Jan 21, 2020 - Politics & Policy
Column / Harder Line

Exclusive: What’s in Republicans’ new climate-change push

Illustration of an elephant trunk holding a tree.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Trees, plastics and favorable tax policy are at the core of House Republicans’ new push on climate change — an effort to reassure voters they care about the problem after a decade of dismissing it.

Why it matters: The policies reveal how Republicans hope to counter Democrats’ Green New Deal and show the political saliency of this topic that in the past has been on the electoral back burner.

Driving the news: The proposals, some of which are new and being disclosed here for the first time, are being coordinated by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, the top Republican in the House.

  • McCarthy — along with GOP Reps. Garret Graves of Louisiana, the top Republican on the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, and Bruce Westerman of Arkansas — sat down with Axios for an exclusive interview after hosting a caucus-wide event on the topic Thursday on Capitol Hill.

Where it stands: There’s not going to be an overall target to reduce emissions, which is likely to stoke skepticism from critics. But the plan will likely include other kinds of specific targets related to these three areas:

  1. Capturing carbon dioxide emissions, with a focus on trees.
  2. Clean-energy innovation and funding.
  3. Conservation, focusing on plastic.

The big picture: More on those in a moment, but … the prioritization of climate-change policies by a top Republican in Washington is a sea change for a party whose leader — President Trump — dismisses the issue and whose members have either ignored or denied it for years.

Yes, but: A sea change in actual policy is unlikely. Republicans are doubling down on a small-government agenda. They’re eschewing carbon pricing, and they're criticizing the far more aggressive and sweeping policies pushed by some Democrats as ineffective and harmful to America’s economy.

“If you look at this conference today, we just had a whole event talking about the environment, not because someone is driving us but because we care about it,” said McCarthy.

The details: Republicans want to beef up efforts to capture CO2 with technology, agriculture and trees — lots of them.

  • Westerman is working on legislation, called the Trillion Trees Act, which would, among other things, create a national target for increasing the number of trees grown in the U.S. “for the purpose of sequestering carbon,” according to a summary of the bill viewed by Axios. It doesn’t (yet) include a numerical national target, but it’s not actually a trillion.
  • "Go back to something old for something new and trees are the ultimate carbon sequestration,” Westerman said.
  • The lawmakers want to make permanent and expand an existing tax credit available to companies sequestering CO2, with a new component emphasizing the importance of capturing carbon from the sky long after it was emitted.

The clean-energy category includes a new goal of doubling federal investment in basic research and fundamental science and a new proposal to provide lower tax rates for U.S. companies exporting clean energy technology.

  • It also includes familiar — and controversial — areas of support from Republicans, such as natural gas and nuclear power.

The conservation category focuses on cleaning up plastic pollution and encouraging the Energy Department’s national labs to research better recycling technologies.

  • Specifically, lawmakers want to redirect foreign aid to help countries that have rivers most polluted with plastic.

Between the lines: At the heart of each of these ideas is a broad goal of making clean-energy technologies cheap so other countries, namely developing economies like India, can adopt them without needing a price on CO2 emissions. “If you’re increasing the cost of energy, these solutions aren’t exportable,” Graves said.

But, but, but: These efforts will inevitably face swift and familiar opposition from most Democrats and environmentalists. They're skeptical that Republicans are genuinely concerned about climate change and that these policies would actually cut heat-trapping emissions as drastically as scientists say is needed.

  • Setting an overall emissions target is a common way to judge the seriousness of climate commitments, but Graves and McCarthy dismissed the need for emissions targets, saying they can achieve results without them.
  • “It’s a mistake to set arbitrary targets like some folks are doing,” Graves said.
  • Even people more sympathetic to these ideas — including energy experts and current and former Republican congressional staffers who are familiar with the proposals —were underwhelmed at what appeared to many as a singular focus on trees, for example, and indicate more should be done.

What we’re hearing: The Bipartisan Policy Center, a centrist D.C.-based think tank, has been working with Republicans on some of these ideas.

“I think once you become engaged with the solution, then math starts to matter,” said Jason Grumet, the group’s president. “Sure, you can start with aggressive gardening, but that’s not a complete solution and serious people then recognize that more has to happen.”

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