The conservative case for climate action

Republicans, led by Utah Congressman John Curtis, want to usher in a new era of climate policy. Is their effort poised to make a difference?

Cheering? Here? For him? John Curtis can hardly believe it. The Republican congressman from Utah knows many in the crowd — some 2,500 strong, packed into Miami Beach’s New World Center in early March — remain apprehensive of his message, of his mere presence. But John Curtis is a politician, and at times even a showman, so he knows exactly what to do.

“Can we just enjoy this moment?” he asks the audience with a grin. “I’m a Republican, and I’m here to talk climate.” The audience erupts. It’s exactly the reception Curtis hoped to find at this year’s Aspen Ideas: Climate conference, where people from across the world have gathered to discuss how to save the planet. And, for at least a moment, they’re cheering for a conservative. 

Such a moment would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago, at an event where Vice President Kamala Harris will take the stage in the coming days. Indeed, a quick canvas of attendees reveals a man and a party whose climate reputation remains unknown at best and incendiary at worst.

“Cautious,” one visitor from Michigan tells me when asked to explain Republican climate attitudes. Another guest, a Silicon Valley physicist, adds, “I’m wondering if this is going to be a conversation about the facts associated with climate change and how our Congress is going to play an active role in supporting them — or not supporting them.” Skepticism like hers abounds. Curtis is trying to change that. 

The skepticism he’s met with on the left is matched on the right. How many jobs are we willing to jeopardize to achieve uncertain policy outcomes? Does going electric eventually mean mining lithium for batteries in places like Russia and Venezuela? What happens if the United States takes carbon action while our geopolitical competitors don’t and gain an economic advantage?

U.S. Rep. John Curtis of Utah is leading the conversation in the conservative bid to slow climate change. | T.J. Kirkpatrick for the Deseret News

Curtis is having to answer skeptics on both sides while still keeping his balance. For the past several years, he’s sought to rebrand the “climate denial” party into something like the “climate realist” party, insisting that Republicans can actually do more for the planet than Democrats. It’s a risky gambit when the influence of the party’s climate skeptics remains very strong. Plus his party’s proposed climate solutions, critics argue, are just not bold enough at this critical moment. The New York Times has labeled this new Republican strategy “delay as the new denial,” contending that the party’s updated posture amounts to little more than a cosmetic change. 

But combatting emissions starts with recognizing the problem, says Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton climate scientist. Now, many Republicans have. Some might still call them the “climate denial” party because of their divergence on the question of urgency, but Oppenheimer says that’s not the same as outright repudiation of the concept. The problem, he adds, “is only going to be solved with some reasonable interest from all parts of the political spectrum.”

Now that Republicans like Curtis have chosen to get involved, the question — in Miami and beyond — is whether climate advocates will still cheer when they hear conservative ideas and consider conservative critiques. The answer will help determine if Curtis and fellow conservatives can help change the course of emissions and warming — or whether they’re still just blowing smoke.

To understand how far Republicans have come on this issue in just the past few years, consider Bob Inglis. Inglis served two six-year stints in the House of Representatives as a Republican from South Carolina, with the first stretch coinciding with the Clinton administration. “I said that climate change was nonsense,” he says of that period. “All I knew was that Al Gore was for it, and I was against it. That was the end of the inquiry.” He laughs now, admitting how much has changed.

Beginning with the administration of Ronald Reagan, the party has been known for caution on environmental issues. And to this day, that administration holds the record for the most acres leased to fossil fuel companies, outmatching the next-closest competitor three times over. Yet despite reflexive Republican backlash against Bill Clinton and Gore, climate change — in this context referring to the atmospheric buildup of anthropogenic greenhouse gases and the associated warming effect — still wasn’t a terribly polarizing issue heading into the new millennium. In a letter from March 2001, President George W. Bush wrote that his “administration takes the issue of global climate change very seriously.” And many Republicans in the Senate were leading efforts to curb emissions. A 2018 article in Inside Climate News cites John McCain in particular as having done “more than any other U.S. politician … to advance the conservative argument for climate action.”

But then, recognizing the substantial grassroots backlash against President Barack Obama in the form of the tea party, Republicans saw in climate policy a budding political opportunity. After all, our whole economy depends on carbon emissions to function. So Republicans developed a plan to oppose Obama’s climate agenda on the basis that it was bad for American business interests. Their strategy proved quite popular with conservatives, and any tether to nuance was quickly lost. Soon, opposing climate legislation was about outright denying that climate change was an issue at all. 

