Maybe Republicans Can Write Climate Plans to Suit Their Voters

Justin Fox

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy represents a lot of territory in California. His district’s land area of 9,898 square miles, encompassing most of Kern and Tulare counties and a little bit of Los Angeles County, surpasses that of nine states. It includes the highest point in the lower 48 states, great expanses of desert, multiple military installations and some of the country’s most productive farmland. It is home to oilfields that until recently outproduced the entire state of Oklahoma, but also to giant wind farms and solar arrays.

McCarthy thus has to answer to oil workers and to renewable-energy workers, to people who depend on mountain tourism and to those who depend on the military-industrial complex. He also has to answer to farmers who lean right politically but are well aware that it’s been getting warmer — especially at night, with Kern County recording its highest-ever average summer lows in 2016, 2017 and 2018 — and extremely worried about what continued warming could do to the Sierra Nevada snowpack that makes farming possible in and around a place (Bakersfield, the district’s main city and McCarthy’s hometown) that averages less than 7 inches of rain a year.

He seems like an appropriate person, then, to introduce a Republican alternative to the Green New Deal and other Democratic plans to fight global warming, thus challenging the head-in-the-sand attitude toward climate change favored by President Donald Trump and most of the national Republican Party in recent years. Which is just what McCarthy did last week, with a modest set of proposals centered on removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by pumping it into the ground and planting lots and lots of trees — and the promise of more such plans to come.

At Vox.com, veteran environmental blogger David Roberts described this as an attempt “to provide the media and disengaged voters with an ‘other side’ on climate policy, without endorsing anything that might upset the fossil fuel companies with which the party is aligned.” In the National Review, Alex Trembath of the centrist environmental think tank the Breakthrough Institute welcomed it as a breath of fresh air. “Policy and legislation are better served by competing visions of action,” he wrote, “not the permanent partisan stalemate that has characterized the debate to date.”

I kind of think they’re both right. Given the Republican Party’s recent history on climate change, any proposals it puts forward deserve to be viewed a bit like Lucy van Pelt’s offers to hold the football for Charlie Brown to kick. But wow it seems like it would be awfully constructive to shift the framing of the argument even a little bit away from “Is there such a thing as human-induced global warming?” and toward “How do we go about fighting it?”

Fears of such a shift were apparent in the reactions of a few conservative groups. Bloomberg’s Ari Natter collected condemnations of McCarthy’s proposals from the American Energy Alliance, Competitive Enterprise Institute and Club for Growth. Said the latter’s president, David McIntosh:

Besides hurting our economy, these measures will not make a single environmentalist vote for a Republican and only alienate conservatives across the country.

I struggle to see how the proposals announced so far would have any noticeable impact on the economy either negative or positive, but McIntosh may be right on the other two points. Climate change has become a key issue dividing the political left and right in this country, and dismissing concerns about it is a staple of talk radio and other elements of the right-wing media that can be so influential in Republican primaries. McCarthy’s efforts probably won’t win over voters for whom combating climate change is a high priority, and as we see they are already catching him grief from heads-in-the-sand hardliners.

Still, when you look at who he represents back in California, it seems like crafting a middle path on climate change is exactly what McCarthy should be doing. I’ve already detailed some of the economic interests at play in his district. According to the Yale Climate Opinion Maps estimates, which are based on a big national survey and a lot of statistical modeling, 64% of the people in McCarthy’s district believe global warming is happening, and 49% think it is being caused by human activities. Those are below the national averages of 67% and 53%, but much higher than found in other fossil-fuel hotbeds such as Wyoming, North Dakota, northern Texas and eastern Oklahoma.

According to the Yale estimates, 274 of 435 U.S. House districts and 29 of 50 states harbor majorities who think global warming is human-caused, and there are four more states and 57 more House districts where the share is above 48%. In a political system where House members and senators strove to represent the interests and views of their constituents, we would be both making more progress toward reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and finding compromises that made the transition less painful for those whose living depends on finding or burning fossil fuels. We don’t have a political system like that. Instead, we have an increasingly nationalized, partisan system that specializes in stalemates. So no, I don’t think Kevin McCarthy’s climate proposals amount to much. But give a guy credit for actually trying to represent his district.

To contact the author of this story: Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

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