After weeks of vilifying the Green New Deal as an assault on hamburgers, an embrace of Stalinism and a first step toward genocide, Senate Republicans voted in lockstep Tuesday to reject Democrats’ resolution outlining a climate plan to zero out emissions and provide millions of high-paying clean energy jobs.
Yet amid the bluster and noise are signals that some Republicans are starting to shift on climate change as the center of the debate slides left toward policies that could make a dent in surging greenhouse gas emissions.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who is a close ally of President Donald Trump and who in the last Congress proposed a bill to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency, drafted a nonbinding resolution staking out a Green Real Deal that would acknowledge the threat climate change poses to “human health and safety” in “communities across the United States.” The document, which Politico published last week, does not set targets for emission cuts but calls for ramping up low-carbon investments and “otherwise reducing or achieving net-zero emissions from fossil energy.”
On Monday, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) proposed a New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy that he said would “double federal funding for energy research” and implement a five-year plan to “create new sources of cheap, clean energy.”
“The purpose of the original Manhattan Project during World War II was to find a way to split the atom and build a bomb before Germany could,” he wrote in an op-ed for Fox News. “Instead of ending a war, the goal of this New Manhattan Project will be to minimize the disruption on our lives and economies caused by climate change, to clean the air and to raise family incomes.”
It’s difficult to see the proposals becoming law while Trump, who routinely mocks climate science, remains in the White House and mainstream Republicans and their fossil fuel benefactors continue to downplay increasingly dire forecasts for warming in the coming decades.
But even if the first two Republican proposals to counter the Green New Deal don’t yet amount to an earthquake for the GOP, they are a rumble. The proposals also offer hints at where policy talks may go if Democrats retake the presidency or Senate in the 2020 elections.
“The tectonic plates are shifting,” Joseph Majkut, a climate policy expert at the conservative Niskanen Center, said by phone.
Until last year, climate change ranked low in surveys of voters’ concerns. But the figures began inching up among Republicans in 2018. In December, two-thirds of voters said they were very or somewhat concerned about new climate warnings in a Politico/Morning Consult survey. Last month a League of Conservation Voters poll of Democratic primary voters found taking action on climate change to be a top factor in deciding which candidate to support.
That’s in part a response to a United Nations report in October that warned that warming of 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit from the global preindustrial average — a catastrophic increase that is estimated would cost $54 trillion in damage and countless lives — is all but guaranteed unless the world halves its surging emissions over the next decade. Weeks later, the National Climate Assessment, a congressionally mandated report from 13 federal agencies, confirmed the findings.
For years, positions in the debate over mainstream climate policies ranged from hard-line denial to recommending moderate market tweaks. Democrats regularly introduced legislation to put a price on carbon dioxide emissions through a cap-and-trade scheme or a carbon tax. Tax incentives for renewable energy sources like solar and wind enjoyed bipartisan support, even as efforts to ax fossil fuel subsidies went nowhere.
But research last fall made clear that market fixes alone could not reduce the planet-warming gases in the atmosphere fast enough to avert disaster.
A new cadre of left-wing Democrats led the charge for sweeping policy to address the scope of the crisis. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), bolstered by protesters from the grassroots nonprofit Sunrise Movement, began championing a Green New Deal. As the name implies, such a policy, like the original New Deal, would aim to massively expand the federal safety net and spend with abandon to build climate-resilient infrastructure nationwide.
Record-breaking hurricanes, wildfires and flooding over the past two years made scientists’ warnings finally feel tangible. With polls showing that an overwhelming majority of Americans understand humans are causing the planet to warm, outright climate change denial is becoming increasingly untenable. In December, a Yale and George Mason universities poll found that 81 percent of Americans supported the goals of the Green New Deal, including 64 percent of Republicans and 57 percent of self-identified conservative Republicans.
That didn’t exorcize climate denial from the Republican platform. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who infamously brought a snowball to the Senate floor in a 2015 attempt to disprove global warming, sported a tie with oil rigs on it during Tuesday’s vote. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) displayed on the Senate floor an image of former President Ronald Reagan firing a machine gun while riding a velociraptor to illustrate “the seriousness [the Green New Deal] deserves,” he said.
“I’m not immediately afraid of what carbon emissions unaddressed might do to our environment in the near future, or our civilization or our planet in the next few years,” Lee said. “I’m mostly afraid of not being able to get through this speech with a straight face.”
Myron Ebell, a hard-line climate denier who led Trump’s EPA transition team in 2017, called the Republican counterproposals to the Green New Deal “feeble thinking, bad political instincts” and “another instance of establishment Republicans’ irresistible urge to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”
To H. Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow at the far-right Heartland Institute, the emergence of Republican climate proposals shows the GOP has “always been the party of the big tent” on climate.
“The Republicans are not of a single mind on this, and they never have been,” he said by phone. “They’ve been out there all along. They’ve just never gotten any credit for it.”
But the rhetoric that think tanks like Heartland ― which is one of the best-known proponents of science denial and devotes an entire section of its website to “stopping socialism” ― helped popularize could be starting to backfire. Not only did such language help delay action to reduce greenhouse gases to the point that business-friendly approaches alone are no longer feasible, but caricaturing Obama-era moderate regulations and market policies as Marxism also discredited climate change deniers.
“The question here was by raising the ceiling of the so-called Overton Window, do you raise the floor?” Julian Brave NoiseCat, a policy analyst at the environmental group 350.org and a HuffPost contributor, said by phone. “The question now is where do we land between the ceiling and the floor, and how do we continue on this campaign toward a Green New Deal and get climate legislation that is as just and equitable and, obviously, as ambitious as possible?”