Prominent Republican joins House climate caucus with praise for fossil fuels

Critics view Fred Upton's climate caucus membership as bid for "political cover."

Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) joined the House Climate Solutions Caucus on January 26, 2018. CREDIT: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) joined the House Climate Solutions Caucus on January 26, 2018. CREDIT: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

The rapidly expanding Climate Solutions Caucus gained its most prominent member on Friday, with the addition of Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), the former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Upton is known for supporting Arctic drilling and opposing the Clean Power Plan.

Upton’s decision to join the caucus is expected to raise the profile of the panel, although some climate activists are concerned about his history of opposing action on climate change. The panel also has been criticized for a lack of accomplishments. But the group’s co-chairman, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), wants the group to begin offering policy proposals in this Congress or the next one, Axios reported Friday.

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The size of the Climate Solutions Caucus has almost tripled since the beginning of 2017. A year ago, the caucus boasted 24 members; with the addition of Upton and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), the caucus has grown to 68 members. The caucus adds member in bipartisan pairs.

Unlike most congressional Republicans who supported President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, Upton thought it was a mistake to back out. Last June, Upton said the agreement was carefully crafted and has many positives, including provisions to monitor countries with high pollution such as China and India, MLive reported.

“As one of the more senior Republicans in Congress, he carries a great deal of influence with GOP members,” Mark Reynolds, executive director of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, said Friday in a statement. “This is one more step to neutralize the partisan rhetoric surrounding climate change so that Congress can get down to enacting solutions. The Citizens’ Climate Lobby was the driving force behind the creation of the caucus in 2016.

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“When it comes to climate change we must take an economically realistic and pragmatic approach,” Upton said Friday. “Joining the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus is a tremendous opportunity to work across the aisle towards those goals.”

Upton, who is still a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, noted that he and his fellow committee members have taken legislative action to lower emissions and support hydropower and natural gas projects. “Pursuing an ‘all-of-the-above’ energy strategy that protects our environment, preserves our Great Lakes, and ensures energy stays affordable for Michigan families has always been a focus,” he said.

A prominent critic of the Climate Solutions Caucus was not impressed with Upton’s decision to join the panel. “Upton, a well-oiled favorite of the Koch brothers, has a long record of abusing his leadership positions on the House Energy Committee to deny the existence of climate change, promote Arctic drilling, and to vote against light bulb efficiency regulations that he originally supported,” said R.L. Miller, co-founder of Climate Hawks Vote, a grassroots-funded group that supports candidates and elected officials whom it identifies as making climate change a top priority.

Miller noted that her group endorsed Upton’s Democratic challenger, Paul Clements, in Upton’s reelection bid in 2014. “The only thing we want to do with Fred Upton is this: vote him out,” Miller said.

Last November, climate activists questioned why the caucus agreed to allow Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) to join the panel. The freshman congressman’s first piece of legislation called for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to be abolished.

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The caucus includes a few Republicans who sincerely want to act on climate change. But most of the group’s GOP members appear to be joining to improve their image among constituents, not to develop climate change solutions.

“Fred Upton meets all the criteria needed for membership in the Climate Peacock Caucus, Republican side. He’s a vulnerable Republican facing credible climate-hawk challengers and thus desperate for political cover,” Miller said. “He’ll fit in well with climate peacocks like Matt ‘Terminate the EPA’ Gaetz.”

Over the past 10 years, Upton has been a reliable pro-fossil fuel vote in Congress. He voted against the Waxman-Markey climate bill in 2009, opposed the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, supports drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and along the Atlantic Coast.

He supported the disbandment of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming when Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives in 2011.

Last year, Upton joined members of the caucus in opposing an amendment to the fiscal 2018 defense authorization bill that would have deleted a section directing military officials to identify bases at risk because of climate change impacts such as rising sea levels.

Reynolds said his group’s volunteers in Michigan have been meeting with Upton and generating support for him to join the caucus.