Delay as the New Denial: The Latest Republican Tactic to Block Climate Action

WASHINGTON — One hundred million Americans from Arizona to Boston are under heat emergency warnings, and the drought in the West is nearing Dust Bowl proportions. Britain declared a climate emergency as temperatures soared above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and parts of blistering Europe are ablaze.

But on Capitol Hill this week, Republicans were warning against rash action in response to the burning planet.

“I don’t want to be lectured about what we need to do to destroy our economy in the name of climate change,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina.

A single Democrat, Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, last week blocked what could have been the country’s most far-reaching American response to climate change. But lost in the recriminations and finger-pointing is the other side of the aisle: All 50 Republicans in the Senate have been as opposed to dramatic action to confront planetary warming.

Few Republicans in Congress now outwardly dismiss the scientific evidence that human activities — namely, the burning of oil, gas and coal — have produced gases that are dangerously heating the Earth.

But for many, skepticism about the cause of global temperature rise has been replaced by an insistence that the solution — replacing fossil fuels over time with wind, solar and other nonpolluting energy sources — will hurt the economy.

In short, delay is the new denial.

Overwhelmingly, Republicans on Capitol Hill said this week they believe that the United States should be drilling and burning more American oil, gas and coal, not less, and that market forces would somehow develop solutions to the resulting carbon dioxide that has been building in the atmosphere, trapping heat like a blanket around a sweltering Earth.

“I’m not in a position to tell you what the solution is, but for the president to shut down the production of oil and gas in the United States is not going to help,” said Senator Mike Crapo, Republican of Idaho.

President Biden is not proposing to shut down fossil fuel production. He wants to use carrots, not sticks — tax credits and other incentives to speed up the development of wind, solar, and other low-carbon energy, and to make electric vehicles more affordable to more consumers.

The fact that scientists say nations must quickly and deeply cut greenhouse gas emissions or global rising temperatures will surely reach catastrophic levels does not appear to faze many conservatives.

In many ways, elected Republicans mirror the views of their voters. A May poll commissioned by Pew Research Center found 63 percent of Democrats named climate change as a very big problem, while just 16 percent of Republicans felt the same.

“The Democratic Party has made climate change a religion and their solutions are draconian,” said Mr. Graham, who accepts the science of global warming. He is among a handful of Republicans who support putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions to encourage industries to clean up their operations.

But Mr. Graham dismissed Mr. Biden’s goal of cutting U.S. emissions by half by 2030, to try keep average global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared with preindustrial levels. That’s the threshold beyond which scientists say the likelihood of catastrophic disruptions increases significantly. The planet has already warmed by about 1.1 degrees Celsius.

Mr. Graham repeated a common refrain among Republicans that it would be foolish for the United States, historically the country that has emitted the most carbon dioxide, to reduce its pollution unless other big polluters like China and India do the same.

“I don’t know about 1.5,” he said. “The point to me is to get the world to participate, not just us.”

So it has gone with the Republican Party, where warnings of a catastrophe at Earth’s doorstep are mocked as hyperbole, where technologies that do not yet exist on a viable scale, such as “carbon capture and storage” and “clean coal,” are hailed as saviors while those that do, such as wind and solar power and electric vehicles, are dismissed as unreliable and overly expensive, and where American leadership on a global problem is seen as a fool’s errand, kneecapping the domestic economy while Indian and Chinese coal bury America’s good intentions in soot.

“When China gets our good air, their bad air’s got to move,” Herschel Walker, a former football star and now a Republican candidate in Georgia for the Senate, explained last week. “So it moves over to our good air space. Then now we’ve got to clean that back up.”

The party’s political attacks often center on the symptoms of the climate crisis as they point to Central American climate refugees massing at the southern border, poor “forest management” as wildfires burn, and environmentalists who deprive farmers of water in record droughts.

For decades, Republicans and the fossil fuel industry denied the science of climate change. That has slowly started to change as the evidence that the Earth is warming at an unprecedented rate has become undeniable, and started to resonate with moderate and independent voters.

Last month Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, made public a conservative road map to address climate change. Lawmakers also have launched a House Conservative Climate Caucus to discuss solutions that Republicans can support.

But Mr. McCarthy’s climate plan calls for increasing fossil fuel production. And last Thursday, when the Conservative Climate Caucus met with business executives to discuss climate change, the gathering was dominated by talk of more oil and gas drilling. Executives from fossil fuel companies also complained about new federal rules that require them to disclose their business risks from global warming, according to a Republican lawmaker who was at the meeting.

