Throughout President Obama’s eight years in the White House, congressional Republicans rarely sounded the alarm over climate change. Even for those worried about it, there was no incentive to join with a Democratic Administration bullish on environmental issues. If the cause was already being championed, what, the political calculus went, was gained by defying their own party?
As with so much else in Washington, the election of President Trump has upended that thinking. The President has called climate change a “hoax” and issued Executive Orders to roll back Obama-era green initiatives. To run the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), he installed former Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, who said this month that he doesn’t believe carbon emissions drive climate change—-a stark rejection of international scientific consensus. Now, in response to these scrambled battle lines and emboldened by their total control of government, a small but growing number of Republicans have begun standing up for science.
The latest break with party orthodoxy came on March 15, when 17 Republicans, whose districts stretch from the Florida coast to Nebraska’s plains, introduced a resolution acknowledging the reality of man-made climate change and calling for private and public solutions to counter its effects.
“It’s the right thing to do,” says Pennsylvania Representative Ryan Costello. “We need Republicans to be vocal about this issue–particularly since the Republicans control the House, Senate and the Administration.”
The resolution follows a wave of GOP climate efforts. Last month a group of party elder statesmen led by former Secretary of State James Baker unveiled a plan for a tax on carbon pollution that was praised by environmentalists. On Capitol Hill, a handful of Republican Senators have joined with Democrats to stall an effort to overturn a Bureau of Land Management rule targeting methane-gas emissions. And a bipartisan climate-solutions group, known informally as the Noah’s Ark caucus, added nine Republicans this year, more than doubling the GOP total, to 15. When Florida Representative Carlos Curbelo co-founded the caucus in February 2016, it took months to persuade the first few Republicans join.
For the environmental lobby, which has whiplash after trading the friendly Obama Administration for the hostile Trump White House, even small gestures are welcome. “The symbolic value is huge,” says the Environmental Defense Fund’s Elizabeth Thompson. “We’re in an era where a lot of forces are conspiring against the expression of this position.”
But the practical effect of these moves on environmental policy is far less clear. The Trump Administration is expected to undo the Clean Power Plan, Obama’s chief regulation targeting carbon emissions, and encourage further development of fossil-fuel resources. And even the Republicans calling for action on climate change mostly shrugged off the carbon-tax proposal. “Environmentalists immediately move to talking about carbon tax, and that’s just a nonstarter,” says Costello.
There are other places where the parties may find common ground. Funding infrastructure improvements that promote clean energy and creating financial incentives for energy efficiency are ideas with bipartisan support. But it will take far more expansive efforts for the U.S. to meet its international commitments to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions–let alone counteract the larger threats posed by a warming planet.
While the current Administration may not take those concerns seriously, a large portion of the American public does. In a Gallup poll released on March 14, a majority of respondents said they believe global warming is occurring and is caused by human activity. Forty-five percent, meanwhile, said they worry “a great deal” about it–a record high and a big jump from just last year.
And more Republicans are paying attention. “There’s energy out there to be harnessed,” says South Carolina Representative Mark Sanford, who signed the climate resolution. “If that energy was around more than just health care and immigration and included climate change, that could be something that breaks this issue free.”
This appears in the March 27, 2017 issue of TIME.
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