Equilibrium & Sustainability

GOP primaries could help shape nascent conservative climate push

This summer’s GOP primaries could help shape the future of a long-shot conservative push that seeks to turn climate change from marginal issue to a key selling point for conservative energy policies. 

In a number of races, candidates backed by former President Trump are challenging incumbents that have been more open to talking about the issue of climate than many others in their party, including Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). 

There is also a cohort of freshmen lawmakers from the Conservative Climate Caucus, which was formed just last year, fighting to keep their seats. 

Tuesday’s defeat of Conservative Climate Caucus member Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) by Trump-endorsed Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.) marks an early defeat for that effort, potentially weakening the Republican caucus that supports the so-called all of the above energy strategy for the coming Congress. 

While Republicans are expected to make gains in the November midterms and retake control of the House, the question of precisely what policies a potential Republican majority might support remains unsettled, said Heather Reams, head of Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions (CRES), a conservative nonprofit group that lobbies Republican lawmakers on clean energy. 

A more conservative electorate might “change the dynamics of what flavor of Republicans come back” in November, Reams said.  

One on-ramp to discuss climate-related issues in the coming Congress is the surging cost of energy, Reams added.

“There’s more of an awareness of how energy is in everything, versus, ‘I turn on the light switch and I don’t really care where it comes from,’” she added.  

CRES endorsed McKinley over Mooney, who Reams said her office didn’t have much relationship with. “[Mckinley was] engaged on energy, climate, reducing emissions,” while Mooney “has been relatively quiet.” 

But Republicans and Democrats often have different definitions of clean energy. The tagline “all of the above” includes a combined suite of policies that aim to expand purportedly cleaner forms of American methane — a virulent climate pollutant commonly called natural gas — while rapidly bringing online additional technologies, Iike solar energy, hydrogen and nuclear power. 

Members have also supported building out mining and refining for “critical minerals” like lithium that are necessary for batteries for both electric vehicles and large-scale storage by utilities — though members like McKinley have been vocal critics of a renewables-dependent grid. 

Instead, many members in the Conservative Climate Caucus, including McKinley, pushed for development of carbon capture technology to allow coal plants to stay online while trapping carbon emissions.

Carbon capture is one point of potential ideological confluence between center-right and center-left — though conservatives are more likely to bill it as a means of keeping fossil fuel plants burning. 

It is a still largely-theoretical technology that has long been touted by the fossil fuel industry as an alternative to regulation — that is nevertheless viewed by the United Nations as crucial to meeting climate goals by helping to pull existing carbon out of the air. 

Last week, the Department of Energy announced over $2.3 billion in funding for a variety of carbon capture scheme, all drawn from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure bill, which McKinley both voted for and campaigned on. It was that vote that drew attacks from Mooney and Trump.

But Mooney hasn’t completely ignored the issue of climate — he published a 2020 bipartisan op-ed with liberal Democrat Kurt Schrader on the need for both “innovation and regulation” to fight rising temperatures — and that hasn’t hurt him, veteran Republican strategist Doug Heye of the Harvard Institute of Politics told The Hill. 

“When Alex Mooney is critical of McKinley on the infrastructure vote, he’s not coming after him for EVs,” but for support for a Biden initiative, Heye said. 

That’s not necessarily good news for climate-curious Republicans. While climate is an issue that is beginning to pop for younger conservative voters, it’s largely a nonissue for older ones, unlikely to drive much of a reaction one way or the other. 

On the one hand, that means that even very conservative Republicans can be vocal about the need for curbing climate change without provoking a backlash, like Louisiana Rep. Garret Graves (R), ranking member of the House Select Committee on Climate. 

On the other, though, it means that there may be little appetite in the coming Congress for cross-aisle collaboration on solutions directly aimed at curbing climate change, no matter which Republicans get there, Heye said. 

In part, that’s because to most Republicans older than millennials, climate change remains “a theory,” he added. 

“Maybe a theory they believe in — maybe even a fact that they believe in it. But for a lot of them it’s a theory,” and an issue that, compared to inflation or rising energy prices, barely registers. 

That changes occasionally during periods of natural disaster — Heye pointed to the recent New Mexico wildfires as a potential example — but largely “it’s not what they’re hearing from their voters.” 

But development of local clean energy industries from solar panels to domestic battery supply chains to electric vehicles has the potential to change that, he added. If members “can talk about jobs — especially if we’re talking manufacturing jobs — then they’re less concerned about what the widget that is being manufactured is.” 

Republicans are also beginning to talk more about the impacts of climate changes on beloved local environments and industries, regardless of whether they refer to them as such.

Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah) often discusses the threat of wildfire and the shrinking of his home state’s ski slopes. Mace has talked about the threat of rising seas to the Marine base on Parris Island. 

But while progressive climate groups say there is some overlap on, for example, innovation in new forms of batteries or carbon capture, they say Republican overtures amount to little more than a “narrative solution” aimed at giving young conservative voters talking points. 

From that perspective, the difference between a member like McKinley and one like Mooney “largely does not matter,” Jamal Raad of Evergreen Action told The Hill. “There’s no real Republican congressional support for climate action, at any level, anything close to the level of the scale and the scope of the crisis.” 

Like Heye, Raad believes this is slowly changing.

“Given the growth of the renewable energy industry and jobs on rural communities and in their congressional districts, eventually Republicans will find religion on the clean energy transition, because it will be happening and building political power in their communities, and they will need to reflect that,” he said. 

Over time, Raad said, “those larger trends of political power of certain industries as well as the jobs that those will create as being the thing that will really drive change on the other political end of the spectrum over years and decades.” 

“Even greenwashing done by Republicans” around measures like carbon capture “may actually turn into real things down the line,” he added. “But unfortunately, we don’t have enough time for that to happen.” 

Tags Alex Mooney Climate change climate solutions Doug Heye green technology John Boozman Lisa Murkowski Nancy Mace Republican Party Trump
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