WASHINGTON — After a decade of contesting the existence of climate change, many leading Republicans are changing their stance amid deadly heatwaves, devastating droughts and raging wildfires that have devastated their districts and scared their voters at home.
Members of Congress who long argued that climate changes as a result of natural cycles have shifted that view significantly, with many now recognizing the solid science that emissions from burning oil, gas and coal have raised the Earth’s temperature.
But their growing acceptance of the realities of climate change has not translated into support for the one strategy scientists said in a major United Nations report this week is necessary to avert an even more bleak future: stop burning fossil fuels. fossil fuels.
Instead, Republicans want to spend billions to prepare communities for extreme weather, but are trying to block Democrats’ efforts to cut emissions that fuel the disasters in the first place.
Dozens of Republicans in the House and Senate said in recent interviews that quickly switching to wind, solar and other clean energy will hurt an economy that has been supported by fossil fuels for more than a century.
“I’m not doing anything to increase the cost of living for American families,” said Senator Rick Scott of Florida, where disasters caused by climate change have cost the state more than $100 billion over the past decade, according to federal government estimates.
Mr Scott said he wants to tackle climate change but “you can’t do it where you destroy jobs.”
It’s a message backed by polls showing Republican voters are more concerned with jobs than the environment. A Pew Research Center survey in May found that only 10 percent of Republican and Republican independents were deeply concerned about tackling climate change, while a majority believed President Biden’s ambitious plans to curb climate change would hurt the economy. harm.
With the exception of young Republicans who have campaigned for their party to take climate change more seriously, conservative voters as a whole haven’t changed much on the issue in the past 10 years. That skepticism may have peaked with President Donald J. Trump, who mocked famed climate science, relaxed emissions regulations and expanded oil and gas drilling on public lands.
With the effects of global warming becoming more apparent with every weather forecast, Republicans and their allies are now advocating investment in research and development, or technological solutions years away from viability, such as cleaning the air after oil, gas and coal have been burned. Many are also in favor of expanding nuclear power, which produces no greenhouse gases but poses other challenges, such as the long time it takes to build new factories and concerns about spent nuclear fuel disposal and the risk of radioactive leaks.
A few Republicans, such as Senator Mitt Romney of Utah and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have said they support companies for the carbon dioxide they generate, a strategy economists believe would provide a powerful incentive to cut emissions. But neither man is arguing with any urgency for such a measure.
The majority of Republican lawmakers support less aggressive responses popular with their voters, such as planting trees to absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or offering tax credits to companies that capture carbon dioxide after it is released into the air by power plants or industrial sites .
“What they are against is any program to meaningfully reduce emissions,” said David G. Victor, co-director of the Deep Decarbonization Initiative at the University of California, San Diego.
Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy helped draft the $1 trillion infrastructure package that the Senate approved this week, making sure it includes billions of dollars to protect coastal states from sea level rise due to climate change. But Mr Cassidy said he will not support policies to curb the amount of oil being drilled off the coast of Louisiana — the combustion of which contributes to melting ice sheets and rising seas.
“We can’t live without fossil fuels or chemicals, period, end of story,” said Mr. Cassidy, who wants to expand exports of liquefied natural gas, which is produced in Louisiana and emits half of coal’s carbon dioxide, but one source of methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas in the short term.
And while Senator Kevin Cramer, a Republican from North Dakota, admitted that climate change is driving the extreme drought that destroyed crops and wiped out livestock this summer, he said the gases produced by burning fossil fuels must be targeted. are, not the fuels themselves.
“We need to be on an anti-carbon mission, not an anti-fuel mission,” said Mr Cramer, whose state is also a top producer of oil and gas.
Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio said it made no sense for the United States to cut its emissions while other countries like China continue to pollute. But at the same time, he also rejected trade policies that would put pressure on China and others to curb their emissions.
Still, the fact that Republicans are recognizing emissions as a problem marks progress, however incremental, said Tom Moyer, Utah’s state coordinator for the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which is trying to build bipartisan support for a tax on carbon dioxide emissions. . “They’re small bites of a solution, but it’s so much more than we could have gotten even a few years ago,” he said. “And hopefully the trend continues.”
Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, said of climate change last September: “I agree it’s happening and it’s a problem. The discussion is about how best to deal with it.”
Senator John Cornyn of oil and gas rich Texas said in an interview in July, “I have no doubt that the climate is changing and people are contributing to it.” Alabama Senator Richard Shelby said he thinks weather disasters just happen, but “much of it, I’m sure, with all the stuff we put in the air, is homemade.”
Even Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who once famously threw a snowball on the Senate floor to claim the planet isn’t getting hotter, last month insisted he never called climate change a “hoax,” only that the dire consequences have been exaggerated. (Mr. Inhofe is the author of a book entitled “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.”)
“They don’t want to look like they’re denying science, but they don’t want to seem like they’re against the free market and supporting regulation,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University. . “But the fact is that there is no way to solve this without regulating and mandating the reduction of emissions. There is no magical easy ‘innovation-only’ way out of this.”
Democrats say the tools now exist to stave off a warmer planet: expanding wind and solar power quickly, strengthening energy storage and the grid, electrifying transportation and making buildings energy efficient.
Many of those elements are tucked away in a $3.5 trillion budget package that Democrats hope to pass by the fall. The budget includes a tool called a clean electricity pay program designed to incentivize utilities to produce an increasing amount of electricity from low-carbon and zero-carbon sources such as wind, solar and nuclear power.
If approved, the measure would be the most sweeping climate bill in United States history, putting the country on track to meet President Biden’s goal of roughly halving domestic greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. But to get it through evenly divided Congress would need any Democrat to back it and at least two, Senator Joe Manchin of coal-rich West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have indicated they may oppose it.
Republican leaders, meanwhile, have made it clear that they will vote against the budget bill, arguing that it is too expensive and that mandates such as a clean electricity standard and government-funded expansion of electric vehicles harm taxpayers and consumers.
Their coverage is closely aligned with the position of major oil and gas companies, which conduct advertising campaigns touting ‘technological innovation’ in response to global warming.
“They recognize their role in climate change, but they want the public to believe they’re on it,” Edward Maibach, director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, said of the fossil fuel companies. “They say they innovate, they evolve, they have this. They don’t need policies — and Republicans are following that signal.”
Behind the scenes in Washington, oil and gas interests continue to lobby hard against policies that would reduce emissions, especially stricter vehicle mileage regulations that would prevent the burning of hundreds of billions of gallons of gasoline.
Those companies are overwhelmingly donating to Republicans. In the 2020 election cycle alone, oil, gas, mining and other energy companies gave $46 million to the Republican Party. That’s more than the industries donated to Democrats in the past decade, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit that tracks money in politics.
In many ways, the $1 trillion infrastructure package, which the Senate approved by 69-30 votes on Tuesday, shows the limits of Republican action on climate change.
The package, which still needs House approval, includes about $80 billion in programs to upgrade the country’s electricity grid, create charging stations for electric vehicles and research new clean energy technologies. It will bring in more than $12 billion in carbon capture and storage technology, which, if commercialized widely, could extend the life of fossil fuel plants; and $2.5 billion to develop a new generation of nuclear reactors.
Any provision that would mandate the reduction of fossil fuels or the emissions they produce was omitted. Nineteen Republicans, including the minority leader, voted in favor of the legislation.