John Curtis has sought to rebrand the “climate denial” party to something like the “climate realist” party, contending that Republicans can actually do more for the planet than Democrats.

Inglis, however, tried to reverse that trend. 

During his second stint in Congress, from 2005 to 2011, his children asked him to reconsider his climate views. Confronted with new evidence, namely the overwhelming consensus of American scientists, Inglis started to look at carbon emissions as a problem in need of a solution. Unfortunately for his political future, he did so at the height of anti-Obama backlash. “Usually you don’t get 29 percent of the vote if you’ve been in Congress for 12 years — unless you’ve been indicted or something. I was just on the wrong side of what became tea party orthodoxy,” he says of losing a primary challenge. “And the most enduring heresy that I committed at that time was just saying climate change is real, and let’s do something about it.” 

Instead, Republicans’ approach was typified by Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who in February 2015 brought a snowball onto the Senate floor. “We keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record,” he said. “This is a snowball from outside here. It’s very, very cold out. Very unseasonal.” When Donald Trump decided to run for president, he followed Inhofe’s lead. 

Despite having signed a 2009 letter urging Obama to pursue climate goals, Trump soon reversed course. By 2013, he was calling global warming “a total, and very expensive, hoax!” He later walked back the “hoax” terminology, but he continued to question whether humans were contributing to climate change — even when a federal report during his presidency warned of devastating economic consequences if climate change is left unaddressed. “I don’t believe it,” Trump said at the time. More recently, he took a shot at climate-focused efforts in announcing his candidacy for the 2024 Republican nomination. “The Green New Deal and the environment, which they say may affect us in 300 years, is all that is talked about,” he said

Trump’s insistence on undermining climate change will continue to handicap the party as long as he remains a force within it, says longtime adversary Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah. “He is the front-runner for the nomination, and is by far the most likely to get the nomination. And the person who’s running for president tends to be seen as the spokesman for the party,” Romney told me. “And President Trump said that climate change was a hoax. And if that’s his posture, that’s probably what people are gonna think our party stands for. I think there’s more grassroots support for taking action on climate. But I think if he’s our nominee, we’re going to be hard-pressed to see our party change course.”

Yet that’s exactly what Curtis is uniquely situated to do — if not for moral reasons, then at least for political ones: Young conservatives are more likely than other Republicans to support pro-climate legislation, and Curtis’ 3rd Congressional District, encompassing Provo, Park City, Moab and most of rural eastern Utah, is both solidly conservative and the youngest in the nation. “Part of what motivated me was doing town halls and looking in their eyes and seeing how disappointed they were in their party,” he says. “We can’t afford to lose the next generation of Republicans on this issue.” Count Inglis among the surprised — and impressed. “That John Curtis has been able to do this, it’s just amazing,” he says. “If you had told me in the 2010 cycle that there will be a Conservative Climate Caucus, and that John would be able to recruit that many members to it — I would have thought you were nuts.”

So just how did Curtis manage to pull his party back from complete denial? And moreover, can he keep it there?

He’s always cared about the environment, at least in a general sense. “Deeply implanted in every human being is this desire to leave the Earth better than we found it,” he says. “I don’t think that’s unique to Democrats, and I don’t think it’s unique to Republicans.” He acted on those instincts during his eight years as mayor of Provo, especially regarding reducing air pollution. In 2017, the Utah Clean Air Partnership named him its “person of the year” for his efforts, with one write-up calling him a “green mayor in a red city.” But when he was first elected to Congress in 2017, he found that no one in Washington — on the left or the right — wanted to talk about air quality. They wanted to talk about carbon emissions. “I found myself very unprepared,” he says. “And I quickly found myself falling into the stereotypes of Republicans who don’t believe in climate change.”

But those stereotypes gnawed at him. They didn’t seem accurate to his experience — even if, admittedly, his party was leaning into that brand. “All we were doing was telling people what we didn’t like,” he says. “We’re really good at saying, ‘We don’t like the Green New Deal. We don’t like this.’ But we really weren’t articulating what … we would do.” Curtis wasn’t ready to provide those answers yet, but his discomfort with the party’s mainstream stance caused him to start asking questions. He quickly discovered that even among conservative think tanks and oil executives, the verdict on climate change is absolutely clear: Of course the climate is changing. Of course man has influenced that change.

