Politics

How to Get Republicans to Seriously Fight Climate Change

Carlos Curbelo speaks at a lectern while Paul Ryan and Cathy Rodgers stand behind him.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo, backed by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, talks with reporters at the Capitol on Oct. 24, 2017. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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On Inauguration Day, former Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who represented the southern tip of Florida from 2015–19, wrote a letter to Joe Biden that basically told the new president, Don’t forget about Republicans when you push your climate change agenda. Curbelo, who co-founded the bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus, is optimistic about getting members of his party to take climate action—despite the denialism espoused by several GOP politicians and the billionaire-funded network that supports those very same Congress members. But Curbelo still says there are more and more concerned Republicans like him, who’ve helped do things like tuck clean energy funding into December’s COVID relief package. On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Curbelo about how Biden could reach across the aisle to enact his environmental agenda. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: You mentioned arriving for the 114th Congress and meeting your colleagues who maybe didn’t have the perspective that you did, because you come from a place that’s deeply threatened by climate change. Can you tell me about that?

I had always been pro-environment, coming from Florida, growing up near the Everglades. I think most Floridians under 40 have a pretty healthy and well-formed environmental conscience. So I was always a supporter of some departmental policy, but I confess it was not a major priority for me.

During the first quarter of 2015. I had a meeting with NOAA scientists who briefed me on impending climate dangers. I said, “Oh, my God, I have to do something. I have to lead on this.”

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What was it about that meeting that made you react that way? 

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The data and the projections on sea level rise, and what it would mean for South Florida. It literally could be unlivable if we don’t act and if the worst predictions come to be. So I started looking for fellow House Republicans with whom I could discuss the issue and start building some support and drafting some policy. I only found maybe four or five willing House Republicans out of 247. So I said, “We have another problem, in addition to the climate problem.” There’s no political incentive to engage on this issue because it could actually open these members to a primary challenge. Now, that’s changing with even younger Republicans supporting climate action. But we were in a very bad place at the time. And that’s when we started working on building the House Climate Solutions Caucus, the first-ever internal organization of Congress dedicated to discussing and solving this issue in a bipartisan way.

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You had rules for how folks joined the caucus.

We wanted to keep it balanced. You could only join if you joined with a member from the opposing party. What that did was trigger dozens and dozens of casual, healthy conversations between Republicans and Democrats—in most cases, Democrats approaching Republicans like: “Would you join this group with me? It was co-founded by Republican Carlos Curbelo and Democrat Ted Deutch.” At first we had five and five. Then at the end of the 114th Congress, we had 10 and 10, and we thought that was a wonderful development. But in the 115th Congress, the caucus swelled: 90 members, 45 Republicans, 45 Democrats. And it mobilized to defeat anti-climate amendments for the first time ever on the floor of the House while Republicans were in the majority. We’ve only grown since then, to the point where you have a companion caucus in the Senate: Seven Senate Republicans have joined seven Democrats. The leader of that caucus is Mike Braun, a senator from a very conservative coal state but who believes passionately in working in a bipartisan manner to solve this issue. His partner is Democrat Chris Coons. We’re still far from the climate promised land, but we are a lot closer than we were just five years ago.

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Did you ever see a colleague change their mind? Like they said, “I don’t know if I want to join this caucus,” and then they saw where it was going and thought, “Maybe I should look into it”?

Definitely. Not immediately, but over time I would check in with people: “Hey, have you given it more thought?” What happened is they would hear from people back in their districts—one group in particular, the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, was very active—and my colleagues would come up and say, “I got a guy in my district who keeps talking to me about your caucus.” A lot of these members ended up joining and contributing. The caucus lost a lot of Republican members after the 2018 election, but now there are new Republicans who are interested in joining, and I think they should be able to reestablish as much symmetry in the caucus as possible.

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What would it take to get the rest of your old colleagues in Congress on board with that idea?

In about a week or so, a House Republican, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, is filing a carbon pricing bill with Salud Carbajal, a Democrat from California, which would invest most of the revenue generated by the tax on pollution into infrastructure, which happens to be one of President Biden’s chief priorities.

But being a member doesn’t guarantee how someone will vote. Back in 2017, the tax cuts bill included a provision authorizing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and solutions caucus members voted for it, including you. And then there was the Capitol riot on Jan. 6. When I looked over the names of some folks on the climate caucus, a number of the Republican members voted to overturn the presidential election.

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I have spoken to Republicans and Democrats in the House who are struggling with how to deal with their colleagues who decided to vote to reject the election results in two states. But here’s the question I would pose: Let’s say we were one vote away from a meaningful, comprehensive national climate policy, something that would reduce carbon emissions in a drastic way over the next 20 years. The only people we could go to for more votes are members who voted to reject the election results. Would we take one of their votes or would we say, no, keep your vote and we’re not going to pass this bill? I think most of us who care about climate and the environment who want to see a solution would say, “We disagree with what you did, but we could really use your vote here.” I was very disappointed that people voted to reject the election results, but there are other ways to hold those members accountable. We don’t have to refuse their votes when we can use them.

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