“Denial used to be the way to delay,” said Jon Krosnick, a social psychologist at Stanford University. Now, he said of Republican lawmakers “they’ve got to come up with some other way to delay.”

Republicans involved in the issue say there has been clear movement from the day in 2015 when Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, brought a snowball to the Senate floor as evidence that global warming was a myth. Some Republicans privately acknowledge that bipartisan trips to see the glaciers melting in Greenland and the permafrost buckling in Alaska have settled any doubts they had about what is happening to the planet.

House Republicans have a series of incremental steps that they say they will pass if they win the majority in November: encouraging investments in American renewable energy and the restoration of forests and wetlands to absorb carbon dioxide. Senators Kevin Cramer, Republican of North Dakota, and Bill Cassidy, Republican of Louisiana, have proposed a carbon tariff on imports from countries that are doing less than the United States to stem climate change.

Yet many of those same lawmakers reject the idea that climate change is an urgent threat.

If Republicans win the House or Senate in November’s midterm elections, “I think you can expect a much more aggressive approach to domestic energy production,” Mr. Cramer said this week. “That doesn’t mean we abandon climate as part of the agenda, but rather focus more on technologies that advance all forms of American energy.”

One Republican senator, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, called on Tuesday for a “reasonable transition” to clean energy. Democrats, he said, “are trying to move far more quickly than technology and the economy can absorb.”

Republicans say Mr. Biden, pushed hard by uncompromising climate activists on the left, has taken such a maximalist approach to climate legislation that its collapse was inevitable.

“The far left has screwed this up so badly that Republicans might actually enact the first real action on climate change,” said Benjamin Backer, president of the American Conservation Coalition, a right-of-center environmental organization.

But even Republicans who are trying to address the impacts of climate change in their home states appeaer to find it difficult to recognize the root cause of the problems. Last week, three Utah Republicans, Senator Mitt Romney and Representatives Chris Stewart and Burgess Owens, proposed legislation to save the shriveling Great Salt Lake before its dusty remains choke the capital city that shares its name.

But absent from the proposal — which included Army Corps of Engineers monitoring programs, ecosystem management and “potential technologies” to redirect water, reinforce canals and address drought — was any mention of the underlying cause, climate change.

The same went for an appeal on Friday from Mr. McCarthy, to save the Giant Sequoias in his district from fire and drought. In an opinion piece he co-authored in Time, Mr. McCarthy blamed “decades of fire suppression and misinformed policies” for year-round forest fires in his state, obliquely referring to “worsening drought conditions and extreme heat” without once mentioning climate change.

One of his co-authors, Representative Scott Peters of California, a Democrat who helped draft the “Save Our Sequoias” bill, declined to say why climate change went unmentioned in the Time piece, but he did say, “I wholeheartedly believe climate change is fueling catastrophic wildfires in the southwest.” He added of the bill, “As far as I’m concerned, they can tell the world that birthday cakes are starting these fires as long as we get the damn thing to the president’s desk.”

Republicans grappling with the undeniable reality of climate change still struggle with a philosophical aversion to intervening in energy markets — or, they would mostl likely say, in any markets at all. Left unsaid are federal tax breaks totaling as much as $20 billion a year that the fossil fuel industry enjoys and that Republicans, and some Democrats, support.

Representative Nancy Mace, Republican of South Carolina and a founding member of the Conservative Climate Caucus, said she recognized the policy imperative to address climate change. But she called tax credits to steer consumers to electric vehicles or electric utilities toward renewable energy sources like wind or solar power “picking winners and losers.” She said Congress should simply cut taxes and let consumers and businesses decide how to use the extra money.

“I’d personally love to buy an electric vehicle, so let’s cut taxes for everybody and allow people to afford things they otherwise could not afford,” she said.

In a back-and-forth on Tuesday with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Representative Scott Perry, Republican of Pennsylvania, dismissed the administration’s push for electric vehicles, saying the price was $55,000, beyond the reach of most Americans even with the president’s proposal for a $7,500 federal tax credit on some vehicles. Mr. Buttigieg replied that a Chevrolet Bolt costs $26,595, and electric pickup trucks like Chevy Silverado or Ford F150 Lightning start around $39,000. He added that he bought a used plug-in Ford C-Max hybrid with 15,000 miles on it for $14,000.

Bob Inglis, a former Republican House member who lost his 2010 primary in part because of he backed climate action, insisted that his party had made huge progress since then.

“I’m convinced we’re going to act on climate change,” Mr. Inglis said. “It’s just whether we’re going to act soon enough to avoid the worst consequences.”

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