The Climate Solutions Caucus was conceived as a bipartisan center of gravity where political pragmatists in the U.S. House might break the logjam over action on global warming.
Instead, the caucus is attracting more and more GOP members whose voting records carry a distinct tilt against action on the climate crisis.
Caucus Republicans averaged a scant 16 percent positive rating on the annual legislative scorecard of key environmental votes released by the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) on Tuesday.
These are hardly mavericks keen to break party ranks over key environmental issues, let alone to embrace third-rail proposals like putting a price on carbon. So why have they enlisted?
The evidence suggests that most of the Republicans who populate this group hold imperiled seats in competitive or swing districts. They are using the big tent of the climate caucus to seek shelter from a possible storm of voter dissatisfaction with their party's refusal to systematically address climate change.
To be sure, this cohort includes a variety of views, and some have embraced various climate solutions.
Even so, as the caucus has grown to 70 members through carefully orchestrated bipartisan pairings, it is in danger of becoming a caricature. In the taunting phrase of R. L. Miller, voice of the green voter mobilization group Climate Hawks Vote, quite a few of its members are "climate peacocks."
In the past year:
• Most caucus Republicans voted to block agencies from considering the social cost of carbon in rulemaking;
• Many voted to repeal rules to curb methane regulations;
• All voted to streamline the permitting process for cross-border pipelines, like Keystone XL, removing the requirement that they obtain a presidential permit like the one President Obama famously denied;
• Most voted for the huge tax cut bill, despite a provision opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling—a wedge environmental issue for the past generation;
• Only a handful spoke out against President Donald Trump's decision to leave the Paris climate accord;
• And none have stepped forward to co-sponsor a cap-and-dividend bill introduced by one of their Democratic caucus colleagues, even though it is the sort of market-based approach that the group supposedly endorses.
Their high-water mark was to support Democrats who wanted the Pentagon to study climate change as a national security issue.
Often, the announcement of the latest Republican to enlist draws more jeers than cheers from environmental advocates.
That was the case when the caucus announced on Jan. 26 that Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, was joining. Upton, one of the House's top 20 recipients of oil and gas money ($1 million over his 30-year career), has supported drilling in the Arctic and on the Atlantic Coast, and opposed the Obama administration's signature climate initiative, the Clean Power Plan.
"We're disappointed that this caucus as a whole is not standing up for climate solutions and against all the rollbacks from the Trump administration and Republican leaders," said Alex Taurel, deputy legislative director for the LCV.
"It is a good thing more members are joining the caucus, and that they feel pressure from their districts," he said. "But we're concerned that for some of these members it provides some sort of cover for their anti-environmental records."
A case in point, some say, is Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who once introduced legislation to abolish the EPA.
"The supposed Climate Solutions Caucus is welcome to add any member they'd like—even climate deniers who propose legislation to terminate the EPA," said Sierra Club legislative director Melinda Pierce. "But, until the silent half of the caucus backs up the name of the caucus with actual votes for clean energy solutions and against the fossil fuel industry, being a member will be nothing more than a line on representatives' resumes."
Caucus Co-Chairman Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), who has sea level rise lapping at his district on the southern tip of Florida, argues that critics are missing the bigger picture.
Curbelo is convinced that U.S. progress on climate will only be possible with significant Republican support, and building that is a monumental task when denial of the science has become an article of faith in the party, from the White House on down.
"Despite the president's comments, despite what has regrettably become party orthodoxy ... these members are willing to come forward," Curbelo said. "They're willing to acknowledge there's a real problem that requires a solution, and where humans have a major role. That is only good for the environmental movement."
Hope Over Experience
The Climate Solutions Caucus was the brainchild of the Citizens' Climate Lobby (CCL), a non-partisan grassroots advocacy group that favors a revenue-neutral tax on carbon.
Instead of an inside-the-beltway strategy, CCL recruits volunteer lobbyists from each Congressional district to pressure representatives. And instead of hoping Democrats can carry the ball, the group has been looking for Republicans to play a meaningful role.
