Republicans turn to Frank Luntz’s playbook instead of developing a real climate plan

Republican senator's Green New Deal alternative puts lipstick on fossil fuels.

Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), right, and Joe Manchin (D-WV) in the U.S. Capitol on December 2018. CREDIT: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), right, and Joe Manchin (D-WV) in the U.S. Capitol on December 2018. CREDIT: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

The Senate “debate” about the Green New Deal resolution Tuesday revealed that while the American public is clamoring for concrete climate action, Republicans still deny climate science and have no plan for tackling the greatest preventable threat to the nation and the world.

Indeed, the only GOP senator to release a plan with any actual details is Lamar Alexander (R-TN). But in a remarkably self-contradictory NPR interview Tuesday, he claimed America can address the climate crisis by keeping coal plants open and building more natural gas plants.

One of the pillars of Alexander’s plan is a renewed push on “fusion” power, which the nation and the world have been pursuing for a half century and which experts say still won’t be commercial for many decades, if ever. Even Alexander’s plan concedes, “This is still a dream,” but expresses hope that we can make a little progress in five years.

All of the latest science makes clear that we have no time for dreams. Deep cuts in fossil fuel use and carbon pollution must be made by 2030, or we will be unable to stop a series of ever more costly climate impacts, including mega-droughts, super-storms, floods, and rapid sea level rise.


That’s the central point of the Green New Deal resolution, which calls for a plan to decarbonize the U.S. economy as rapidly as possible, starting with the electricity sector, where we have so many cost-effective alternative to fossil fuels, including solar, wind, and energy efficiency.

Some GOP senators mocked the whole notion of climate action, most notably Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) who went on a bizarre rant Tuesday about Star Wars and Sharknado. He ended by saying that the solution to climate change, like “the solution to so many of our problems,” is “to fall in love, get married, and have some kids.”

The remaining Republican senators were hardly more serious, since they repeated the tired talking points from a playbook developed two decades ago by Republican pollster and messaging expert Frank Luntz — a plan built around repeating the poll-tested words “technology” and “innovation” over and over and over.

“The way to do this consistent with American values and American capitalism is through technology and innovation,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said Tuesday.

“The Republicans want to solve this problem with belief in the innovation fairy” which “will spray innovation pixie dust on this problem and it’ll go away,” as Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) said Wednesday. “You can’t just say the word innovation, you have to change the economic structure to allow innovation to happen.”


Alexander’s 10-point plan — “A New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy” — is nothing but technology and innovation on steroids. There are no emissions reduction targets or specific goals of any kind.

But in reality, Republicans have long opposed or mocked actual federal investments in clean energy development. Remember their incessant mocking of loans to solar companies like Solyndra? And President Donald Trump has repeatedly proposed gutting federal investment in clean energy despite overwhelming popularity among GOP voters.

While Alexander may accept the scientific consensus that climate change is an urgent threat, a baby step many of his fellow Republicans have yet to take, his plan is empty and full of contradictions.

For instance, he bragged to NPR that “the United States leads the world in reducing carbon emissions.” But then he immediately criticized the “conversation” around the Green New Deal, saying that what Democrats “usually mean when they have this kind of conversation is, we’re going to close the coal plants. That’s not necessary.”

Apparently Alexander is unaware that the main reason we lead the world in reducing carbon emissions is that we lead the world in shutting down coal plants.

There is no possibility that some miracle technology will appear in a few years to somehow make existing coal plants both carbon free and yet more competitive than new solar and wind power plants. After all, those plants are already money losers without any new technology added on.


A major new report released this week found that replacing 74 percent of coal plants with renewable energy sources would immediately reduce costs. And by 2025, virtually all existing coal plants — and many natural gas plants — will be unable to compete with renewables.

Yet Alexander’s plan calls for investment in natural gas power plants. Again, the country needs a carbon-free grid as soon as possible, not one built around dirty and costly fossil fuels.

The plan also calls for more nuclear power, while pointing out that “building the Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia, the only two new reactors being built in the U.S., could cost as much as $27.5 billion,” and while conceding that the cleaner alternatives are 10 times cheaper. This is not a discrepancy that “innovation pixie dust” can fix.

“This is a bold agenda,” Alexander’s plan claims, but in reality it is just more delay, more hand-waving, more lipstick on a pig, more tired talking points from two decades ago.

All his plan demonstrates is just how intellectually bankrupt the entire Republican Party is in responding to the existential threat of climate change.