5 GOP science 'believers' in the new Congress

Murkowski

They're not pushing for a global treaty to cap emissions, and they'll likely vote the party line on Keystone and coal, but several members of the new GOP majority in Congress  – such as Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, above – accept the science on global warming and could help push for efforts to mitigate the problem. Photo courtesy Sen. Lisa Murkowski/Facebook.

Jan. 6, 2014

Not every Republican in the incoming 114th Congress dismisses human-driven climate change. A few within the GOP majority accept the science. But on key policies, expect them to vote with those who dismiss the issue as a hoax.

By Marianne Lavelle
The Daily Climate

A handful of Republicans make a conservative case for climate change concern in the new Congress being sworn in today. But nobody expects them to break with the denier-dominated majority on the most important fossil fuel issues in the months ahead.

These Republicans advocate "clean energy." But they also support construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

These GOP climate science believers have been hailed for offering a "kinder, fresher approach to climate issues," and some environmental advocates have mused on the influence they might wield over their peers. 

These Republicans advocate "clean energy." But they also support construction of the Keystone XL pipeline for transporting oil from the carbon-intensive Canadian tar sands to Texas refineries. And they all oppose the Obama administration's prime climate initiative – the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed rules for curbing carbon emissions from existing coal power plants – and likely would vote for legislation to block EPA.

Lining up with the Speaker

On the most important upcoming roll calls on climate, then, their names would line up with those of House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio (who has called the idea of carbon dioxide pollution "almost comical"), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (unabashed advocate of his home state of Kentucky's low-cost coal energy), and Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma (notorious for calling global warming "the greatest hoax" perpetrated on the American public). 

Still, with polls showing a majority of U.S. voters worried about climate change, these somewhat-against-the-grain GOP voices could become increasingly important. A recent poll conducted by Harstad Strategic Research for the environmental advocacy group, the NRDC Action Fund, showed that more than two-thirds of likely 2016 voters support the EPA's power plant plan, and that includes 87 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of Republicans. 

62 percent of independent women and 59 percent of Republican women favor action on greenhouse gases.

"Voters are definitely aware that something is amiss," said Harstad senior vice president Andrew Maxfield. They don't all believe humans are the sole cause of warming, he said, but "there is a majority overall who are willing to consider our use of fossil fuels is leading to climate change."

Important blocs

Support was especially strong among voting blocs that he said will be "extremely important" in the next presidential election. For instance, 62 percent of independent women and 59 percent of Republican women favored action on greenhouse gases.

With their focus on energy efficiency and technology, plus limited support for renewables and advocacy of nuclear energy, these members are taking the lead in crafting the new message some pundits think the party will need before the 2016 election. Republicans, wrote Roll Call's Humberto Sanchez last year, need something different than "no."

Here are five members of Congress who might offer that different message:

Rep. Chris Gibson, New York

"If conservation doesn't sit within conservative principles, then words have no meaning at all," says Gibson, a retired Army colonel who fought to get federal aid to his constituents after Hurricane Irene struck his Hudson Valley district in 2011, his first year in Congress.

Gibson said last month he plans to introduce a resolution meant to rally Congress to "recognize the reality" that climate change is behind events like the three 500-year floods he has witnessed in the last several years in his district. "We have changing weather patterns, and we have climate change," he said at a forum organized by Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, a nonprofit issues advocacy group. "This is the science. I hope my party will come to be comfortable with this, because we have to operate within the realm of science.

Gibson said he supports the Keystone XL pipeline with an eye to keeping energy costs low, but he also praises the Energy Department's "Sunshot" program aiming to reduce the cost of solar energy. He wants to see more federal support for renewable and other clean energy technology. "Emissions is something we've got to tackle," he said. "We've got to be smart at how we do it."

But Gibson's influence in the House may be short-lived. Roll Call this morning reported that Gibson was expected to announce that he would give up his seat when his third term ends in 2016, and that he may seek statewide office.

Rep.-elect Garret Graves, Louisiana

GravesOn climate science itself, the incoming Congressman from Baton Rouge prefers not to get into a debate over "anthropogenic versus biogenic causes," he told Bloomberg last month. But on whether sea level rise is happening, Graves is unequivocal. 

"For us to stick our heads in the sand and pretend it's not happening is idiotic, and it puts the lives of 2 million people who live in south Louisiana in jeopardy," he said. As director of the state's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, Graves led the drawing up of a $50 billion master plan for restoring and protecting Louisiana's receding shoreline. 

