The top Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee are looking to engage with the Democratic majority on climate change, promoting private sector innovation as an alternative to regulation, taxes, or mandates.
“I got tired of having the Democrats try to define what the Republicans were for or not for,” said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon, the top GOP member on the committee. “We wanted to define it.”
Walden, the former chairman of the GOP campaign arm, and his second-in-command, Rep. John Shimkus, R-Illinois, described their climate change agenda in a rare joint interview with the Washington Examiner on Capitol Hill.
“I would say we come at it from the sense we believe in innovation and have actually moved policies forward that have
become law,” Walden said, contrasting his approach to that of Democrats. “Their idea is more taxation and more regulation that we believe leads to economic stagnation.”
Since the rollout of the Left’s Green New Deal, the GOP leaders of the committee have shifted their tone, with polls
showing increasing awareness even among Republicans of worsening weather events and their connection to climate change.
Democratic U.S. Rep Diana DeGette of Denver is also on the committee.
Walden and Shimkus, along with former committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., are promoting an agenda to
counter climate change, focused on four “buckets”: innovation, conservation, adaptation, and preparation.
Shimkus denies that the Green New Deal, which has brought more attention to climate change, is the primary factor forcing their hand in promoting an alternative agenda.
“I don’t think we are responding to the Green New Deal, because we don’t take it seriously,” Shimkus said. “It’s the butt of jokes in most of the country.”
The Republican leaders say they are shifting their message, not transforming their policy approach. Walden and Shimkus note that they powered carbon-reduction measures through the committee long before Democrats took over the House in January.
“When you look at all the things we’ve done, our policies are actually a big success, but we’ve never cloaked them in
terms of climate,” Walden said, referring to separate bills that became law, simplifying the process for relicensing small hydropower projects and streamlining the federal government’s approval process for advanced small nuclear reactors.
Walden recalls hosting two dozen Republican members of the energy committee, in groups and individually, in his office shortly after Democrats took control.
Upon polling each member, he said, all agreed climate change is a problem that requires a GOP-led solution.
“I want us in that debate because I think we have better ideas,” Walden said.
The shift in messaging has been stark for Shimkus, who represents a rural district along the Indiana border that’s long depended on coal and nuclear power.
Shimkus was previously co-chairman of the Congressional Coal Caucus, and once said the concept of government addressing climate change violated his religious beliefs.
Now he frets about longer and wetter summers harming crop production for corn and soybean farmers in the Midwest.
“I have traveled the district quite a bit, and have only had one constituent who reached out and said, ‘What the heck are you doing?’” Shimkus said. “What I tell them we are trying to do is keep a measured approach to reduce the carbon footprint while continuing to have a growing economy.”
Pressed for details on policies they’d support moving forward, Walden and Shimkus provided few. Instead, they touted the U.S. leading the world in emissions decline since 2000, primarily due to cheap natural gas from the shale boom replacing coal in the electricity sector.
“As a result of the work we’ve done over the years with Republican policies, America actually leads the world in carbon reductions,” Walden said.
Critics note that, while the U.S. does have the largest absolute emissions declines of any country between 2000 and 2017, it started from a large baseline, leading the world in cumulative emissions.
U.S. emissions also increased in 2018, thanks to an improved economy and growth in energy use from an unusually hot summer and cold winter.
Promoting innovation will not avert the worst effects of climate change, climate hawks say, unless coupled with a more muscular policy, such as carbon pricing or mandates.
“Innovation requires the kind of motivation you get with a robust price on carbon that sends a strong signal to the marketplace,” said Mark Reynolds, the executive director of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a group advocating for Republicans and Democrats to support a carbon tax.
Walden and Shimkus said they won’t join the two House Republicans, Reps. Francis Rooney of Florida and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, who support a carbon tax.
“We have been around this long enough where the miracle solution was cap and trade,” Walden said, noting Democrats’ failed climate pricing attempt in 2009. “So the new miracle is, ‘Oh, let’s just tax carbon and then we’ll redistribute the funds to selected industries or to people and create a whole new federal program.’ It becomes the next new tax and the next new revenue source for government.”
The two Republicans insist there are bipartisan short-term opportunities for legislation. They emphasized their cooperative relationship with Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee that handles environment and climate change.
Walden and Shimkus support aspects of a framework to address climate change that Tonko released in March.
Tonko told the Washington Examiner he is “gratified” that his Republican colleagues have expressed open-mindedness to his proposal, but he said Walden and Shimkus must deliver more.
“Innovation is not the only tool in our toolbox, and on its own it will fall short of the response we need to the crisis we now face,” Tonko said in a statement. “Even in this area, our Republican colleagues have yet to offer tangible solutions that deliver the resources necessary to achieve even modest emissions reductions.”
Prospects for bipartisan cooperation, say Walden and Shimkus, include streamlining permitting for building energy infrastructure, such as transmission lines, and upgrading existing equipment to buffer against extreme weather; improving energy efficiency in publicly funded projects; modernizing the electricity grid to accommodate the use of more wind and solar; and spending on research and development into clean energy technologies, including carbon capture on fossil fuel plants and battery storage.