Equilibrium & Sustainability

Young Republicans see shift in GOP: ‘From outright denial to climate caucus’

Twenty-four-year-old Republican Danielle Butcher is watching with anticipation as GOP leaders move from “outright denial to now having a climate caucus” — a move she sees as the first step in integrating climate action into formal party policy.

Butcher, the executive vice president of the American Conservation Coalition (ACC), spoke to The Hill’s Equilibrium on Tuesday, just a week after Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah) launched the Conservative Climate Caucus and the same day that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who serves on the House Climate Crisis Committee, unveiled a new task force on energy, climate and conservation. 

The party’s “progress is huge, when you apply the context,” Butcher said.                                                         

“This is an excellent first step,” she continued. “The first thing you have to do in achieving climate action is start talking about these problems.”

To Butcher, integrating climate action into Republican politics speaks to her party’s historic conservation core — the GOP with a deep-seated, rural heritage, was responsible for creation of the National Park Service and the Environmental Protection Agency under former Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Richard Nixon.

“I also see this as us reclaiming our heritage,” she said.

The party has changed a lot since then, with former President Trump —  who cast doubt on climate change and diluted multiple environmental regulations during his time in office — still the de facto leader of the party.

But with two-thirds of Americans indicating that the government should do more on climate change — a stance that Butcher observed “is especially true among young people” — she said Republicans need to be talking about these issues and involving the younger generation in the discussions.

“The GOP has notoriously struggled with young people,” she added.

As Butcher noted, a spring 2020 survey from the Pew Research Center showed that 65 percent of Americans felt that the federal government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change. Meanwhile, an April 2021 Gallup poll showed that 74 percent of Republicans — and 99 percent of Democrats — believe that global warming will eventually affect humans.

Nonetheless, according to Gallup, only 29 percent of Republicans said they believe that these effects have already begun, while 82 percent of Democrats believe that they have started, and just 11 percent of Republicans said they believe global warming will pose a serious threat in their own lifetime, while 67 percent of Democrats believe that it will do so.

Following the launch of the Conservative Climate Caucus Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), chair of the Select Committee on Climate Crisis, told The Associated Press that she hopes Republicans are serious about addressing climate change.

“There is no more time for half measures,” Castor said. “If my Republicans colleagues really want to do something, they need to start voting in favor of real solutions.”

Climate policy has been a sticking point in negotiations over President Biden’s infrastructure plan this month, with multiple provisions left out of the deal made with Republicans.

For 22-year-old Justin Branum, the ACC’s Alabama chair, reaching fellow Republicans who are reluctant to acknowledge climate change means straying from tactics that he describes as “alarmism.” Residents of conservative states, he elaborated, care about wildlife and tend to see their land as a “gift from God,” but are often accustomed to seeing climate change associated with apocalypse on television.

This need to access older, climate hesitant Republicans has made both Branum and Butcher excited about the passing of a particular piece of legislation in the Senate last week, the bipartisan Growing Climate Solutions Act. The bill authorizes the Depart of Agriculture to establish a voluntary environmental credit market — through which farmers and private forest landowners who engage in sustainable land use can acquire and sell carbon credits.

The main purpose of the legislation, according to the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry Committee, is to “break down barriers for farmers and foresters interested in participating in carbon markets so they can be rewarded for climate-smart practices.” Some such practices include planting carbon-trapping crops to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

But farmers across the Corn Belt are only planting a small fraction of the carbon-capturing “cover crops” touted by the bill, a new analysis published by the Environmental Working Group found, according to Inside Climate News.

The study showed that in 2019, only 3.2 million out of 68 million acres of corn and soybean included cover crops. To put a significant dent in U.S. emissions, the current “cover crop acres would have to increase fourteen-fold to get close to the number of acres needed to achieve a miniscule reduction,” according to the study.

Although the bill received support from a bipartisan slate of senators and environmental groups, it failed to win over five progressive legislators: Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.).

While the senators did not provide a specific reason for their dissent, the Climate Justice Alliance NGO slammed the bill for boosting “harmful market-based approaches” that put low-income populations at a disadvantage.

The progressives, Butcher said, “are voting with some of the biggest climate deniers in the Senate.” She was referring to the three Republicans who also opposed the bill: Sens. Jim Inhofe (Okla.), Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Mike Lee (Utah).

Branum, the ACC chair from Alabama, likewise expressed his disappointment with the progressive rejection of their plan, stressing that he favors a bipartisan approach to climate action, such as the joint work of Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) on the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee.

“Climate change can’t be solved from just a Republican line vote or from a Democratic line vote — it can’t be challenged every time a new government comes,” Branum said, noting that the two parties need to come together on “the 80 percent we agree on to help the environment.”

In Branum’s opinion, that 80 percent does not include the Green New Deal and other progressive policies “based on bigger government” that “don’t technically deal with climate change.” Some examples of policies that would help curb climate change, according to Branum, would include the integration of more nuclear energy, the deregulation of the green energy sector and the continued existence of fossil fuels alongside renewables.

“We don’t have to transform society to reduce emissions,” Butcher added. “We want to improve everyone’s standard and quality of life, but we don’t want to take over the economy or ban companies.” 

“When consumers want something, the market delivers it,” she said. “That’s how you stay competitive in a free market system.”

Going forward, Butcher said she is confident that the younger generation of Republicans — and particularly young women — will help shape a future GOP that prioritizes environmental protection. 

“Our generation, Gen-Z, is inspired by these younger millennials who are paving the way for us,” Butcher said.

Tags Bernie Sanders Climate change Climate change denial Cory Booker Donald Trump Ed Markey Elizabeth Warren Green New Deal Jeff Merkley Joe Biden Joe Manchin Josh Hawley Kathy Castor Kevin McCarthy Lisa Murkowski Mike Lee Politics of climate change Sustainability
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