The Republican party has an image issue when it comes to climate change.
For decades, the GOP has consistently pushed back against warnings from the science community that human-caused global warming poses an existential threat to the planet. And while that largely remains the same today—after all, no Republicans voted for President Joe Biden’s flagship climate law, the Inflation Reduction Act—some conservative lawmakers have at least started to recognize global warming as a political threat.
Recent polls have consistently shown that Americans generally view climate change as a serious issue and support policies that address it.
About 70 percent of Americans now believe global warming is occurring, with almost as many saying they’re worried to some degree about the threats it poses to them, according to a December poll conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication. A second George Mason University poll that month found that nearly 80 percent of U.S. registered voters support developing renewable energy, such as solar and wind, on public land. That total includes more than half of the survey respondents who identified as conservative Republicans, as opposed to moderate.
Republican leaders have responded to that political landscape in recent years by taking a more measured approach to climate issues. Ahead of the midterm elections, for example, House Republicans unveiled their own climate plan—albeit one that received harsh criticism from environmentalists for its heavy reliance on oil and gas production. And as the GOP ramped up its campaign last year against the Biden administration’s proposal to require public companies to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions and climate-related risks to federal regulators, with some calling it “woke capitalism,” some of the party’s top-ranking members tried to temper that fight by conveying a softer tone.
“I have long recognized the threat climate change poses to communities across America, and thoughtful climate policy—focused on the health and welfare of America’s working class—is long overdue,” wrote North Carolina Rep. Patrick McHenry, the incoming Republican leader of the House Financial Services Committee, in a March press release that criticized the proposed climate disclosure rule.
But as Republican leaders attempt to revamp the party’s climate image, they’re running headlong into resistance from a small but vocal group of far-right lawmakers who are touting extreme views of global warming and making it far more difficult for the GOP to establish a unified platform.
In fact, Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert will help to kick off the Heartland Institute’s 15th annual climate change conference this week, where the event’s prevailing message is that “there is no climate crisis.” Boebert, a GOP firebrand who has made a name for herself by leaning into America’s culture war, was one of 20 far-right lawmakers who initially blocked California Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s election as House Speaker last month in what was arguably the most public display yet of the growing rift within the Republican party.
“Republican members of Congress who attempt to lean in and address climate change in a responsible manner will find a warm embrace by their Democratic colleagues on the Hill, but will also get a cold shoulder or worse from many of their Republican colleagues,” Edward Maibach, director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, told me in an email interview.
“They need to look beyond the hostile members of their own caucus and look to their voters,” added Maibach, who oversees the climate-related polling conducted by George Mason University and Yale. “Our polls show that Republicans who are willing to stand tall for climate action will have a better chance of winning in their general election because large majorities of voters favor climate action.”
Boebert’s participation in Heartland’s summit this week, however, could make it harder for more centrist Republicans like McHenry to pursue that course of action. The free-market think tank’s close ties to former President Donald Trump only highlights the ongoing infighting over who will represent the Republican party in the 2024 presidential election. The Heartland Institute also has a long history of spreading misleading and false claims about global warming and is widely viewed by climate advocates as a disinformation machine.
The group was responsible for launching then-German teenager Naomi Seibt into the international spotlight in 2020. Seibt, who was 19 years old at the time, billed herself as a grassroots “climate skeptic,” prompting some to dub her the “anti-Greta”—a counterweight to the rising popularity of Swedish youth climate activist Greta Thunberg. Considering Seibt was found to be on the Heartland Institute’s payroll, however, many in the climate movement quickly dismissed her claims of coming from humble grassroots beginnings.
Earlier this month, the organization sent copies of its book, “Climate at a Glance,” to 8,000 middle and high school teachers across the country, saying it was providing the schools with “the data to show the Earth is not experiencing a climate crisis.”
The book was the second attempt by the group to influence public school science education since at least 2017 and contained highly misleading statements such as “sea levels have been rising at a fairly steady pace since at least the mid-1800s.” A closer look at the data shows that the rate of sea-level rise has more than doubled in the 2000s when compared to most of the 20th century.
“It’s a misleading interpretation of scientific facts and questionable inferences drawn from cherry picked data from unreliable sources,” Robert Brulle, a visiting professor of sociology at Brown University who has researched the public relations strategies of the fossil fuel industry, told Grist. “It almost seems quaint that they’re still running with this. It’s like ‘The 1990s called. They want their scientific misinformation back.’”
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That’s roughly how much money the Heartland Institute has lost between 2017 and 2020, according to the organization’s most recent financial filings, marking more than a 30 percent drop since the free-market think tank reported nearly $6 million in total revenue six years ago.
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