Nearly five years ago, one of CCL's volunteer lobbyists, Jay Butera, a retired consumer products entrepreneur from the Philadelphia suburbs, was discussing the partisan climate divide while in the House cafeteria line with Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch, who represents Florida's southeastern coast from Boca Raton to Fort Lauderdale. Both were convinced that there were GOP members who would back a market-based climate solution—especially in districts already grappling with the consequences of global warming. Butera began his search in Florida.
It took nearly three years to find the formula, and a GOP member willing to lead the effort. Early ideas for a Coastal Resiliency Caucus or a Florida Resiliency Caucus were abandoned in favor of a caucus that would use the hot-button word "climate" and seek a nationwide roster. In February 2016, Deutch and his fellow Floridian, Curbelo, announced they would be co-chairs.
The Climate Solutions Caucus reached 20 members that year, but it was unclear at first whether the group could hold together after the 2016 election. As the Trump administration brought its climate denial agenda to town, one Democratic caucus member, Patrick Murphy of Florida, was gone—having left the House in an unsuccessful bid for Marco Rubio's Senate seat. Two Republican caucus members, Bob Dold of Illinois and David Jolly of Florida, were defeated, while two others, Chris Gibson of New York and Mike Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, retired.
"I thought this is not a good thing," remembers Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.). "Maybe you have to be a retiring Republican to join a Climate Solutions Caucus." But he joined soon after the new Congress was sworn in, taking Murphy's spot, while four Republicans filled the seats of their departed colleagues—keeping the number of Democrats and Republicans even under the caucus's strict "Noah's Ark" approach.
Swing Districts Facing Climate Risks
Curbelo, like most others in the caucus he leads, stands out from most of the House GOP in his acceptance of climate science.
But he typifies the other hallmark of his party's caucus members—he comes from a swing district where a candidate, to win, must be able to draw voters from both parties and independents. In his district, denial is just another Miami vice, and party orthodoxy is no virtue.
His territory is the most Democratic of districts held by Republican members of Congress, according to the Cook Political Report. Hillary Clinton won it by 16 points in 2016, even while Curbelo—then a freshman lawmaker—won a second term by 12 points. The Miami Herald said last year that Curbelo "may be the most endangered Republican in Congress."
In a Congress where less than one-sixth of the House seats are in swing districts, nearly 70 percent of the 35 GOP climate caucus members are in districts rated as competitive by Cook—with nine of them toss-ups.
Curbelo and five of his GOP Climate Solutions colleagues have seats among the 18 that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has targeted for capture in its "Red to Blue" campaign to retake control of Congress this November.
Six Republican members of the climate caucus who are in vulnerable districts already plan to retire at the end of 2018. One of them, Rep. Dave Trott (R-Mich.), who represents the suburbs northwest of Detroit that swung from Obama to Trump in the past election, announced his planned retirement weeks before joining the Climate Solutions Caucus this month. (He told constituents at a town hall last year, "I think we need to keep studying climate change.")
Upton's district recently was moved from "solid" to "likely" Republican for the November election in Cook Political Report's ratings. Michigan's 6th includes Kalamazoo, which voted for Clinton in 2016, and neighboring Van Buren County, which pivoted to Trump after voting for Obama in 2008 and 2012. It also happens to be downstream from the largest inland oil pipeline spill in U.S. history—the 1 million barrel pipeline leak of tar sands crude from Canada into the Kalamazoo River in 2010.
According to the Yale Program on Climate Communications, opinions on climate in Upton's district are right on par with national averages: 82 percent want to see funding of research into renewable energy, 75 percent agree that carbon dioxide should be regulated as a pollutant, and 52 percent believe that global warming is mostly caused by human activities.
Upton's rhetoric on climate indicates he is aware of those sentiments, and yet his actions have been supportive of the fossil fuel industry.
Last year, he was one of only a few Republicans in Congress to speak out against the Trump administration's withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. But he voted last year for repeal of the Obama administration rules to curb greenhouse gas pollution, and supported a measure to streamline environmental review of cross-border pipelines like Keystone XL—a project he has championed.
Failing Grades When It Comes to Voting
Pointing to records like Upton's, environmentalist critics of the Climate Solutions Caucus charge that its GOP members are using the popular catch-phrase "all of the above" as a code that really means having it both ways.