GOP climate skeptic Sen. James Inhofe, left, once held a snowball up on the senate floor to refute climate change. | Getty Images

Armed with that knowledge, Curtis found that because the rest of his party was so lacking in their contributions to the climate change dialogue, a simple admission of what he learned was enough to earn him a seat at the table to discuss solutions. That realization first occurred during a Provo town hall in 2019, when a local newspaper reporter asked him if man was influencing climate change. He said yes. “Next day, front page, top fold: ‘Curtis admits to climate change,’” he remembers with a chuckle. But in the following weeks and months, he noticed a more serious difference in his perception among folks in the climate space. “I was now in the club of credibility,” he says. “And that’s when it dawned on me the mistake Republicans are making by dodging this question.” 

As a result, two years ago he invited a cadre of Republican lawmakers to the Grand America Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City to talk about climate policy. He figured maybe half a dozen would attend, but 24 Republican lawmakers — about 10 percent of congressional Republicans at the time — showed up from all over the country. Some said they’d only go if the press didn’t find out, but regardless, the turnout assured Curtis there was real interest among Republicans in finally having some answers on climate change. He founded the Conservative Climate Caucus in 2021 to facilitate those conversations. Today, it’s one of the largest caucuses in the House at 73 members. “There’s this pent-up desire to be good on this subject,” Curtis says. “To have answers. To respond to our critics.”

But the caucus’ Twitter bio also illustrates the long road still ahead. It reads like the rhetorical equivalent of walking on eggshells: “We believe the climate is changing, and decades of a global industrial era that has brought prosperity to the world has also contributed to that change.” Even if the party’s proposed solutions are aligned with traditional conservative ideas about free markets and energy independence, caring about climate remains somewhat taboo. Particularly certain terminology, like “climate crisis” or “existential threat,” which comes back to the central fissure between climate-conscious Republicans and Democrats: urgency. “I feel that we have time,” explains Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, an Iowa Republican who serves as vice chair of Curtis’ Conservative Climate Caucus. “I don’t feel that it’s an urgent crisis. I don’t see that urgent need to act now.”

In a meeting of the House’s Energy and Commerce Committee in late January, Curtis emphasized that despite debates over urgency, common ground exists between Democrats and Republicans. Permitting reform. Nuclear energy. Emerging technologies like hydrogen fusion and improved battery storage. The parties even agree, he said, that solar and wind are important, though to varying extents. This was all good news. But “we spend too much of our time,” Curtis added, “in the areas where we disagree.”

One such area: the demonization of fossil fuels and the people who produce them. Curtis challenged his “friends on the left” to substitute their anger toward fossil fuels with anger toward emissions. “If fossil fuels can compete with other energy sources in cleanliness, why do we insist that they die? Why do we demonize the very people who’ve produced these for decades and decades? Why can’t they be viewed as part of the solution, and not the problem?” 

That question rests at the heart of the climate policy schism between Democrats and Republicans. “I think oil and gas is not making our country more secure. I know that (Republicans) feel that more oil and gas is the answer,” says Rep. Scott Peters, a California Democrat who has worked with Curtis and who believes further development of fossil fuel resources, whether domestic or imported, is the wrong way to secure the nation’s energy future at a time when other sources are becoming more readily available. “That’s kind of the big difference right now.” And the difference is so wide that it threatens to undermine any potential progress in areas where agreement does exist. 

A six-point climate plan Republicans released last year in June echoes Democrats in calling for investment in renewable energy and emerging technologies. But it also calls for an uptick in domestic fossil fuel production. So does HR1, a Curtis-supported bill introduced in March that seeks to expedite infrastructure projects and ease government burdens on energy producers, including fossil fuel companies; the bill’s name, the “Lower Energy Costs Act,” suggests that Curtis and his Republican colleagues have the fossil industry and its consumers far more top of mind than slowing the pace of climate change.

Their thinking in general is that global energy demand is going to continue to rise in the coming decades. So even if the U.S. is able to get to net-zero emissions by 2050, fossil fuels will remain important in the developing world, and the U.S. can develop those resources in a way that’s cleaner than other countries. Plus it can continue to use those resources for now, while the clean energy transition is still in progress. “Not investing in oil and gas makes no sense, in my opinion,” Romney says. “Democrats keep on wanting to shut down our oil and gas production and our coal production, and it’s like, ‘Guys, we need these for at least the next 20 years, and the world is still gonna rely on these things.’” 

