Kellie Lunney contributed.