Spoiler Alert: A Paul Ryan-Led House Unlikely to Shift on Climate Issues

As Wisconsin's Ryan prepares to take leadership role in Congress, there’s ‘no room on the agenda for climate change,’ says Republican strategist.

Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan is likely to be elected House speaker on Thursday
Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan is likely to be elected House speaker on Thursday. Credit: Tony Alter, via Flickr

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After a turbulent five-week search, the House is expected to elect Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as speaker this week. The change in leadership, which comes amid political gridlock and a colorful presidential campaign, doesn’t bode well for climate action on Capitol Hill, environmental and political experts said.

Ryan will replace Republican Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, who has served as speaker for the past five years. Boehner announced his retirement from Congress last month after 25 years in office. Under Boehner’s leadership, Congress has tried to stymie federal climate change action in recent years, from slashing funding for environmental regulations and science through appropriations bills to blocking the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.

A Ryan-led House likely won’t be much better, experts told InsideClimate News.

“He is your typical, run-of-the-mill, extremely conservative guy who hews to the party line on drilling, fracking, coal and no more funding for renewables,” said RL Miller, chair of the California Democratic party’s environmental caucus and founder of Climate Hawks Vote, a super PAC that works to elect climate-conscious candidates.

“He is certainly not going to be any better for the renewable energy industry than John Boehner. Whether he is going to be worse than Boehner depends on how well he’ll be able to work with the House Freedom Caucus,” a Tea Party-led group of roughly 40 conservative representatives,” Miller said.

And that’s if the House tackles climate change at all in the next couple of years, said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist who worked on John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. Ryan’s first priorities in office will be the debt ceiling, the Highway Trust Fund and the 2016 budget, O’Connell said. By next spring, Washington will be captive to the presidential election.

“Right now Congress is just trying clean its slate,” O’Connell said. “There’s just no room on the agenda for climate change, even if both sides were in agreement over it.”

It has been almost a year since Ryan spoke publicly about climate change, but his latest statements have trended toward denial. During a re-election debate in 2014, he said he didn’t know whether human activities like the burning of fossil fuels were driving climate change. “I don’t think science does, either,” he added.

Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, has a track record of including anti-environmental and anti-climate riders in his budget bills. His 2015 budget, titled The Path to Prosperity, tried to defund environmental agencies and climate science and roll back environmental regulatory authority. Ryan said the budget was also meant to simplify the American tax code, but would have kept tax breaks for oil and gas companies.

He is also a staunch opponent of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, writing in a 2009 editorial for The Journal Times of Racine, Wis., that “cap-and-trade is explicitly designed to increase energy costs and shrink our economy, in an effort to reduce global temperature by a fraction of one degree by the end of the century”—claims that have been thoroughly debunked by economists. “To the detriment of the American people, environmental issues have fallen victim to the hyper-politicization of science,” he added.

But Ryan’s views weren’t always so anti-environment. As a freshman congressman in 1999, Ryan sided with environmental interests more often than many of his Republican colleagues, voting pro-environment 31 percent of the time, according to the League of Conservation Voters’ annual scorecard. But that number declined over the years to just 3 percent in 2014. At the same time, Ryan’s campaign contributions from oil and gas companies have increased from $38,500 in 2000 to $405,600 in 2014, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign finances.

“Ryan has been with us on what we call ‘green scissors issues,’ things like flood insurance reform and the farm bill,” said Sara Chieffo, vice president of government affairs for the League of Conservation Voters. “But if you look at his tenure as chief budget writer, there is not a lot of evidence … to say he will suddenly turn around and support climate action.”

“You have to follow the money,” Chieffo added. “It is clear that Ryan has been influenced” by oil and gas contributions, she said, and that he may be “elevating the interests of his corporate sponsors above his constituents’.”

The House’s road to a new speaker has been anything but smooth. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California was considered the frontrunner for the post until he unexpectedly dropped out of the running Oct. 8. Ryan emerged as the next likely candidate soon after, and came armed with a list of demands for the House GOP before he would accept the position. Among them:  eliminating the House’s power to oust a speaker mid-session; adequate time to spend with his family; and a public endorsement from the House Freedom Caucus, the group that made it difficult for Boehner to do his job.

The House Freedom Caucus didn’t publicly endorse Ryan last week, but he did win a two-thirds majority of  support from the caucus.

House Republicans will hold an internal vote on Ryan’s speakership Wednesday before the entire House holds the official vote on the floor Thursday.