Even a net-zero future reliant on electric vehicles and renewable energy will require environmental compromise. The batteries that power those technologies, for example, require vast sums of lithium, cobalt and other precious metals. We can import them from other countries with lesser environmental standards — or, many Republicans contend, we can mine them here, in places like Utah, where the land will be affected, yes, but not as much as in many other countries where these resources are found. “The society that we’re being told is the future, with electrification of just about everything so that we have zero emissions, the critical mineral piece of that is incredibly intense, and that is mining. And the environmental community is also opposed to mining,” says Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican. “You can’t have it both ways.” Similarly, electric vehicles, which on average emit less than conventional combustion engines, draw most of their power from fossil fuels, including a large percentage from coal. That could change as renewable energy becomes more abundant and available in the coming decades, but regardless, the climate change conversation is full of paradoxes. 

Curtis maintains that fossil fuels can be part of the clean energy transition if given a chance. His view is a direct consequence of who he represents: coal mining communities in places like Carbon County and oil and gas producers in the Uinta Basin. He doesn’t want them to be abandoned, and many Democrats are sympathetic to that part of his message. But Curtis’ idea that fossil fuels can become clean by using “scrubbers” to capture carbon dioxide has been around for a long time, and so far, it hasn’t proven viable. The technology does work — “but it works at a price that we can’t afford,” says Oppenheimer, the Princeton climate scientist. “Right now, the cheapest way to cut emissions is to encourage the further development of renewable energy.”

Democrats by-and-large haven’t responded well to Republican climate proposals. “I welcome the efforts of anyone, regardless of party, who is willing to seriously tackle climate change,” Virginia Democratic Rep. Don Beyer told The Washington Post in June, “but on its face this does not look like a serious proposal.” Many on the left point to United Nations climate reports warning that we’re on track to irreversible damage if we don’t cut back on emissions. Specifically fossil fuels; the latest report advises rich nations to abandon them by 2040 — a much more drastic change than Republican proposals call for. So when it comes to working together on something like permitting reform, that builds roadblocks. “The problem is, are Democrats really going to be comfortable with more pipelines?” Curtis says. “Because Republicans aren’t doing permitting reform” if Democrats can’t assure the construction of more pipelines. 

Curtis quickly found that even among conservative think tanks and oil executives, the verdict on climate change is absolutely clear: Of course the climate is changing. Of course man has influenced that change.

Some Democratic proposals, meanwhile, have already become law. Sen. Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat who describes climate action as “my life’s professional goal,” helped draft the climate provisions in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act — a sprawling piece of legislation that allocated over $700 billion in spending, including almost $400 billion toward climate and energy projects. “That was not a moment for bipartisanship,” he says. “That was a moment to do what was necessary in order to save the planet.” Republicans criticized Democrats for pushing it through without fully understanding what was in it, but a recent New York Times essay notes that the IRA’s climate provisions are likely to have a disproportionately positive economic impact on red states, thus making them something of a moot point on the campaign trail — especially with Republican enthusiasm for climate legislation continuing to build. 

Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat who floated the Colorado River with Romney in September 2021, has been encouraged by his colleagues’ progress. “There are many Republicans in the Senate who believe that climate change is real,” he says, “and that we ought to address it.” And even the most hawkish climate Democrats agree with Republicans on the ultimate goals. “I suppose there are probably ideologues or activists out there who are saying, shut it all down immediately. But that’s not realistic. And that’s not humane,” says Schatz. “We still have people who need to operate their businesses and their schools and their hospitals. So the objective should be to move as fast as we can in the direction of clean energy, but never have an interruption in service, and protect the ratepayer to make sure that this transition doesn’t cost them anything. And when you talk like that you can find a fair amount of common ground.” Yes, in theory, common ground abounds. The question is whether it will overshadow the disagreements enough to result in meaningful action. “I believe we can have it all,” Curtis told his committee colleagues in January. “I believe we can be reliable, affordable and clean. Now, if we can get together and talk, I believe my colleagues on the left believe the same thing.” 

Policy differences aside, the fact alone that today’s Republicans can at least talk about climate in a new way is evidence of progress. “I think it’s because there are enough voices now that have a rational approach to a transition,” says Miller-Meeks, the caucus’ vice chair. “So I think that there are more voices now to be able to have that discourse and interchange.” But, with a laugh both lighthearted and ominous, she adds an important caveat about the movement’s future: “Or it could be that I’m just not talking to everybody.”

The party’s well-earned reputation, and the leaders fighting to keep it alive, could still overthrow and undermine the caucus’ progress, and many are working to make sure of it. 