But the plan is unfunded and he vigorously opposed a bid by a regional flood protection board to sue the oil and gas industry for canals, pipelines and channels that had weakened Louisiana's marshes and eroded its natural defenses.

Graves has said he does not support mandatory emissions regulations. He does support incentives for technological and efficiency solutions that reduce emissions and energy consumption.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Illinois

A U.S. Air Force special ops veteran who flew in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Kinzinger has advocated support of clean home-grown energy as a national security matter. With four nuclear power plants in his district—more than any other member of Congress—he backs "clean nuclear" as part of the climate change solution. 

Last year, Kinzinger overcame a challenge from the Tea Party wing of the GOP. He received backing from the nonprofit advocacy group CRES, which spent nearly $2 million in the last election cycle supporting Republican candidates with moderate views on climate change. "One side that says there's no such thing as any kind of global warming, we can dump all the pollution we like, while the other side says we all have to ride bicycles the rest of our life," Kinzinger lamented in an interview with CRES on Youtube. "Somewhere in the middle is the answer."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina

"I think there will be a political problem for the Republican Party going into 2016 if we don't define what we are for on the environment," Graham recently told Roll Call. "I don't know what the environmental policy of the Republican Party is."

GrahamBut it is, if anything, equally difficult to pin down Graham's own policy, giving his shifting positions over the years on legislation important to advocates of climate action. His most prominent role in providing leadership on the effort to cut carbon emissions came in 2010, when he briefly confabbed with two colleagues, Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry and Connecticut independent Joe Lieberman, to come up with a broadly acceptable cap-and-trade compromise. 

Graham sought to include tax incentives and loan guarantees to help the nuclear industry and expanded oil drilling in the bill, as well as a measure revoking EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gases. Eventually, though, he walked away from the deal he helped to forge. In the last Congress, Graham voted in favor of an Inhofe amendment that aimed to block EPA greenhouse gas regulations. 

But Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund co-hosted a fundraiser for Graham last spring, an indication that some environmentalists continue to view him as an important GOP figure on climate policy. 

Like Kinzinger, Graham successfully fought off a Tea Party challenge in the primary.

Maxfield said some of the moderate Republican voices on climate change may now feel emboldened to speak out on climate because they, with the support of the GOP establishment, defeated so many of the Tea Party challengers in last year's primary. But Maxfield was quick to add: "I don't know whether there's a political calculation here. It may be they understand there's a real threat and they want to be on the right side of history." 

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska

Murkowski planned to showcase the GOP push for construction of the Keystone XL pipeline at her first hearing on Wednesday as chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. This was not exactly an opening to warm the hearts of climate action advocates. And the hearing was cancelled due to a parliamentary move by the Senate's Democratic leadership, soon after the White House revealed Obama's plans to veto any Keystone XL measure. 

Somewhat overshadowed by the conflict over the pipeline, Murkowski actually took time in her election night remarks in November to voice concern about climate change. "I come from a state where we see a warming," she said. 

 "We're seeing it with increased water temperatures; we're seeing it with ice that is thinner; we're seeing it with migratory patterns that are changing. So I look at this and I say this is something that we must address."

But Murkowski elicited groans from some in the climate science community when she followed up with a suggestion that volcano emissions may be a larger contributor to atmospheric pollution than fossil fuel (the opposite actually is the case.)

Murkowski's approach has been to back increased production of all forms of energy, and she has supported the idea of devoting new revenue from expanded oil and gas drilling to "advanced energy." The Alaska Senator recently told E&E Publishing that her environmental detractors will see that she has "a very, very broad view of what our energy potentials are and how we develop all of those."

Meanwhile, Murkowski planned to go forward with her Energy Committee's scheduled vote Thursday on the Keystone XL. 

Editor's Note: Updated, 12 p.m. EDT, with news on expected Gibson retirement.

Updated, 3:55 p.m. EDT, with news on Obama's planned Keystone XL veto, Murkowski's hearing delayed.

Marianne Lavelle is a staff writer for The Daily Climate. Follow her on Twitter @mlavelles. The Daily Climate is a nonprofit news site covering energy, the environment and climate change.

Photo of Rep.-elect Garret Graves, courtesy Facebook; Sen. Lindsey Graham, courtesy Jim Greenhill/flickr.

Find us on Twitter @TheDailyClimate or email editor Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski [at] EHN.org

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