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Republicans who believe in climate change seek antidote to Green New Deal

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Image: FILE PHOTO: U.S. Representative Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Markey hol
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., hold a news conference this month on their Green New Deal environmental proposal. -
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Jonathan Ernst Reuters file
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Republicans have trashed the Green New Deal — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's proposal to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and create a renewable energy economy — as unrealistic, unaffordable and ill-conceived.

But ever since the New York Democrat began promoting the idea late last year, a growing number of House GOP lawmakers have been increasingly willing to say those four little words: "Climate change is real." And they're warning the rest of their party that Republicans must push for alternative solutions before it's too late.

Reps. John Shimkus, R-Ill., the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce's Environment and Climate Change subcommittee, Billy Long, R-Mo., Bill Flores, R-Texas, Buddy Carter, R-Ga., and Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio, among others, made their views plain during a pair of hearings on the topic in early February.

"This is an extremely important subject," Carter said during a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on the Environment and Climate Change hearing on Feb. 6., adding that climate change "is real" and is "something that we have to address."

Shimkus, along with Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., the ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Fred Upton, R-Mich., the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce's Energy subcommittee,argued in a Feb. 13 opinion article that the Green New Deal would have "potentially devastating consequences on our national debt and on our economy."

"Americans deserve better. That's why we back sensible, realistic, and effective policies to tackle climate change," they wrote.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., hold a news conference this month on their Green New Deal environmental proposal.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., hold a news conference this month on their Green New Deal environmental proposal.Jonathan Ernst

It's a position that contradicts President Donald Trump, who continues to doubt the veracity of climate science — so much so that his administration plans to name a group of selected scientists to reassess it's earlier dire analysis of climate change. According to The Washington Post, the group of scientists would include those who question just how severe climate change really is and the extent to which humans contribute to it. According to Bloomberg, the Trump administration will seek drastic cuts to the Department of Energy's renewable energy budget as part of the president's fiscal year 2020 budget request, set to be released Monday.

But polling shows the Republican Party's aversion to acknowledging climate change is increasingly falling out of favor. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released on March 4 showed that 63 percent of adults felt that the GOP's positions on climate change were outside the mainstream, compared to 54 percent who said so when asked in October 2015. On fiscal issues, immigration and abortion — three other issues that adults were asked about in both the polls — the difference between 2015 and 2019 was negligible or nonexistent.

"I think they've got to look at where the young people are, where the suburban people are, much more pro anti-climate change measures than Republican leadership and stuff," Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Fla., told NBC News. "And at some point, they're going to realize that if you can't reach enough people, you can't win. That's a math issue."

Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Fla., speaks during an interview on Capitol Hill on April 25, 2017.
Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Fla., speaks during an interview on Capitol Hill on April 25, 2017.Bill Clark

Rooney is a proponent of instituting a carbon tax — a fee on the carbon contents of fossil fuels. That measure, which Rooney said would be "quite an elegant solution" to solving some climate change issues, currently enjoys little support among elected Republicans, least of all the president.

Trump "is so dead set on supporting the coal industry that there is no way he or [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell is going to move forward on a carbon tax," he said.

Still, Rooney worked with Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., to reintroduce carbon tax legislation earlier this year in the hopes of driving conversation about climate policy, and have more people "realize that Republicans are interested in the environment."

"We have a voice in this too," he said.

Walden, the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee who co-authored the opinion piece, said he wasn't a fan of carbon tax. He would rather see Congress push for policies that encourage energy producers to innovate in ways that will benefit the environment.

"At the end of the day, there's not a science denier among us," Walden said of the Republican members of his committee. "Everybody wanted to move forward, but with the principles outlined in our op-ed — innovation, adaptation, conservation, preparation how do we lead as a country, the world in reducing emissions and carbon and methane through technology."

Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Rep. Greg Walden arrives for a meeting at the Capitol on March 21, 2017.
Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Rep. Greg Walden arrives for a meeting at the Capitol on March 21, 2017.Bill Clark

Walden is advocating for increased use of hydropower and nuclear energy, while improving battery storage for renewable energies. But the congressman said he has not had the chance to talk to Trump "directly" about his climate agenda, nor has he spoken to the National Security Council officials tasked with assembling the panel of scientists who may cast doubt on the administration's earlier climate report.

"But we've had thermometers for hundreds of years," he said. "We know the temperatures are changing, we know there will be variation. I happen to believe that humans and industry are contributing factors."

He has, however, discussed climate change with Energy Secretary Rick Perry. Walden said Perry is "fully on board" with some of his ideas and will be a "key leader in this area" for his committee.

In the Senate, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wy., has offered a policy direction similar to Walden's. The chairman of the chamber's Committee on Environment and Public Works saw his legislation to modernize the nation's nuclear energy infrastructure signed into law earlier this year, and he wants to bring attention to advancements regarding the capture of carbon emissions from fossil fuels.

"Republicans support a common-sense approach to addressing climate change," Barrasso said in a statement. "We want to make American energy as clean as we can, as fast as we can, without raising costs on American families. Free market innovation, not drastic government regulation will provide the solutions needed."

The entire Senate Democratic Caucus, meanwhile, signed on to a resolution introduced Feb. 28 that calls on the U.S. and Congress to address climate change without offering any specifics plans. It's intended as an alternative to the Green New Deal proposal that McConnell has said he plans to put to a vote.

On Wednesday, Senate Democrats, some of whom are wary of the Green New Deal but seek to combat climate change, introduced a separate resolution to create a new select committee to tackle the issue.

"Not only have Senate Republicans yet to put forward a single plan to seriously address climate change, many of them still deny basic science and facts," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement. "Democrats believe that Congress must take urgent action, which is why I am calling on leader McConnell to hold a stand-alone vote on this resolution to create a new Senate committee devoted to examining the many costs of climate inaction."

Former Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., said in an interview that the Green New Deal and a leftward push from climate activists provides the GOP with the opportunity to pivot to a climate policy "they can embrace."

"Having the Green New Deal around is kind of good for Republicans and conservatives, because they always need something to oppose," Curbelo, now an MSNBC contributor, said.

Rooney said he has been encouraged by the conversations he's had with GOP colleagues.

"There've been a few people starting to talk about it who have never talked about it before," he said. "I know some leaders of the Energy and Commerce Committee have been talking about the man-made part of climate change — which is a big improvement."

Curbelo said "it's obvious that Republicans are getting serious about this issue and are no longer willing to dismiss it."

"Perhaps they can't afford to dismiss it," he said. "But whatever the case, there is an evolution that is taking place and I sense that it is accelerating."