President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement earlier this month left policymakers and citizens alike grasping for reasons to stay optimistic about the chances of avoiding the worst effects of climate change.
The House Climate Solutions Caucus, a group formed in early 2016 to bring Republicans and Democrats together to advance meaningful climate change legislation, is routinely referenced as a bright spot in the intensely partisan debate over climate change. But so far, the caucus has yet to put forth any substantive measures to either reduce emissions or help communities prepare for the impacts of climate change — leaving critics to wonder whether there will be any action to accompany members’ words.
“These members have joined something called the Climate Solutions Caucus. This is not the climate dialogue caucus,” Alex Taurel, deputy legislative director of the League of Conservation Voters, told ThinkProgress. “I think it’s reasonable to hold them to the standard of to what extent do they support solutions to climate change.”
At the same time, Taurel views the willingness of Republicans to join the caucus as a positive development, given the current political environment in Congress: At least 180 members deny the science behind climate change.
The House Climate Solutions Caucus includes an equal number of Democrats and Republicans and currently stands at 40 members after a growth spurt since the beginning of the year. If a Democrat wants to join the caucus, the lawmaker must find a Republican counterpart to become a member at the same time — and vice versa.
Prior to the president’s announcement on Paris, only four Republican caucus members — Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), along with Reps. Ryan Costello, Brian Fitzpatrick, and Patrick Meehan, all from Pennsylvania — agreed to sign a letter urging Trump to keep the U.S. in the popular, nonbinding accord. Seventeen Democratic members of the caucus signed the letter.
Climate activists are getting impatient with the group’s lack of action. “There’s a lot of ink being spilled on how this group is the next great hope of bipartisanship and we’re going to need a bipartisan agreement to get anything done on climate,” said R.L. Miller, co-founder of Climate Hawks Vote, grassroots-funded group that supports candidates and elected officials whom it identifies as making climate change a top priority. “Other than sending out press releases regarding who’s joining, they’re not doing anything.”
Most of the Republicans on the caucus “clearly are not climate hawks,” Miller said. “At best, I might call them climate peacocks, as in people who talk a good game but also stand up for the fossil fuel industry,” she said.
One of the caucus’ few accomplishments thus far is the introduction of a bill that would establish a commission of 10 members to conduct a review of public policies and private actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Miller noted that a similar bill calling for the creation of a blue-ribbon commission to study ways to cut emissions “has been kicking around Washington for a few years.” The nation needs action on climate change, not another commission to study it, she argued.
The Delaney-Gibson Climate Solutions Commission Act, which would have established a national commission to make recommendations on “how to best reduce non-sequestered greenhouse gas emissions based on the findings of the scientific community,” was introduced in 2016 but failed to pass.
Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), who became a member of the caucus earlier this year, is encouraged that 20 Republicans have joined the group.
Though not optimistic about a bill’s prospects in this Congress or the next one, Beyer expects legislation will eventually pass that will put a price on carbon, whether through a tax, fee, or cap. Carbon pricing “is accepted by economists across the political spectrum as the most efficient way to limit greenhouse gas emissions and to stimulate changes in behavior and stimulate the markets for alternative energy sources,” he told ThinkProgress.
Beyer, who is also a member of the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition, pointed out that some of the Republican members on the caucus may want to “have an environmental badge to hang out there” as they prepare for tough reelection campaigns in 2018.
The Virginia congressman’s voting record has resulted in a 99 percent lifetime environmental score from the League of Conservation Voters. The LCV scorecard counts votes on the most important issues of the year, including climate change, energy, public health, public lands, and wildlife conservation, and spending for environmental programs. The highest-rated Republican on the caucus is Curbelo, with a 38 percent LCV rating.
The Climate Solutions Caucus was formed after a volunteer with the advocacy group Citizens’ Climate Lobby approached Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) about establishing a bipartisan group to develop climate solutions. Deutch eventually teamed up with Curbelo to co-found the caucus. Both members represent south Florida, one of the regions scientists predict will be hit the hardest by climate change.
CCL executive director Mark Reynolds shares Beyer’s hope that Congress will pass a carbon pricing bill. At the group’s annual conference last year, Reynolds promised that a bill would be passed in 2017.
But then Donald Trump was elected president and immediately set about dismantling climate policies implemented during the Obama administration. Reynolds told the audience at his group’s 2017 conference Sunday that, even with Trump in the White House, he is not backing off his promise. “My promise is my promise,” he said. “My belief is that when you make big commitments, things happen that won’t happen without the commitment.”
The track record of the Republicans on the caucus does not bode well for Reynolds’ prediction. Many have voted for bills that benefit the oil and gas industry and have expressed opposition to legislative and regulatory attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The votes and public statements of Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), who assumed a leadership role on the caucus earlier this year when she authored the Republican Climate Change Resolution — a resolution almost identical to one introduced by former Rep. Chris Gibson (R-NY) in 2015 — do not mesh with her “self-proclaimed role” as a Republican climate champion, Miller said.
In the last Congress, Stefanik voted in support of legislation to authorize construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. She accused the Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama of engaging in regulatory “overreach,” and has been critical of the Clean Power Plan.
Miller’s Climate Hawks group, which focuses more on climate-related votes than the LCV scorecard, gave Curbello a “B” grade on climate-related issues, while Stefanik received an “F.”
In many respects, Miller views the Republicans on the Climate Solutions Caucus as similar to the Log Cabin Republicans, an organization that works within the Republican Party to advocate for equal rights for LGBTQ people.
“This is a group that is in a constant state of tension between the fact that they are LGBT and proud of it and the fact that their party hates LGBT people,” Miller said. “If they stray too far from their LGBT side, they get bashed. And if they stray too far from their Republican side, they get bashed. So they walk this tightrope, and they’ve never been able to effect any change in the party.”
The Climate Solutions Caucus includes a few Republicans who sincerely want to act on climate change. But most of the group’s GOP members joined to improve their image among constituents, not to develop climate change solutions, according to Miller. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), who is expected to face a “nasty political fight” in his reelection bid in 2018, is a prime example of a Republican who joined the caucus for political reasons, she said.
Issa, who was elected to Congress in 2000, has a 4 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters. Among Democratic members on the caucus who have served in Congress for more than two terms, Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D), another member of the Climate Solutions Caucus from California, rates the highest with a 99 percent LCV lifetime rating.
Six of the Republican members on the caucus have a lifetime LCV rating in the single-digits, with Rep. Mia Love (R-UT) at the bottom of the pack with a 1 percent rating.
“You have a wide range of levels of support for climate action among the Republicans who are in the caucus,” LCV’s Taurel said. “It’s fair to conclude that some of them aren’t exactly meeting the standard that they have set for themselves by joining something called the Climate Solutions Caucus, though.”
Curbelo, the Republican co-founder of the group, is viewed by many climate activists as a policymaker who does more than just talk about climate change. “What we found is that of the people who signed onto the Gibson resolution, Carlos Curbelo stands out,” Miller said. “The rest of them push fracking and refer to natural gas as a clean fuel. They vote the wrong way.”
Ten years ago, supporting climate action wasn’t considered a politically risky move for many Republicans. But a paradox has emerged on the issue: As the science on climate change has gotten clearer — and more dire — support for climate action has plummeted among Republicans in Congress.
“Among a hardcore group of far-right members of the public, the issue of climate change has stepped out of the scientific space and more into the cultural space,” Taurel said. “If you are a rock-ribbed conservative, then somehow that means you necessarily think climate change is a hoax.”