WASHINGTON — The U.S. became the laughingstock of the world again last week when it comes to the planetary threat of climate change.
The same week the United Nations released a report stating that a million animal and plant species are on the verge of extinction, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Europe proclaiming that melting sea ice should be seen as an economic opportunity.
“The Arctic is at the forefront of opportunity and abundance," Pompeo said in Finland at a meeting of the Arctic Council. "It houses 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil, 30 percent of its undiscovered gas, an abundance of uranium, rare-earth minerals, gold, diamonds, and millions of square miles of untapped resources, fisheries galore."
That stark disconnect between the global scientific consensus and the Trump administration’s continued denial of climate change wasn’t lost on many Democrats on Capitol Hill.
“Pompeo is a perfect emblem of what has transmogrified from climate denial and inaction to outright enthusiasm for pollution,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) told VICE News at the Capitol. “At least Republicans in previous administrations had the good sense to pretend to be for clean air. These guys are cheerleading the destruction of our natural environment.”
But in certain corners of the Republican Party, there seems to be some warming to the idea that U.S. policymakers can enact legislation to help stem the dire tide of climate change.
“These guys are cheerleading the destruction of our natural environment”
“I don’t think as many people think it’s voodoo science anymore. I think a lot of people think it’s a real issue,” Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) told VICE News just off the House floor.
As a moderate Northeasterner, Katko is an endangered species himself. But he says it’s not just political expediency and insists he wants to combat climate change through shifting funding from fossil fuel research to renewables research while also investing more in nuclear power, which he calls “the bridge between fossil fuels and when renewables can stand on their own.”
Green new skeptics
But there’s one big thing stopping Katko and other moderate Republicans from reaching across the aisle to get some climate legislation done: the Green New Deal.
“The Green New Deal is so far off the grid of what’s achievable that it’s a nonstarter”
“The Green New Deal is so far off the grid of what’s achievable that it’s a nonstarter,” Katko said. “Instead of trying to do those far-left messaging things, how about sitting down and doing the dirty work of working together to do something that’s acceptable?”
But the leading proponent of the Green New Deal – that sweeping vision of ending U.S. dependence on fossil fuels — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) remains a skeptic of the handful of Republicans now echoing Katko’s call for moderate climate action.
“We have to be careful…they’re actually moderating their position or if they’re just updating an existing position of climate denial to climate delaying,” Ocasio-Cortez told VICE News while walking to a hearing at the Capitol.
Ocasio-Cortez thinks Katko and a growing number of other Republicans are basically oil lobbyists pretending they’re environmentally conscious.
“The actual problem is that since it’s so politically toxic right now to say, ‘I don’t believe in climate change,’ as they’ve been doing for 10 years, now all of a sudden they’re changing their position on a dime, and they’re saying, ‘Oh, well, I believe in climate change, but I think that we need to have solutions on a 50- or 100-year time scale,’ which is not that much different than denying the severity of the actual issue at hand,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
“It’s so politically toxic right now to say, ‘I don’t believe in climate change”
A number of Republicans calling for measures to address climate change brush aside such criticisms, claiming they were climate realists even before the damning U.N. report came out because they see its impact at home on coral reefs and fisheries and on tourism.
“I think there’s a lot of evidence beyond that report that demonstrates that major habitat loss is a consequence of climate change,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) told VICE News while riding an escalator on the Capitol grounds.
Gaetz, like Katko, says he’s all in for more nuclear and supports enhancing the nation’s power grid so it can better transmit renewable power.
“I think if we do those things, it’s a lot more practical than some of the ideas the Democrats have been bandying about,” Gaetz said.
The Republican plan
Over in the Senate, some senior Republicans have been highlighting the need to rapidly transition to renewables, including Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming (a member of the party’s leadership team), Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine.
But retiring Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, turned the most heads this year when he called for a “New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy” as a way to spur investment in clean energy sources.
“There’s a lot of interest in it for a variety of reasons. There’s a growing awareness that climate change is a problem,” Sen. Alexander told VICE News as he was hopping one of the trams underneath the Capitol.
“We’re not just changing the Democratic Party’s agenda; we’re changing the Republican agenda, too”
Alexander is proposing 10 grant challenges for increasing research on solar batteries, greener buildings, nuclear energy, and more. And he argues his effort has picked up steam because the Green New Deal doesn’t even have the support of moderate Democrats in both chambers of Congress who also care about the earth’s rapidly changing climate.
“I think the Democrat proposal for the Green New Deal was so far off-base that it created a hole a mile wide for Republicans and Democrats who are concerned about climate change to offer an alternative,” Alexander said.
But Democrats remain skeptical of Republicans suddenly seeming worried about climate change, especially because as the oil and gas industries maintain permanent tax breaks even as those for the renewable industry always seem to be on the brink of expiring.
“We’ll know that they’re serious when they want to create a level playing field in a capitalistic model for the competing technologies to be able to compete,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) told VICE News on the steps in front of the Capitol. “I don’t oppose research on new technologies, but we already have technologies today that are being deployed massively in the marketplace, but the tax breaks are expiring that can result in dramatic changes by 2030 in our economy.”
Ocasio-Cortez echoes that skepticism, though she says she also sees the bright side: The GOP is moving, even if slowly, from the party’s past, rigid stance on the issue that fueled her rapid rise in American politics.
“If we didn’t make climate a priority right now, they would still be sitting on their hands,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “What is remarkable about this moment is that we’re not just changing the Democratic Party’s agenda; we’re changing the Republican agenda, too.”
Cover: From left, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., attend a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing in Rayburn Building titled "The Trump Administration's Response to the Drug Crisis, Part II," on Thursday, May 9, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)