For years, bipartisan action on climate change has been an absolute non-starter. At a fundamental level, our two parties could not even come together on a common recognition that any problem existed in the first place. Republicans, for their part, have lead with the repeated declaration that climate change is simply not real. And Democrats, who could have taken this moment to develop a comprehensive agenda on the issue, have instead spent most of the past decade simply rebutting their Republican counterparts with frequent reminders that the climate is changing with vague calls to do something about the problem.
It wasn’t always like this. In his 2007 state of the union address, President George W. Bush announced his support for pursuing investment “to confront the serious challenge of global climate change.” In 2008, bipartisan Congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich declared that “our country must take action to address climate change,” and the leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination all promised to do so. However, since then, Republicans have collapsed into single-minded climate denial. Whether sparked by partisan opposition to Barack Obama’s cap and trade plan (a market-based policy originally favored by Republicans) or prodded along by the declining share of Republican voters who trusted climate science, Republicans effectively abandoned any pretense of working on this issue.
Now, though, there are subtle but growing signs that Republicans may be coming back around on climate. To be clear, we remain miles away from 2007. The party is still led by a president who calls climate change “a hoax” and “expensive bullshit.” More often than proposing solutions, Republican politicians and commentators foment nonsense climate culture wars about hamburgers and straws. And the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee has repeatedly equated the proposed Green New Deal to a “genocide.”
Nevertheless, in certain pockets of the G.O.P., a climate moment seems to be developing. Among voters, there seems to be a generational divide. A majority of Republicans under 38 want the government to do more to reduce the effects of climate change, while less than a third of those over 55 agree. A handful of conservative leaders are moving in the same direction. Frank Luntz, the G.O.P.’s long-time public opinion and messaging guru, has used his platform in the past year to urge the party to change its politics on climate. Over the past year, hundreds of economists, including White House chief economists, several former Republican Treasury Secretaries, and former Federal Reserve Chairs, have joined onto a statement urging the government to adopt a carbon tax.
The most concrete action from Republicans has been in Congress. Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee, led by Congressman Greg Walden, have promoted a set of legislative proposals they call the “12 in ‘20, ” twelve bipartisan bills that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These bills focus on areas that have traditionally found more moderate support, like carbon capture, nuclear energy, and energy storage technology, rather than massive investment and regulatory standards, which have found more exclusively Democratic support.
That’s not to say that these bills are unpopular with Democrats. Six of the twelve bills have Democrats as the lead sponsor. Three have more Democratic co-sponsors than Republicans. And these aren’t just moderate, red-state Democrats. Even members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, including Barbara Lee and Raul Grijalva, the outspoken chair of the Natural Resources Committee, have signed on to some of these bills.
Critics of these bills might rightly point out that they are not ambitious enough to meet any reasonable climate goals, like the Paris agreement’s goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Indeed, even the most ambitious carbon pricing proposals to come out of Congress recently don’t achieve this on their own. Partially motivated by this will to do more than the 12 in ‘20 are capable of, Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee have come out with their own proposal, the C.L.E.A.N. Future Act. This proposal is designed to achieve net zero emissions in the next 30 years, buts its necessary ambition has come at the cost of foregoing any Republican support, at least so far in the infancy stages of this proposal. The lack of any Republican support for this proposal whatsoever may be taken as another sign that, for whatever progress it has made, the GOP is not yet a full partner on climate.
This developing new political situation presents somewhat of a puzzle to those of us who would like to see some action on climate. Certainly, it’s better to have a Republican party that puts forward center-right climate proposals around nuclear energy, carbon capture, and other such ideas rather than one that simply refuses to entertain any discussion on the issue at all. However, as climate finds its way onto the radars of both parties, solutions risk becoming polarized along party lines. Already, we have seen some American progressives, historically the most ardent proponents of climate action, abandon some of the most promising solutions like carbon pricing, in large part driven by ideological concerns that climate action must be taken in tandem with left-wing economic measures.
Needless to say, such polarization would be a troubling downside to recent developments. In the meantime, results-oriented environmentalists should watch the potential emergence of a Republican climate contingency with interest. If our political situation develops such that bipartisan compromise enables desperately needed climate action, then we are all the better for it. The stakes are too high to risk more partisan failure.
Bobby Zitzmann is a fourth-year International Relations major in the School of International Service. He is a co-founder and former Editor-in-Chief of the Agora, and is currently a guest columnist.
Image: Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee