No one will ever mistake Florida's Matt Gaetz for a left-winger. The 36-year-old been deemed by GQ “the Trumpiest Congressman in Trump’s Washington,” a figure infamous for his cable news appearances and aggressive, sometimes trollish statements. He’s described Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump as “infected with bias,” defended the president’s comments that some developing nations are “shitholes,” and said "if we really cared about safer streets, we would build the wall and secure the border” at a hearing that was interrupted by the father of a slain Parkland student.
Gaetz holds orthodox GOP views on a range of issues from abortion to guns, but unlike Trump and the majority of leading Republicans, Gaetz is a firm supporter in climate science, thinks “history will judge very harshly those who are climate deniers,” argues renewable energy and electric cars can be great for the US economy, and told VICE in an exclusive interview that the fossil fuel interests who contribute to his campaigns are “buying into my agenda, I'm not buying into theirs.”
In recent years a small but growing number of Republicans have broken with the party line on climate change by supporting or introducing legislation to lower US carbon emissions. Some of them have come from competitive districts and support market solutions like a price on carbon emissions; many of these relatively moderate Republicans were voted out of office during the 2018 midterms.
Gaetz on the other hand is an unrepentant “best buddy” to Trump and hails from one of the most conservative districts in America. He is not at all keen on carbon pricing but thinks in an era in which leading Democrats are pushing the Green New Deal, Republicans need to get come up with a convincing plan to fight climate change. He recently explained to VICE over the phone what that might look like.
VICE: You've been called the Trumpiest congressman in Washington. What do you think the left is getting wrong about Trump?
Matt Gaetz: What the president’s biggest fans appreciate most about him is that he is a disrupter. On the left, the people who seem to be appreciated most right now are the disrupters. I was talking to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the floor maybe a week and half, two weeks ago, and I said we have more in common with each other than either of us do with the middle because we share a desire to change a broken system and we want to change it for different reasons. But there's a common acknowledgement that Washington sucks and the decision-making process is corrupt, and that there is no real opportunity to create collaborative solutions in a system that is largely designed to make the elected leaders valets for special interests.
You've come out and said climate change is real, humans are contributing to it, which normally wouldn't be such a radical statement, but it does put you at odds with many Republicans.
It’s really not a radical statement. Climate change isn't something people get to choose to believe or not, it’s happening.
So what's your sense of how that separates you from the more mainstream Republican establishment?
I don't know. I don't like pondering questions like that. I mean, look, I make my bones in Congress providing sound arguments. I argue on television. I argue on social media. But I did not get elected to Congress to argue with a thermometer. So I don't really care what the political or inter-Republican-secret-handshake-club ramifications are of my views. I can tell the earth is warming based on overwhelming scientific evidence and I don't think it's a coincidence that we've released like 300 years of carbon in the last several decades. That probably had something to do with it.
What's your sense of the Green New Deal? I know you've called it a “Green nightmare.”
Yeah. I mean it’s not an actionable plan. It’s not realistic. You can’t go do the Green New Deal. It's a set of aspirations that don't really bring us to sensible action. For me it sort of raises the question of what our greatest opportunities are to tackle climate change. I don't think that America’s regulations will proliferate around the globe as fast as our innovations will. So I think that if we embrace a regulatory-centric approach to climate change, we will not reduce pollution, we will merely export it.
I do think that there are a lot of policy proposals that need more oxygen from all sides of the political spectrum. If we got more efficient with electric grid capacity, we would substantially reduce our carbon footprint and people would be likely to copy us.
If we become better with carbon capture technology I think we can start a global trend toward carbon awareness. I think that nuclear power needs to become more accessible, particularly in the developing world. And if we lead with nuclear innovation here, that can create access to cleaner energy in places driving a lot of our pollution.
There are countless examples. I think we need to deregulate hydro power. I think that if you look in America where energy is cheapest and cleanest, hydro power is contributing greatly to those conditions. We have not even come close to unlocking the full potential there. There is legislation in the Congress to deal with these things. But unfortunately we spend so much time on the shiny objects. We rarely get to the technological innovations that are not partisan in any way, but that can improve our environmental situation.
Regardless of where you sit politically, stuff like electric cars and renewable energy are pretty popular. Do you have any sense of how to really scale that up in the US and export that?
Yeah, we gotta get tough on China. Part of China’s national strategy is to crush American innovation through theft and cheap production. They did it with solar. This is not an academic exercise. Solar innovation was largely driven by the United States and US innovators. China stole the tech and didn’t have the upfront R&D costs, produced it for cheap in China and dumped it in the United States. Most solar that you can buy in the United States in the commercial space is now made in China, and the result is we hollowed out American innovators. And so I think one way to scale up those efforts is to get real tough on global intellectual property protection.
It looks like China is attempting to do the same thing now with electric vehicles.
Yeah, well, of course they would. It worked with solar. Did you expect them to rob the larder successfully and then never come back? I think in a lot of ways our trade policy is going to be far more instructive on global climate change efforts then trying to unilaterally disarm the American economy through a Green New Deal that is neither an action plan nor realistic.
What do you think about carbon pricing? Some Republicans say this is consistent with conservative principles.
Let me for the sake of argument grant that premise that trading on the marketplace is generally a conservative concept. Just because something is conservative doesn't always mean that it will work because here we have substantial externalities. If we began carbon pricing in the United States, I see no evidence that anyone in the world would copy that. And so I don't think that that would create a mood for innovation here because I think the pollution would just be exported.
What's your sense of how other Republicans might be shifting their views on climate?
I mean we can believe the climate deniers or we can believe our eyes. We have to calculate different elevations for bridges because of rising sea levels. We have to plan for climate resiliency in our state budget, because we have sunny day floods. I don't think we enjoy the luxury of an academic debate about whether or not climate change is happening.
What I'm getting at is, how do you pull the party more to your perspective?
The Green New Deal is not a plan and it's not realistic, but it's also currently unopposed in the marketplace of ideas around climate change. Critics of the Green New Deal like myself should be challenged to present a “Green Real Deal.” You know, a plan that embraces the innovation opportunity in our country that's realistic about the challenges we face globally and then leans hard into the science of clean energy. And I've had some very productive conversations with Republican and Democrat colleagues about what bills have been introduced in the last congress and in this Congress that would constitute a Green Real Deal. And it's my hope that Republicans will be out there in the marketplace of ideas with a plan we can stand behind. (Gaetz is currently working on legislation called the "Green Real Deal.")
Do you think Trump has any interest in this?
I know that there are senior officials in the White House that understand the risk associated with climate change. And I think it's incumbent upon the Congress to legislate and if we're able to put together some ideas that don't harm the American economy, but that jumpstart some real solutions around climate change, I'd be hopeful that I'm able to get an audience with the president on those ideas.
Progressives often argue that the reason Republicans aren't interested in climate change is because they're all bought off by fossil fuel companies. What's your sense of that?
People engaged in energy exploration have donated substantial sums of money to my campaign. And my sense is that when people donate to me, they're buying into my agenda. I'm not buying into theirs, but I can't speak for my colleagues.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Geoff Dembicki is the author of Are We Screwed? How a New Generation Is Fighting to Survive Climate Change. Follow him on Twitter.