Marc Morano is one of the country’s best-known climate skeptics. Author of five books, including “Green Fraud” and “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Climate Change,” he’s also published the website and newsletter since 2009 and served as communications director for Inhofe, of snowball notoriety. He considers himself conservative, so he’s followed the Republican evolution on climate change with great interest — and, increasingly, with great disappointment. “My advice, when you’re confronted with the non-problem of global warming, is to have the courage to do nothing,” he says. “I just thought it was complete capitulation,” he adds, referring to the Conservative Climate Caucus’ founding. “I would be all for a Republican climate conference if it actually took the correct (path). But no, this was a capitulation conference, where the members sat around, accepted the premise and came up with basically a Green New Deal-lite, where they weren’t going to challenge it.”

Congressman John Curtis’ other herculean task: reversing the GOP’s reputation on climate. | T.J. Kirkpatrick for the Deseret News

Few match Morano’s ferocity on pushing back against climate change, but Curtis is still fighting an uphill battle against a whole lot of people in his party who, though they may not say so as vocally and clearly as Morano, feel more or less the same way. A 2021 analysis by the Center for American Progress found that 139 members in both chambers of Congress are skeptical climate change is a problem, or is humanmade, including some big GOP names like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who in 2022 quote-tweeted a former Trump EPA official who said “Climate is a hoax” while adding “climate alarmists have a political ideology to promote, and facts can’t get in the way;” and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, of Georgia, who contends that carbon emissions and global warming are actually good for humanity. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has avoided using the term “climate change” at all and has called global warming “a pretext to do a bunch of left-wing things.” 

To dismiss that position’s influence on today’s Republican Party would be premature. Especially when Trump — and any presidential hopeful with similar climate views — threatens to sabotage Curtis’ emerging vision for GOP climate policy.  “To the extent that Trump is a viable candidate,” Curtis says, “I think that’s true.” But Curtis also remains hopeful that someone else will emerge who will follow his caucus’ lead. “I think there’s a high likelihood that you’ll have some thoughtful discussion on a presidential level,” he says of the upcoming primary cycle. “And I think that would be very healthy for us.”

Back in Miami, in one of the American cities most susceptible to the consequences of climate change, Curtis makes sure to cover his go-to climate elevator pitch: “I believe we can have affordable, reliable, clean energy.” Again, raucous applause. The audience seems overwhelmingly receptive to his message, at least in the absence of specifics. That’s his goal here: to convince the climate conscious — liberal and conservative alike — that he and fellow Republicans are serious about tackling emissions and should be taken seriously in these forums. That doesn’t require having all the answers or avoiding disagreements with Democrats, but it does mean acknowledging the problem and working to solve it. Whether here at Aspen Ideas or in his broader pursuit of conservative-aligned climate legislation, it’s a message that’s still a gamble.

It’s a gamble to come to a climate conference because despite its recent progress, his party still stands accused of not doing enough to move away from fossil fuels and embrace U.N. goals that call for rich countries to go net zero by 2040 and help stave off the 2.7-degree threshold established by the Paris Agreement. And it’s a gamble to share a forum with liberal-leaning speakers and activists who are all talking about an issue that remains unpopular with Republicans regardless of recent gains. Especially when doing so could amount to nothing but electoral liability.  A Brookings report from earlier this year notes that while there are new areas of bipartisan climate agreement, those areas are “less likely to motivate the ‘rapid transformation of societies’ that the 2022 U.N. Emissions Gap Report says is necessary ‘to avoid climate disaster.’” 

But Curtis believes, and wants other Republicans to believe, that doing so is worth the risk. For political reasons, yes, but also for moral ones. He and like-minded believers maintain that their ideas are just better for stanching the warming of the planet. “I think our view is that our Democrat friends are focused on things that make us feel good, that are very expensive, but won’t make a hill-of-beans difference to the global environment,” Romney says. “Republicans are anxious to do things that will make a real difference.” Whether that holds true remains to be seen, and many observers certainly doubt it. But many are also starting to at least take notice. 

After Curtis’ panel concludes, a group of college students approaches him in the hallway to tell him how much they loved his ideas. They even request a photo with him. These students are not from some conservative group. They attended Curtis’ panel with apprehension. “I was very skeptical, because I’m very left-wing,” says Laura Bort Martin, who’s studying in the U.K. “I think the impression most of us had was that he’s just another deep-red Republican,” adds her companion, a young man from Ohio named Jiahao Guo. “So not exactly in line with a lot of the progressive values that younger people are known for.” 

Yet here they were, eager to talk to him after finally hearing him talk to them. “He takes it more seriously than I thought,” Martin admits. “It won’t be done without everyone’s support, so it’s really important to have him on board.”  

This story appears in the May issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.