An epic quest loomed Wednesday before the largest gathering of business leaders in a decade to advocate for climate action on Capitol Hill.
Could they find a single Republican in the U.S. Senate to take up the cause of carbon pricing?
The answer appeared to be: "Not yet."
Officials from Microsoft, Nike, Pepsi, eBay, Exelon, Gap, Levi's, Mars and Tesla were among more than 75 business leaders making the case for a national price on carbon. They scheduled 80 meetings with lawmakers and staff, half of them with Republicans. Lawmakers and their aides ducked behind closed doors to confer with members of the delegation throughout the day.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who introduced bipartisan carbon tax legislation in the last Congress and would like to do so again, set up one roundtable meeting between his colleagues and six CEOs with a ground rule that he wouldn't name which members of Congress came to hear the pitch. (The bill he introduced last session put a fee on emissions of greenhouse gases and paid the revenues back to the public as a so-called "dividend.")
"By offering an invitation to come have an off-the-record conversation with CEOs, I was partly recognizing that it is politically challenging or sensitive to have conservative Republicans in a room talking about a price on carbon," Coons said. "And I'm trying to find a way to move that conversation forward."
One Republican who is seen by some as a hope for GOP climate leadership did stop and speak briefly with a reporter outside the door on his way out of a half-hour session with CEOs.
"I think we're a long way from legislation of that character at this stage," said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) of their plea for congressional action.
Although Romney maintained a skeptical stance on climate during his 2012 presidential run, his more recent statements show openness to addressing climate change—including a 2017 Tweet praising the carbon fee-and-dividend proposal by the Climate Leadership Council, a coalition of businesses and environmental groups. But Romney, who represents a state where coal is the state rock, was not ready to commit to any view on what Congress should be doing.
"They made a number of important points about creating incentives for the various industries to consider a carbon-friendly approach as opposed to a less carbon-friendly approach, and creating pricing mechanisms that would encourage them to emit less carbon," Romney said.
Climate Reports, Polls and a Republican Shift
The companies lobbying for carbon pricing together represented combined annual revenues of more than $2.5 trillion, according to the sustainability nonprofit group Ceres, which helped organizing the lobbying effort. Boston-based Ceres works with investors and companies to build networks of leaders on climate issues.
Dawn Martin, executive vice president of Ceres, said the business members of its policy network began pushing for the idea of a group lobbying effort on Capitol Hill after back-to-back climate science reports last fall—the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 1.5 degrees report and the Fourth National Climate Assessment—issued stark warnings about the need to rein in greenhouse gases quickly.
"It's been a game-changer for people," said Martin. And while there isn't a GOP standard-bearer in Congress on carbon pricing, Martin said she has seen a shift.
"To have Republicans saying, 'We get it, but it's the wrong solution'—at least they get it now," she said. "And that has happened relatively overnight."
That was also the finding of a national survey released earlier this week by the GOP polling firm Luntz Global. The survey found that by a margin of 8 to 1, U.S. voters are more worried about climate today than they were a year ago. Luntz found majority support across party lines for the carbon fee-and-dividend proposal of the Climate Leadership Council, which commissioned the survey. Among Republicans under age 40, 75 percent supported the idea of pricing carbon and returning all revenue to households.
Republicans on Capitol Hill are acting as though they've seen similar polling. Fewer are now openly questioning the core science of climate change, but many are still steering clear of the idea of strong government action.
The Republican-controlled Senate Agriculture Committee, stacked with farm state lawmakers who have largely ignored the topic, held a hearing Tuesday focused on climate change in which several senators and witnesses raised the prospect of carbon markets. With the farm sector battered by a series of natural disasters and suffering under President Donald Trump's trade policies, the idea of possible farm revenue from carbon markets has appeal, and even Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue voiced support for the idea. But Republican lawmakers, who have long fought anything that remotely hints of regulation on American farms, were wary.
"What I would hate to see is heavy handed government regulation," said Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst. "I think we can do this on our own."
What Business Leaders Are Saying
Many Republicans are touting technology subsidies—not taxes—as the solution. At a House Ways and Means Committee hearing last week, several Republicans voiced support for increased incentives to spur innovation.
Hugh Welsh, president of DSM North America, a nutrition and health company, said he was telling lawmakers that government incentives are fine for sparking innovation, but not for scaling them up enough to make a difference on climate change. For example, DSM has developed a feed additive that the company says would reduce methane emissions from cows by 30 percent, but he said there's not enough incentive for farms to buy the product unless there is a market imperative to reduce greenhouse gases.
Jeff Eckel, CEO of the Annapolis, Md.-based clean investment firm Hannon Armstrong, is convinced he can make a business case for carbon pricing that should appeal to Republicans. To rely on subsidies and incentives alone, he said, "is a distinctly non-conservative economic position. If you want to go back to free market principles, you put a price on carbon and you stop socializing the cost" of climate change.
The business leaders said they understood, however, that no matter how much progress they made in their lobbying day on Capitol Hill, they were not likely to see legislation in the short-term with the Trump administration maintaining its stance of climate denial.
"We know where this administration is. It's living in a fact-free fantasy," said Gary Hirshberg, chairman of the organic yogurt company Stonyfield Farm. "But this is a matter of enormous urgency. What we need to help our colleagues and representatives understand is that this is not a partisan issue."
Said Welsh, "I think everybody understands that not much is going to get done in this Congress, in the polarized, divisive state we're in. But that's not a deterrent. That does not discourage us. It may be the first time we're up on the Hill, but it won't be the last time."
ICN reporter Georgina Gustin contributed to this report.