Half of the Republicans in the climate solutions caucus just lost their seats

Atmospheric turbulence
Atmospheric turbulence
Image: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
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The blue wave that swept over the House of Representatives broke on the head of Republicans in the Climate Solutions Caucus. The bi-partisan congressional group tackling global warming will lose at least 21 GOP members, or as many 22 once the tallying is done in California’s 45th district.  That’s half the party’s contingent in the caucus. One of the caucus members swept out of office was co-founder, Florida Republican Carlos Curbelo, who sponsored a tax on carbon last year (the formerly GOP-controlled house responded by passing a resolution denouncing the idea).

The list of Republican losses in the self-described bipartisan policy shop for tackling climate change includes 13 GOP incumbents, as well as eight pickups in formerly Republican seats opened up by the departure and retirement of former caucus members.

Those seats will be filled by Democrats, many of whom are more likely to vote on measures to slow global warming. But it also moves Congressional Republicans even further away from the mainstream of public opinion, which favors action on climate change. That’s true even among Republicans.

Americans who say global warming is happening outnumber those who reject it 5 to 1, while 63% say global warming is either “extremely” (10%), “very” (18%), or “somewhat” (35%) important to them personally. That will ensure the party is virtually locked out of many competitive suburban districts in the future, says Bob Inglis a former Republican congressman from South Carolina who now runs republicEn, a non-profit organization that seeks market-friendly solutions to climate change.

There is a popular narrative on the right that Republican candidates can’t engage on climate issues and win, while the opposite is true, says Inglis, who lost his own primary during the Tea Party wave in 2010.  Republicans in the climate caucus won their primaries, but weren’t competitive enough in purple (or blue) districts against candidates willing to propose even more urgent action to stop rising global temperatures. “The message to the Republican Party is if you want to get the majority back, you’ll need to engage on climate,” he said, criticizing the party’s decision to double down on white, older, and rural votes at the expensive of millennials and college-educated women.

RepublicEn’s appeal is to the economic principles of “rock-solid” conservatives, Inglis says, with proposals to put a price on carbon and cut back on fossil fuel subsidies. By factoring in the cost of damage from climate change, businesses can solve the problem, rather than rely on regulation.

The message is not resonating with party’s ideologues. The loss of moderates in the GOP mirrors what happened to Blue Dog Democrats in 2010, when the ranks of Democrats from red states were cut in half. From its peak of 54 members in 2009 (21% of all Democrats in the House), Blue Dog membership now stands at 19. Inglis argues the GOP’s losses in competitive districts will stop once they abandon their current devotion to populist nationalism. Part of that will mean articulating a conservative answer to climate change. Trump’s climate denial will exit the stage with him, Inglis argues, just as the neo-conservative philosophy lay in tatters after George W. Bush presided over two disastrous Middle East wars and an economic recession.

The electorate is already moving in that direction. During the first seven months of Trump’s presidency, researchers found the number of Republicans worried about climate change hit all-time highs, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. The share of GOP voters who also attributed climate change to humans jumped by 9%, a trend seen across stalwart conservatives, as well as self-described moderate Republicans.

That’s a return to Republicans’ historical role championing the environment. The Clean Air Act (1970), Clean Water Act (1972), and Endangered Species Act (1973) all sailed through the Senate with unanimous Republican (and Democratic) support. The Environmental Protection Agency was proposed by Republican Richard Nixon and later approved by Congress. Republican President Theodore Roosevelt started the National Park system in 1906.

What changed? In the book “The Republican Reversal,” James Turner and Andrew Isenberg write that the party soured on environmental protection after moderate Republicans were displaced by free-market conservatives after the 1970s.  The authors write that a growing rejection of scientific evidence, antipathy to government over economic growth, and the embrace of Christian “dominion theology” (which seeks to introduce biblical law into American governance), the turned the tide on the right against environmental regulation.

But Democrats are unlikely to secure the overwhelming majorities in the Senate or House required to pass sweeping climate legislation anytime soon. Action on climate may will probably need to win over a group like the Climate Solutions Caucus.

Getting Republican voters on board means getting Republican politicians to present climate as an urgent problem, argues Anthony Leiserowitz, who directs Yale’s climate change communication program. With complicated issues like climate change, which are hard for many to grasp, voters take their cues from the elite, not the other way around, he says.

After Republican leaders and outlets like Fox News eased off climate rhetoric after the 2016 election (when the threat of action dissipated), public opinion on the right shifted back toward acceptance of climate change as a problem. “When Republican leaders aren’t talking about climate change much… Republican views start to rebound,” Leiserowitz told U.S. News & World Report. If the Republican leadership were to propose a climate bill, studies suggest (paywall) the party’s voters would follow.