WASHINGTON — Some Republicans, including elected officials who say they are seeing the real-life effects of climate change in the areas they represent, are pushing their party to re-think the way they handle the issue. And that starts with changing how they talk about it.
While some of those Republicans say the party’s full acceptance of the science is still far off, the only way to get there will be to speak the language of conservatives.
“You can’t lead off with ‘climate change’ with most Republicans,” Debbie Dooley, president of Conservatives for Energy Freedom and of the Green Tea Coalition, a collection of clean energy advocates that includes tea partiers, like Dooley, told BuzzFeed News. “The message you use is freedom, market, national security, fiscally responsible. … Republicans are absolutely receptive to that.”
“If you mention ‘climate change’ to a Republican they’re not going to hear another thing you said.”
Part of the issue is credibility, Rep. Ryan Costello said. The Pennsylvania Republican, who is a member of the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, said that fellow Republicans who are outspoken on environmental issues are in the best position to convince their colleagues.
“Oftentimes, it’s the credibility of the messenger,” Costello said, arguing that both Republican members and conservative media have a major role to play in addressing the issue. “You have to look at what that person’s other policy positions are in order to establish credibility on the issue.”
He added that some environmentalists are very “aggressive” in their advocacy, which may not resonate well with Republicans. “I think it’s the sort of issue that the more you try and press and put it on somebody’s front burner, the more tuned out they may get,” Costello said.
Costello is one of 17 House Republicans who recently signed on to a resolution to work “constructively… to study and address the causes and effects of measured changes to our global and regional climates.” The resolution is more about messaging than action, but it represents the kind of change in tone that these Republicans think can get their party on board.
The framing of the issue is key, Republicans say, especially in conservative media, where taking on climate change isn’t exactly popular.
“It’s all a matter of changing, making it so this song starts playing on talk radio,” former Rep. Bob Inglis told BuzzFeed News. The South Carolina Republican, who lost his seat to a primary opponent who went after him on climate change, said that it’s a matter of making the issue be “recognized as a tune that’s hummable by conservatives.”
In many cases, though, the issue isn’t just recognizing the song, but hearing it to begin with, Jim Brainard, the Republican mayor of Carmel, Indiana, argued. “I think the answer really is we need to reach out to the conservative media and try to raise this issue,” Brainard told BuzzFeed News. “Make sure the readers and listeners start thinking about it.”
That’s why Brainard recently spoke on conservative radio about climate change — though he said he felt uncomfortable doing it. But Brainard said it was important to him to get those ideas out there, arguing that too often discussions about climate change occur in bubbles of like-minded people. “In some ways, the people who care about the environment are talking to themselves,” he said.
Florida GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who has also been active on climate change issues, said the issue is largely one of conservative and liberal media taking sides.
“What I would tell partisan media in general is to stop demagoguing [the issue] and be honest and sincere about the facts that are out there,” Curbelo told BuzzFeed News. “Of course, to the extent we could have media that are more honest and less ideologically driven [in general], it would certainly help policy makers reach rational and thoughtful conclusions more expeditiously.”
Ben Shapiro, editor-in-chief at the Daily Wire and host of The Ben Shapiro Show podcast argued that Democrats are responsible for shutting down the conversation about climate change.
“Here’s the bottom line: As long as Republicans propose solutions that are different from the ones Democrats propose, Democrats will call them climate deniers, then the Republican base will react to that by actually denying,” Shapiro, a former editor at Breitbart, said. “They’ll say ‘fine, if you’re going to say I’m a climate denier anyways, then screw you. I’m not interested in your little debate here.’”
(For his part, Shapiro acknowledges climate change is occurring, but says he has questions including “what percentage of global warming is attributable to human activity.”)
Still, some Republicans like Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon said they find it easy to square action on climate change with conservative principles. Some pointed to Teddy Roosevelt’s conservation efforts, others said they found conservation efforts in line with their religious beliefs which dictate that they should take care of God’s gifts, and some, like Bacon, focused on the need to keep an eye out for future generations.
“We want to have clean water and clean air, right?” Bacon told BuzzFeed News. “So I personally want to find logical and smart ways that keep improving the air we breathe and the water we drink.”
But Bacon, who said he learned about environment issues during his time in the Air Force, said he knows it isn’t that easy for all of his colleagues. “I think it would help on our side if they knew the data was not being politicized. It helps when people can trust the data, then we can make better decisions.”
Curbelo said he blames the 2000 election for the polarization that has occurred between the parties on climate change, when Republicans “reflexively assumed” they needed to oppose whatever former vice president Al Gore embraced.
Other Republicans who support taking action on climate change said that polarization only grew worse during President Barack Obama’s administration, as Republicans pushed back on his executive actions, including those on environmental issues. One example they point to is Obama signing on to the Paris Agreement on climate change without congressional approval.
Now, Curbelo said, Republicans in Congress who want to combat climate change are in the process of walking all that polarization back.
But they still have work to do. While federal action on climate change is still met with skepticism by many in their party, there are also some high-profile Republicans — including members of President Donald Trump’s administration — who continue to question the science around the issue.
Republican advocates in Congress say they hope to work with the administration on these issues. Curbelo, along with three Democrats, sent a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last month, encouraging the administration to remain a part of the Paris Agreement. And Costello told BuzzFeed News he had signed off on an another letter to the administration in support of the Paris Agreement, adding “that’s the kind of advocacy” he felt he could do within his party.
Inglis said that he thinks at some point there will be a “catalyzing event” that forces lawmakers to take action on climate change.
“Experience is an effective teacher ... so we are being taught by climate change,” Inglis said. “I can’t predict for you what that catalyzing event will be, but in the meantime what it takes is people hearing it in their own language.”