WASHINGTON - After years of pushback, a growing number of Republicans are starting to get behind moderate environmental reforms aimed at slowing the effects of climate change, including an expansion of renewable energies, carbon capture research, and incentives for companies to reduce their carbon footprints.
While the conservative proposals may still be oceans away from the actions many progressives believe are necessary to stop the planet’s downward climate crisis spiral, they still mark a seismic shift for the Grand Old Party, which is coming to terms with both scientific and political realities in ways that they haven’t ever before.
However, many Republicans aren’t quite ready to answer questions about that shift yet.
“There are a lot of climate deniers out there, there's no question about it,” said Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.), a conservative congressman who sits on the Select Committee on Climate Crisis. “But [most Republicans] recognize there are changes going on and we recognize that we have a responsibility to address the changes.”
Carter, whose district includes the entire Georgia coastline, has advocated for modest environmental reforms that favor private-sector investment and innovation. He says Republicans “have a lot of common ground” with Democrats, including a shared frustration over some conservatives’ unwillingness to publicly advocate for climate solutions.
NBCLX reached out to nearly two dozen Republican members of the House and Senate who have supported recent legislation to address climate change, but most either declined comment or did not respond at all.
But recent actions in Washington suggest the GOP is warming up to reforms, particularly moderate policies sandwiched in the very large space between the two extreme ends of the climate debate.
“You've got so much partisanship that exists, particularly here in Washington now, that sometimes that gets thrown into the climate change conversation,” Carter said. “And it shouldn't be the case because climate change is real.”
President Joe Biden has called for a 50% reduction in the U.S.’ 2005 greenhouse gas pollution levels by 2030, while more progressive members of the Democratic Party have supported the Green New Deal, which proposes meeting 100% of the nation’s power demand with renewable energy by 2030, with net-zero carbon emissions.
But Carter says he doesn’t believe the crisis is as urgent as Democrats suggest, expressing support for “cleaner” fossil fuels and a more gradual approach on climate change mitigation, which includes reducing carbon emissions, investing in green energy research, and adapting to rising sea levels and other effects of global warming.
The congressman says many Republicans may now actually be closer to some Democrats on climate policy than they are to some of the holdouts of their own party.
The GOP’s shift on climate
One of Republicans’ top holdouts on climate change had been former President Trump, who was vocally opposed to many climate mitigation reforms. But following the 2020 election, Republicans in Congress appeared more willing to embrace climate reforms.
“Let's face it, the politics are real for young people...millennials,” Carter said. “For many of them, [climate change] is their very No. 1 issue. And so, that makes you pay attention.”
In December, Democrats and Republicans agreed to pass the bipartisan Energy Act of 2020, which invested in energy tax credits, research & development of carbon-capturing and carbon-reducing technologies, renewable energy technologies, and energy grid modernization. The bill passed with the support of most Republicans in Congress, and it was signed into law by Trump two days after Christmas.
And in April, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) unveiled a Republican climate change plan that focused on modest reforms that incentivized private-sector innovation rather than new government-mandated regulations, which the GOP argues would substantially increase the cost of energy. That included greater investments in natural gas, wind and solar farms, and natural disaster funds.
But the plan received criticism from Democrats, who argued it fell far short of the carbon-cutting necessary to address the climate crisis.
Nevertheless, the proposal still marked a new high-water mark on Republicans’ willingness to accept and take action on global warming.
“I would say that the center of gravity in the Republican Party has shifted from climate denial to climate solutions,” said Quill Robinson, the Vice President of Government Affairs for the American Conservation Coalition, a political action group advocating for young conservatives who are concerned about the environment.
“Americans have been given this binary choice on environmental issues, particularly on climate change,” Robinson continued. “Either you support the Green New Deal and a radical overhaul of our economy and total transformation, or you have to be a climate denier....but I think a majority of Americans want common-sense solutions...that creates jobs and economic prosperity, as well as better environmental outcomes. Those voices are really not being listened to, until very recently.”
The young conservatives trying to shift the GOP on climate
Robinson is one of the hundreds of young Republicans and right-leaning independent voters across the U.S. working to get the GOP to prioritize climate-friendly policies.
“It was not great to have the Republican president saying that climate change was a Chinese hoax, that was really frustrating,” Robinson said. “We need to legislate things that will actually reduce carbon emissions.”
Giving climate-minded Republicans more reason to see red: a slew of conservatives using Texas’ electric grid failure in February to spread disinformation about renewable energies such as wind and solar.
“My level of frustration - if we had to rank it from a one to a 10 - I'm probably at about a 12,” said Mary Anna Mancuso, a spokesperson for RepublicEN, another conservative climate solutions-focused organization. “Climate change is not just about the environment; it is a national security issue; it is a health issue; it is an economic issue.”
Mancuso isn’t just frustrated with Republicans, however; she says Democrats need to help move the ball forward too.
“Any time the liberal left talks about the Green New Deal, the Republicans shut down,” she said. “We all know that whenever there's a disagreement, even in our own lives, if you say something that is not counting the other person, it shuts down the lines of communication.”
“Whether you think the Green New Deal is the solution or not,” Robinson added, “why are we waiting around for a Green New Deal? The fact is that the Green New Deal does not have a path through Congress to become a law. Why don't you work with [Republicans] right now to get some bipartisan things done so we can actually get to reducing greenhouse gas emissions today?”
Both Robinson and Mancuso say Democrats, in order to get more buy-in from conservatives and moderates on progressive reforms, need to speak more to the fears regarding potential job losses and higher energy prices.
“Climate change doesn't care if you're Republican, Democrat, Independent, Green Party, Libertarian, or Modern-Day Whig,” Mancuso said. “In the hyper-partisan politics of today, neither side wants to come to the middle and actually have a conversation.
“At the end of the day...this is a world problem and we have to solve it.”
Nonpartisan groups, such as the Citizens Climate Lobby, have worked to amplify moderate voices and foster conversations about climate change that transcend party ideologies. The Climate Solutions Caucus has brought dozens of Democrats and Republicans together in the Capitol in recent years, but they have yet to convene in 2021.
And for all the work the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis has done to advance some common goals, a number of very large gaps remain between what Democrats and Republicans are willing to compromise on in order to slow the acceleration of global warming.
“You can be very conservative, believe in small government, and believe in free markets...[and still] address climate change,” Robinson said. “There are things that our farmers and foresters and folks in the middle of the country can be doing that will...reduce carbon in the atmosphere, but also create economic prosperity.”
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized conservative pushback to the Republicans' 2021 climate plan. It has been corrected.
Noah Pransky is NBCLX’s National Political Editor. He covers Washington and state politics for NBCLX, and his investigative work has been honored with national Murrow, Polk, duPont, and Cronkite awards. You can contact him confidentially at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.