Florida Republicans are at the forefront of conservative efforts to address climate change. Far before Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s January climate bill, conservative policymakers from the Sunshine State were enacting local policies aimed at fighting climate change, and advocating for such policies on the federal level.
Prominent among these policymakers was Carlos Curbelo, who represented Florida’s 26th district, which is especially vulnerable to rising sea levels, from 2015 to 2019. The centerpiece of Curbelo’s work on the issue was the MARKET CHOICE Act, a bill that called for a tax on carbon emissions whose cost would be offset by eliminating the federal gas tax. “To be frank, I didn’t have high expectations it would become law,” Curbelo says in an interview. “My goal was to provoke a discussion and draw interest to the issue and it certainly did that.” He might not have known it at the time, but the bill marked a pivotal moment for the GOP: Climate-change policy had made its way onto the Party’s agenda.
It is no accident that this development came out of Florida, a state whose economy and identity are inextricably tied up in its environment, which is in turn threatened by climate change. “I didn’t run for Congress with the idea to become an environmentalist” Curbelo says in an interview. “What really motivated me was a meeting with NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]. . . . They showed me the data, the risk that my district faced.”
Curbelo notes that Florida’s barrier reef — the third largest in the world — is “being hurt by ocean acidification, which is a direct result of greater CO2 in the atmosphere.” The fishing and tourism industries that from such a big part of the state’s economy are directly dependent on the health of the ocean and sea levels. All in all, Floridians “really depend on the health of the environment more than some [other] places in the country,” Curbelo says. So concern about climate change is “not ideological; it’s pragmatic.”
Curbelo and other conservatives who care about climate change have reason to hope that such pragmatism is starting to filter through the rest of the GOP. Curbelo notes that there’s been a “drastic change in rhetoric” on the Right in recent months. For years, the party ignored the issue and, in essence, ceded it to Democrats by declining to expend any energy or political capital on it. But this year, several conservatives have come out in support of a “clean energy innovation” approach, hoping to offer an alternative to what they see as unworkable progressive proposals.
What catalyzed this change? Curbelo chalks it up to two things: science and politics.
“A lot of Republicans for years have been watching the science carefully, and the science is so compelling now that it’s motivated Republicans to speak out,” Curbelo says. While rising sea levels have long threatened trillions of dollars of coastal property in Florida, the interior of the country is starting to feel the effects of a warming climate now, too. “Changing weather patterns have really complicated life for farmers,” he says. “Extreme weather events have caused a lot of destruction. . . . We’re seeing larger and stronger storms with a greater frequency, because these storms get their energy from the oceans and the oceans are getting warmer.”
The scientific reality has in turn driven home the political dangers that climate-change poses to Republicans. For many on the right, “the case for taking care of the environment has always been there but I think the political reality of it has really hit in the past year,” says Quill Robinson of the American Conservation Coalition (ACC), a group of young conservatives focused on environmental issues. ACC polling has found that climate change is an important issue for 82 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 35, including 77 percent of those who describe themselves “right-leaning.” 60 percent of respondents indicated that climate change “will impact who they vote for in 2020.” Robinson argues that Republicans can’t afford to write off these voters. “If you’re a member of Congress saying climate change is a hoax, you’re hurting yourself politically,” he says.
That’s because there exists a real demand for a pragmatic approach that does not seek to reinvent the American economy as we know it. 53 percent of left-leaning respondents, 58 percent of moderate respondents, and 67 percent of right-leaning respondents in the ACC poll said they wanted “an alternative environmental movement that promotes free-market, limited government solutions.” Many voters are wary of the revolutionary climate-change plans proposed by the environmental Left, and that has paved the way for conservatives’ entrance into the debate.
Alex Trembath of the Breakthrough Institute says that by presenting the issue as something that “threatens the sort of end of society or the extinction of the human race,” progressives have narrowed the range of possible solutions and created gridlock. Domestically, proposals that aim to cutting emissions to an exact degree by an exact date can make for a good soundbite, but they are almost always economically and/or politically infeasible. Globally, agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Copenhagen Accord have had little success at spurring collective action to curb emissions. As a result, Trembath says, Republicans have recently been emboldened and “entered the fray.”
The dirty secret of the climate-change debate is that there is no “silver bullet,” no foolproof way of definitively solving the problem. We don’t have the resources or infrastructure to cut emissions as drastically as some would like, and the green technologies advocated by progressives simply can’t make a big enough dent in emissions. “We’ve known for a long time that wind and solar weren’t going to decarbonize the American economy” on their own, Trembath says. What’s needed is a “much wider portfolio of technologies.”
McCarthy’s climate-change plan seems to take that message to heart. It focuses on innovation and natural solutions over large-scale economic reforms, and while it’s not a huge step forward, it’s a start. McCarthy contends that Republicans “can bring you a healthier, cleaner, and safer environment through innovation” while “[what] Democrats want is greater control and command.” His plan calls for planting 1 trillion new trees, managing soil health, and promoting conservation and recycling. It would also invest heavily in R&D in hopes of developing new emissions-cutting technologies, and give tax breaks to companies that use carbon-capture to reduce emissions.
All of this policy ferment on the right is critical, given the lack of feasible, large-scale emissions-cutting solutions. Trembath shares a hypothetical: Say we agree to enact a mandate on the steel industry that calls for a 50 percent reduction of emissions by 2030. “There’s just no way to do it. . . . We don’t know how to make fertilizer at scale without natural gas,” he says. It’s virtually impossible to make a significant dent in the emissions generated by America’s big industries without doing away with those industries altogether, which is a political and economic non-starter. So Republicans are hoping to unleash innovation that yields “a wide and more scalable set of technologies.”
Trembath believes that going forward, Republicans must demonstrate a “commitment to [climate change] beyond ‘basic science,’ backing carbon capture, nuclear energy, renewables, and other clean-energy technologies,” and focus on “technology-specific clean-energy innovation” to cut emissions. After years in which the only congressional climate-change proposals to even receive any press have been massive, government-driven overhauls of the economy with the potential to stifle growth, he sees an opening for conservatives to offer a more practical approach — and he might just be right.