Why Some Republicans are Rethinking Climate Change

5 minute read

The Republican Party questions the science of climate change and the need to address it more than any other party in the Western world. Which is what made a rare moment of dissension this week so remarkable.

On July 23, Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida introduced carbon tax legislation that would require companies to pay for emitting carbon dioxide and then allow the government to use the proceeds to fund an infrastructure program. The effort, co-sponsored by GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, is going nowhere in this GOP Congress. Just four days earlier the House passed a resolution condemning a carbon tax as “detrimental” to the U.S. economy, which only six Republicans opposed.

But the dueling GOP takes on a carbon tax highlight the growing likelihood of a clash within the party. Climate change isn’t going anywhere as a political issue, as intense heat waves and storms become more frequent and voters and businesses increasingly demand solutions. As a result, some conservatives say, Republicans may soon face a choice: propose realistic conservative solutions to the problem, or lose relevance.

“The pendulum will swing,” says former South Carolina congressman Bob Inglis, a Republican who runs RepublicEn, a non-profit advocating for conservative solutions to environmental issues. “And when that pendulum swings…it may just be the solution you don’t want on climate.”

The business world may help shape the party’s internal debate. Big corporations have shifted gears in their approach to climate issues, including many in industries that traditionally support the GOP. In response to Curbelo’s proposal, three leading oil and gas companies—Shell, Equinor and BP America—joined a slew of other corporations to pen a letter expressing support for a carbon tax. “We welcome your demonstrated commitment to finding common ground on federal policies that can mitigate the effects of climate change,” says the letter.

Other significant energy players that did not sign on to the letter, like ExxonMobil and Total, have also endorsed a carbon tax as the most efficient way to address global warming. Yet most of these companies have not investing in lobbying Congress on the issue. And the most prominent trade groups —such as the influential American Petroleum Institute—have not supported such a move. “ExxonMobil has 100 things they want from U.S. Congress,” says Inglis. “A carbon tax is probably [number] 97.”

Indeed, a carbon tax is likely not something that those players want to happen anytime soon, but rather a potential compromise if climate change regulation comes to seem inevitable. Around the globe, developed and developing countries have enacted measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It may not happen during the Trump administration, but most energy experts expect the U.S. will be forced to do the same. When that happens, big businesses prefer a simple measure like a carbon tax over complicated regulation.

That’s part of the reason why companies committed early to the Paris Agreement and have sought to keep a seat at the table in international climate-change discussions. “If you’re a corporation you’re going to look at this really objectively,” says George David Banks, former international energy advisor in the Trump administration. “Climate policy is not going away. You have to factor that in. You have to plan for it.”

At the same time, Republicans face a changing political reality: younger voters are more likely than their older counterparts to say that climate change is happening and must be addressed. Polling from earlier this year released by the Alliance for Market Solutions found that more than half of young Republicans are concerned about the issue. Nearly a quarter of people under 30 who identified as Republican in 2015 have already left the party, according to the Pew Research Center.

“When you see young people signing up from both parties,” former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz said earlier this year, referring to college Republicans supporting a carbon tax, “that’s a signal that the future wants to have action now.”

None of this means Republicans are anywhere near passing meaningful climate change legislation. President Trump has called global warming a “hoax,” and many top Republicans in the White House and in Congress are skeptical about the science of climate change, raising questions about its severity or outright denying it. Many Republicans also still depend on support from business interests—such as the coal and manufacturing industries—that see climate change regulation as a threat. Those industries might not weigh in publicly, but independent groups that pour money into Congressional races have the potential to punish candidates who fall out of line.

But it’s clear that more Republicans have realized that the topic isn’t going away. Forty-three Republicans have joined the Climate Solutions Caucus, a bipartisan group in the House meant to foster discussion on the issue. Right now the majority of its Republican members continue to oppose many meaningful climate measures, but they insist that climate change is real and that they want to do something about it. Even that position is inconsistent with Trump’s and those of many party elders. “We’re seeing trends in the House that should give us all hope,” Curbelo said Monday.

No one expects the party to change overnight. But a shift in political winds, like a new administration, could quickly accelerate the climate conversation, prompting Republicans to reckon with the party’s stance on the subject. “These moments can come about, as I know from my time in government, sooner than people think,” former Obama energy advisor Jason Bordoff, director of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, said Monday. “We want to make sure when that moment comes we’re ready.”

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Write to Justin Worland at justin.worland@time.com