In liberal and scientific circles, the debate over climate change—whether it's occurring and whether humans are principally responsible for it—is settled. But those remain divisive questions for conservatives, and making it through any Republican primary nowadays often means proving you're the most hardline candidate; there are very few elections where a GOP candidate is punished for being a climate skeptic or denier. This attitude seems to have all but banished stances like "conservationist" or "preservationist" from the political lexicon, stances that used to be considered perfectly normal for a Republican to have.
The federal Climate Science Special Report from June concludes that "it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause" of our warming climate. But in the current political climate, you're either pro-jobs or anti-jobs. So, where Ronald Reagan would have said that "preservation of our environment is not a partisan challenge; it is common sense," the Trump-era Republican seems satisfied to "leave a little bit" of the environment.
Due to the growth of right-wing Tea Party political influence groups like Freedomworks, the basic current mindset of many conservative leaders (at least in public) has become that global temperature rise isn't pressing enough to impede the free market with big-government regulations.
However, factions of conservatives on the budding "eco-right" aren't satisfied. They don't accept an America that takes a backseat to global climate leadership, and they aren't buying into the "economy versus environment" mindset. They want to bring free market solutions for climate change to the forefront of the GOP and predict a bleak future for the party if it won't get on board.
The Climate Leadership Council (CLC) was formed this past June to bring a conservative voice to climate change. Its founders are a team of pre-Trump GOP heavy hitters like Henry Paulson, who served as secretary of treasury under President George W. Bush, and James A. Baker, a Cabinet official in both the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administration. The CLC calls for a carbon tax, which would gradually increase while paying out carbon dividend incentives to individual Americans' retirement accounts.
The idea would be to reduce carbon dioxide emissions without using regulations regulation. It has already gotten a handful of major corporate and activist players on board, like ExxonMobil, Shell, Conservation International, and the Nature Conservancy.
Ted Halstead, the CLC's chairman and CEO, told me the group's free market–based plan compared to Democrats' is "better in every sense—better for the environment, better for business, better for households, and better for bridging the partisan divide." He believes "what has been lacking for so long is a solution that actually speaks to the interest of the Republican Party. The simplistic view is that Republicans are not in favor of climate progress where Democrats are; I think that's not correct. I think that boils down to confusion between means and ends. So, when you get to the 'ends' of policy, conservatives would agree with Democrats that we need to protect our climate for our children and grandchildren."
The GOP's current inaction, however, "prevents the Republican Party from seizing what should be a winning issue," Halstead said. "In fact, given the party is based on the philosophy of limited government and free markets, any opportunity to showcase how effective those principles can be in solving real-world problems. What you have here, if you think of the priorities of this White House, our plan hits every one of their messages. It is pro-growth, pro jobs, it is deregulatory, it would enhance our (international) terms of trade and… would achieve nearly twice the emissions reductions of all Obama-era climate regulations."
The partisan divide isn't just based on policy opposition, however. Some elected conservatives don't seem to believe climate change is real science at all—a problem Joseph Majkut at the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank, has taken aim at with his brief, "Climate Science: A Guide to the Public Debate." Its a fact-based breakdown of climate change he hopes will cut out spin and help prove to conservatives that climate change is a real threat.
While environmentalists could be fearful of a GOP-controlled government, Majkut optimistically thinks "with conservatives in control, the time is now" for a realistic climate plan that creates market-based penalties for companies that emit too much carbon. Majkut often tries to speak about the economic merits of carbon pricing when talking to policymakers about emission control.
These ideas have not been adopted either by the White House or Republican leaders in Congress, to put it mildly. Efforts to impose a carbon tax have never gained any traction, and a "cap-and-trade" bill with bipartisan sponsors failed in the Senate in 2010 due at least in part to Republican opposition.
Elected leaders are dependent on their constituents for reelection, of course, and part of the problem is that many right-wing voters are misinformed about climate change. That's where the conservative eco-right grassroots group RepublicEN is stepping in. The George Mason University–based organization has been going around the country since November 2014 talking about climate change and the eco-right to conservatives.
"People were so happy and anxious to help grow the eco-right movement because there was no place for conservatives who cared about the environment to be heard when we started," said director for strategy and operations Alex Bozmoski. "They were alienated from the Republican Party and keeping quiet because they didn't have an outlet."
The GOP obviously has a long way to go to get to a place where it embraces policies pushed by groups like CLC. To get there, the notion that climate change science is fake—a view that Donald Trump has sometimes echoed—needs to be combatted. And powerful elected Republicans, not just outside groups like think tanks, need to signal that climate skepticism doesn't need to be the default position of the party.
"Republican leaders need opportunities to show that they're climate realists, because climate realists are needed for Republicans to keep any lasting majority," said Bozmoski. "Leadership needs to create a space for them to debate climate realistically without getting pummeled by the other Republicans in the conference."
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Alex Bozmoski's name.
Cameron Harley has served as head press staffer for multiple Republican members of the US House of Representatives on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail.