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Why the tide is changing when it comes to Republicans and climate change

GOP policymakers are moving cautiously as polling shows Republicans generally aren’t concerned, and conservative environmentalists sense growing interest in the issue.

Photo illustration by Alex Cochran and Michelle Budge

After years of being split over climate change, there are signs a new Republican consensus is forming. For now, it’s mostly just talk and conversations behind closed doors, but for some conservative climate activists, that’s reason enough to be optimistic at a time when there’s not a lot of good news.

Alex Flint, executive director of the conservative climate change group Alliance for Market Solutions, said in four years his organization had 600 meetings with Republican members of Congress. When they started out, he recalled, one lawmaker told him he was the first Republican to ever come talk about climate change.

“I’ve had members say, ‘I actually don’t know very much about this,’” Flint said. “For a lot of members, the discussion about science and the effects is educational. I mean, they are learning.”

That the conversations are happening at all are significant, he said. “Conservatives are now talking to conservatives about what to do about climate change, and that’s a big change from a few years ago.” His meetings often consist of a discussion of climate science followed by conservative policies that reduce climate change risks.

“What I’m trying to be a part of is an evolution of the politics where conservatives become the leaders on addressing climate change,” Flint said.

Republicans have largely ceded climate change to Democrats, but new action on the right suggests that could change. A new climate report suggests it needs to change faster.

The report, released Monday by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was stark in its warnings about the climate crisis, and it found that since 1850, humans have warmed the climate at a rate unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years. Researchers concluded with high confidence that the changing climate is responsible for many increasing extreme weather events, like heat waves, droughts and lost shorelines.

Climate change isn’t something that’s coming, the report found, it’s already here. Some effects from past and future greenhouse gas emissions, like melting mountain and polar glaciers and a rising global sea level, are irreversible for centuries or millennia.

“One page after another, there is no good news in this thing,” Flint said of the report. “What we are seeing now with wildfires in the West is no longer an anomaly, it’s the new baseline, and likely to get worse. The sea level rise estimates are really troubling.”

Flint said he doesn’t see a connection between what scientists are saying and what policymakers are willing to do, and he believes it will take “years of work to create support for meaningful, responsible climate policy.”

“Members are not willing right now to publicly endorse any climate policy on the scale necessary to address the problem,” he said.

The scale’s not there, but there are early signs of action, including the Conservative Climate Caucus, which was founded in June. It now counts 70 members, or about a third of the House Republican Conference. That same month, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy announced the creation of a climate change task force, and last year he introduced a package of climate bills. The proposals were panned by environmental news outlet Grist as “not very good,” and polling shows why Republican politicians may be moving cautiously.

A Gallup poll released in April found 32% of Republicans believe global warming is caused by pollution from human activities, down from 52% in 2003, and just 11% believe global warming will pose a serious threat in their lifetime. Climate change was not a priority for former President Donald Trump, who referred to it as both a “hoax” and “not a hoax.”

“I think for a long time there was hesitancy to be active on this issue because it had been so dominated by one side of the aisle and one set of solutions for so long,” said Danielle Butcher, executive vice president of the conservative American Conservation Coalition. “So I think being able to demonstrate that conservative values can be applied to this issue and that you can embrace things that conservatives would get behind has been a game changer.”

Conservative climate proposals include nuclear power and taxing carbon emissions, which a number of European countries already use. Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, who launched the Conservative Climate Caucus, said he believes the U.S. can develop technology to reduce emissions that can be exported to the rest of the world.

Calling from southern Utah where he was visiting rural parts of his district, Curtis said he believes Republicans have already turned the corner on climate.

“I’m down traveling to south parts of my district, a part of the country that’s been very dependent on extraction,” he said. “None of them have pushed back on what I’m doing. They may have questions about it, but they understand what’s happening. They want to be part of the solution.”

Curtis likened the way Republicans react to words like “climate change” to the way Democrats react to “the wall,” packed with symbolism that can end a conversation before it starts.

“If you talk about climate, it’s implied that you got to embrace the Green New Deal,” he said.

Instead of opening up about global warming during town hall meetings, he said, he starts off “with just our innate responsibility as human beings to leave this Earth better than we found it. And everybody connects with me on that level.”