Pressured by Younger Voters and an Election, Republicans Reluctantly Embrace Climate Change

Republicans face a dilemma.

How does the party refrain from alienating its hardline base members who don't believe climate change is caused by human activity—or who believe government should play a small or nonexistent role in the problem—while also appeasing a younger generation that calls for immediate remedies to a problem that could have major implications for them later in life?

And how do they do that in an election year?

Republicans have been slow to tackle climate change. And Democrats and environmental groups often consider the more narrowly-tailored initiatives they do propose as non-starters for not going far enough.

Newsweek subscription offers >

But as they face pressure from voters, especially millennial Republicans who want Washington lawmakers to more aggressively address the issue, many feel they have no option but to craft what many across the political spectrum say is inevitable: fix the climate before it's too late.

"The party has to expand. And not only that, putting the politics aside, this is good government," GOP strategist Susan Del Percio told Newsweek. "This is what our government is supposed to do: protect us from potential disasters, which if we do nothing, not only will there be an environmental issue, there will be a huge economic impact on our country and the world."

That won't be easy.

Any legislation, particularly if tax credits, government spending or more regulations are attached, faces steep hurdles. Republicans who believe the government can have a limited role in combating climate change emphasize the need to entice—not punish—people and companies to lessen their carbon footprint with tax incentives, and advocate for investments in research and innovation, private-public partnerships and deregulation of policies they view as government overreach that only stifles society's willingness to become more eco-friendly.

Newsweek subscription offers >

"One of the fears that Republicans have had is that acknowledging climate change means you're advocating for big government and you're throwing out the free market. But that's not the case. It's not binary," Heather Reams, the executive director of Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, told Newsweek. "We're not losing our principles or dismantling capitalism."

Reams' organization works with conservative officials across the country to find ways to advance fiscally "responsible, conservative solutions" that tackle climate change and that Republicans can get behind. It's an issue that an increasing number of young GOP voters want their party to address.

the Republican Party and climate change
A farmer praises President Donald Trump as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy looks on during a legislation signing rally with local farmers on February 19 in Bakersfield, California. Photo by David McNew/Getty

Polling by Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, for example, last year showed more than two-thirds of younger GOP voters feel Republicans need to do more to address climate change and that half of them believe ignoring it will hurt the party. Other polls conducted by various entities have bared similar results, with younger Republicans supporting government action while older party members do not.

"One of the most important things to younger voters is climate change and what we're doing," Del Percio said. "And the Republican Party is certainly not opening its arms to younger voters."

To Reams, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and several of his GOP colleagues last week took the significant step to unveil the first part of a three-pronged initiative centered on carbon capture, conservation and clean energy. The idea is to essentially plant more trees, make it easier to achieve carbon tax credits and invest in new technologies. The portion of the plan that seeks to plant 1 trillion new trees across the globe received praise from President Donald Trump in his State of the Union address last month.

But the plan was met with swift resistance by some of the chamber's most conservative members, in addition to Republican-aligned advocacy groups, such as the political action committee Club for Growth. The organization, whose opposition stems from the proposal's use of subsidies and tax credits, has vowed to not endorse any Republican who backs the plan.

"The key is the free market aspect here," Joe Kildea, Club for Growth's VP of communications, told Newsweek. "The McCarthy proposal that relies on subsidies is essentially socialism lite, and we do not think that will be successful."

Kildea declined to elaborate about the general types of legislation his group could get behind. He said they were in the process of relaying the information to another media outlet, which would release the information at an unspecified later date.

An unlikely conservative—given his political proximity to Trump—who's been vocal in the climate change arena has presented his own plan. That person is Congressman Matt Gaetz, who's long advocated for his GOP colleagues to acknowledge the existence of climate change and to more aggressively tackle it.

"I'm encouraged to see more Republicans abandon climate denial as a governing and political strategy," the Sunshine State lawmaker told Newsweek in a text message.

Republican Party climate change
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) speaks during a news conference to announce the "Green Real Deal" on April 3, 2019 in Washington, D.C. The "Green Real Deal" is a resolution intended to serve as a response to the "Green New Deal" promoted by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA). Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty

Gaetz presents his Green Real Deal as a practical alternative to the Green New Deal, Democrats' plan to combat climate change by overhauling American energy consumption that was spearheaded by freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). That plan, conservatives say, is economically unviable and naïve.

Gaetz's plan, which has not received a vote and is co-sponsored by only Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.), to drive down greenhouse gas emissions is multi-pronged: slash regulations, specifically those barring federal lands from being used for renewable energy research; modernize the electric grid; invest in cleaner technologies, like nuclear energy, hydropower and carbon capture; and protect American innovators' intellectual property.

"History will judge harshly my Republican colleagues who deny the science of climate change," Gaetz said at the unveiling of his Green Real Deal in April of last year. "If Republicans do acknowledge the climate is changing, then it's incumbent upon each and every one of them to support a solution—not to merely acknowledge the problem and stay with their heads stuck in the sand."

While the hyper-partisanship seems to be exacerbated and play out year-round in Washington, Reams said that since her organization took fold in 2013, she's noticed a considerable difference in the readiness among Republicans' to address an environmental issue with such sweeping implications for the future.

The plan by the House GOP, Reams used as an example, is a good starting point that's "in the right direction." Now, she just needs to keep nudging them, she said.

"I feel like I'm the dog that caught the squirrel," Reams said. "Republicans are starting to do things. Before, there was hardly anything, and now we've got this renaissance and great ideas coming out. We're going to start having conversations and start figuring out what works."

Pressured by Younger Voters and an Election, Republicans Reluctantly Embrace Climate Change | Politics