Energy & Environment

Republicans push ‘innovation’ as climate change solution

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GOP lawmakers are increasingly turning to a new refrain for their position on climate change, calling for “innovation” as the policy solution.

Many Republicans have seemingly settled on innovation as their primary position to counter progressive Democrats who have grown louder in their calls for a Green New Deal, with its emphasis on renewable electricity, and as the United Nations and federal government issue reports saying time is running out to dramatically cut emissions.

“Innovation has a critical role,” Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) told The Hill. “If you look at the reductions in emissions as a result of shifting to natural gas and away coal and other fuels, it’s had a dramatic impact on emissions.”

{mosads}Endorsing innovation has very few obvious political downsides for the GOP. It’s not controversial and helps Republicans paint a contrast with Democratic ideas they argue are controversial and expensive.

But critics say Republicans are being disingenuous and using innovation to mask their opposition to more aggressive climate change policies. Those critics say innovation alone isn’t sufficient to cut greenhouse gas emissions to the level that scientists say is necessary.

Innovation grew into the GOP’s favor this year around the time that the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its October report warning that the world had about 10 years left to dramatically cut emissions or face some of the worst consequences of global warming, like sea-level rise and water shortages.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said on “Fox News Sunday” that innovation, not new regulations, should be the country’s response to climate change.

“What the U.S. needs to do is participate in a long-term conversation about how you get to innovation, and it’s going to need to be a conversation again that doesn’t start with alarmism,” he said. “But that starts with some discussion of the magnitude of the challenge, the global elements to it and how the U.S. shouldn’t just do this as a feel-good measure but some sort of innovative proposal.”

Recently, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, penned a New York Times opinion piece recognizing that the climate is changing and humans play some role. But he rejected regulations as the prescription.

“The nation is leading the way not because of punishing regulations, restrictive laws or carbon taxes but because of innovation and advanced technology, especially in the energy sector,” he wrote. “Making energy as clean as we can, as fast as we can, without raising costs to consumers will be accomplished through investment, invention and innovation.”

The strategy is the latest in a string of Republican responses to climate change and to the left’s repeated accusations that the GOP, which has controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House for the past two years, is failing in its governance duties by not taking stronger action.

Previous strategies have included politicians pointing out that they are “not a scientist” and that man’s impact on the climate is unclear.

In addition to taking first steps toward recognizing the scientific evidence that climate change is caused by human activity, the innovation strategy gives Republicans a policy answer that aligns with core conservative preferences for commerce and the free market. It contrasts with Democratic proposals like regulations and carbon pricing that the GOP considers heavy-handed and expensive.

“What you’re hearing from Republicans is an acknowledgement that pollution and human activity have a negative effect on the environment. But they don’t want to get backed into a corner on specifics,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist. “They recognize their electorate are concerned about it, but the Democrats have not presented a realistic solution that does not hurt jobs and economic growth.”

The GOP sees climate change as a niche issue, O’Connell said, so any policy they support only needs to please a small portion of voters.

Benji Backer, founder and president of the American Conservation Coalition, said that while innovation alone might not be sufficient to fight climate change, it can get conservatives talking.

“Is innovation going to be enough to solve climate change at the scale that the science has agreed it is happening? Probably not. But I think it’s a good way for conservatives to engage on the issue, because so many in leadership are skeptical that it’s happening,” said Backer, whose group focuses on furthering policies that help the environment and the climate with a focus on conservatives, and particular young conservatives.

“Conservatives love economic growth, they love technology, they love innovation,” he said. “And if you pair it with climate change, it’s something that I feel can increase the involvement of conservatives.”

Backer said supporting innovation can also show young voters that the Republican Party acknowledges that climate change is a problem.

Innovation has the additional benefit of drawing strong support across the political spectrum.

“I think it’s great that we moved the political conversation whether or not we should act on climate change to what we should do about it,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).

But Schatz and others say there’s room for skepticism when the GOP talks about innovation.

“If this is just a new talking point to mask their adherence to the idea that the free market will solve this, then that’s not going to cut it,” he said.

Schatz, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Republicans also need to demonstrate that they care about innovation by backing proposals like boosting funding to the Advanced Research Projects Agency — Energy (ARPA-E), a unit of the Energy Department.

“The scale and the scope of the problem is such that we need to do much, much more — orders of magnitude more,” he said.

Ellen Williams, a physicist at the University of Maryland who directed ARPA-E under former President Obama, said innovation has a major role in fighting climate change, but so do more direct policies like mandates or carbon pricing.

“You have to have pull to get an innovative technology developed and adopted,” Williams said.

She cited advanced light bulbs as an example of technologies that had significant research and development funding paired with policy — in this case, laws to phase out less-efficient bulbs.

“It was only because we enacted laws with lighting efficiency regulations that we developed the market pull,” William said. “The innovation was done, it was stupendous. But it doesn’t get out and get used unless government makes there be a pull.”

Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, said the GOP shouldn’t get any credit for pushing innovation.

“The innovation framework is an interesting way of Republicans saying, ‘Maybe we believe in climate change, but no, we don’t have the technology to deal with it,’ and so they have to wait to act,” he said.

In the end, Pica said, if the GOP can’t back aggressive climate policies — like a transition to 100 percent renewable electricity, as called for in the Green New Deal proposal — it’s still essentially climate denial.

“I would consider it part of their climate denialism,” he said. “Climate denialism now is not just recognizing that we’re in a climate crisis. I think part of climate denialism now is also that even if you recognize we’re in a crisis, failing to actually propose policies and interventions that actually get us to the point of solving the problem.”

Tags Ben Sasse Brian Schatz Cory Gardner John Barrasso

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