When Joe Manchin announced an abrupt end to Senate negotiations over major climate legislation last week, activists and even fellow Democrats expressed outrage against the West Virginia lawmaker. Manchin was attacked as a “modern-day villain” who had delivered “nothing short of a death sentence” to a rapidly heating planet.
Some Democratic leaders, however, including President Joe Biden, have since attempted to redirect that anger toward congressional Republicans instead.
“Not a single Republican in Congress stepped up to support my climate plan. Not one,” Biden said, speaking at a coal-turned-wind power plant in Massachusetts on Wednesday. “So let me be clear: climate change is an emergency.”
Although congressional Republicans have refused to embrace Biden’s policy ideas, the party has largely abandoned its past climate denialism. But climate experts and activists say the ideas Republicans have proposed are insufficient or misguided and fail to address the magnitude and urgency of this crisis.
Republicans have not generally been viewed as champions when it comes to combating the climate crisis at the federal level. Donald Trump famously withdrew the US from the Paris climate agreement, and his administration rolled back nearly 100 environmental rules during his presidency, eliminating important regulations for the fossil fuel industry.
More recently, the conservative-dominated Supreme Court handed down a decision, in West Virginia v the Environmental Protection Agency, that will severely hamper that government agency’s ability to curtail greenhouse gas emissions.
There have, however, been some modest signs of change among Republicans when it comes to climate policy. While it was once quite common to hear Republican lawmakers reject the very idea of climate change, many members of the party are now at least willing to discuss the issue.
“I think there’s been a really significant narrative shift over the last five years,” said Quill Robinson, vice-president of government affairs for the American Conservation Coalition, a right-leaning environmental advocacy group. “A lot of elected Republicans and also the broader conservative movement is a lot more comfortable, willing, and honestly interested in engaging on this issue of climate change.”
Signs of that change are visible in Congress. Last year, Republican congressman John Curtis announced the formation of the Conservative Climate Caucus, which counts more than 70 Republicans as members.
The House Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy, has released his own climate platform. The proposal, unveiled last month, outlines how Republicans would work to address environmental and energy issues if they regain control of the House, as they are expected to do after the midterm elections this November.
Critics say McCarthy’s platform is a perfect example of Republicans’ failure to grasp the enormity of the climate crisis. The plan calls for increasing domestic fossil fuel production and boosting exports of US natural gas. In the past several months, Republicans’ demands to boost US oil production have grown louder, as the war in Ukraine drives gas prices to record highs.
Environmental experts have said that global reliance on fossil fuels needs to be drastically reduced in order to substantially cut greenhouse gas emissions and avoid disastrous climate breakdown. Republicans’ proposals threaten to accelerate this looming calamity, Democrats argue.
“This House Republican proposal simply recycles old, bad ideas that amount to little more than handouts to oil companies,” Democrat Frank Pallone, chair of the House energy and commerce committee, said last month. “It is a stunning display of insincerity to admit climate change is a problem but to propose policies that make it worse.”
Republicans have also called for taking additional steps to protect American wildlife, but climate activists have again criticized those proposals as too incremental to meet the moment. In contrast, the Biden administration has set a goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and achieving net zero emissions by 2050.
Kidus Girma, a spokesperson for the youth-led climate group Sunrise Movement, said even Biden’s policy objectives fall far short of the changes necessary to help protect the planet.
“We fundamentally don’t have that timeline,” Girma said of Republicans’ incremental approach. “Emissions cut by 2030 is incrementalism in itself. So I don’t know how much more incremental we could get.”
Robinson argued that Democrats’ failure to pass Build Back Better and the supreme court’s decision to limit the EPA’s regulatory power demonstrate the urgent need for bipartisan compromise on this issue—even if the end product falls short of what climate activists have demanded.
“You can’t rely on nine justices of the Supreme Court, one man in the White House, and one single party in Congress to pass durable, lasting climate policy,” Robinson said. “This has to be done on a bipartisan basis in Congress.”