All GOP members of the Climate Solutions Caucus who were in Congress in 2015 voted in favor of a joint Congressional resolution disapproving the Obama Clean Power Plan. Last year, their pro-environmental voting record averaged 16 percent, based on the the 35 House votes on environmental issues tracked in 2017 by the League of Conservation Voters. That's a stronger record than House Republicans overall, who scored a bare 5 percent, but significantly weaker than Democratic caucus members, at 97 percent, or House Democrats overall, at 94 percent.
Curbelo argues that the presence of members like Gaetz, who represents Florida's most conservative district, on the state's western panhandle, demonstrates that the caucus is making headway.
"For all the criticism he gets—and I don't agree with him on many issues—he is a champion for the Everglades and for keeping drilling away from the coast of Florida," Curbelo said. "This is a good thing."
"We need to celebrate our successes and victories, and I can assure you that while they are not public yet with their positions, there are many more members from deep red districts that understand the reality of climate change and are getting closer and closer to making their positions public," Curbelo said.
'You Can Have It Both Ways'
The Climate Solutions Caucus is just one entry on the current official list of Congressional caucuses, which runs to 98 pages.
Many of them, said Norman Ornstein, a Congressional scholar who has studied the rise of hyper-partisanship, offer members a way to identify themselves with causes, even when there is little they can do to advance them.
"It becomes a very safe way for members who have constituents who believe in climate change to show that you're a part of the solution without having to do anything that would enrage the party leadership, or those outside forces within the party that would be enraged if you actually voted for something significant on climate change," Ornstein said. "That might bring a primary challenge, or a lot of money in against you. You can have it both ways with groups like this."
Ornstein, a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, adds that such caucuses can serve a useful purpose by building a template that can be a starting point for legislation if and when the time is right.
Curbelo argues that the Climate Solutions Caucus is working in such a direction, but in small steps.
A signal moment came last July during the debate on the National Defense Authorization Act, when the group coalesced in opposition to a Republican-sponsored amendment to kill a Defense Department study on the national security impacts of climate change. Forty-six Republicans, including 22 of the 24 Republicans then in the caucus, joined all House Democrats to defeat the provision.
"It was our first-ever effort to organize behind a legislative goal," said Curbelo. "So we've done two big things—certainly by Congressional standards. We have Republicans and Democrats talking to each other and learning from each other about what I consider a generational challenge. And we demonstrated our group can work in unison, at least to block what we consider bad policy."
Mark Reynolds, executive director of the Citizens' Climate Lobby, acknowledges that the caucus will be for naught unless the lawmakers are willing to advance legislation.
The biggest litmus test for Republicans could be a carbon tax, like the one that CCL favors. Several versions have been introduced over the years—always by Democrats.
"People who completely pooh-pooh the caucus, I just find that really irresponsible, because it's the only bipartisan thing in town on climate," Reynolds said.
But "the people that are accusing it of greenwashing, I think it's a completely fair thing to do," Reynolds said. "Ultimately, for the caucus to matter, we do need to see meaningful bills that are bipartisan coming out of the caucus. We are certainly optimistic about some things, but until we see a live bill, all the criticism is fair."
Reynolds said he believes House leadership keeps the caucus in check. Curbelo said that House leadership has "neither supported nor opposed" the Climate Solutions Caucus' efforts.
The apparent indifference of the GOP leadership speaks volumes, said Ornstein: "What it tells you is they don't need to support or oppose them, because they control the agenda, and they're not bringing anything up."
"The fundamental reality here is the Republican Party is an anti-climate change party. Period," he said.
On Jan. 29, a carbon cap-and-dividend bill following the Citizens Climate Lobby template did get introduced in the House, but it came from one of the Democratic members of the Climate Solutions Caucus—Beyer—and 26 Democratic co-sponsors. Beyer said he spent weeks looking for Republican co-sponsors. He did not find any.
Top photo: Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida fist-bumps GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan. Gaetz, who proposed scrapping the EPA and then joined the Climate Solutions Caucus, has a League of Conservation Voters score of 6 out of 100. Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images