These 6 GOP leaders will shift Congress on climate

Source: By Vanessa Montalbano, Washington Post • Posted: Monday, January 23, 2023

The six House lawmakers largely oppose government action to address climate change, even as their districts confront serious floods, droughts, heat waves and other impacts.

Washington Post illustration; Alex Brandon/AP; Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters; Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post; Jacquelyn Martin/AP; Win McNamee/Getty; iStock

After advancing his climate agenda for the past two years with a slim congressional majority, President Biden now faces a Republican-controlled House of Representatives hostile to his policies and determined to slow the country’s shift away from fossil fuels.

The following six GOP leaders will have an outsize influence on these decisions. While they might not be able to push legislation onto Biden’s desk, they and others can scrutinize his policies, grill his appointees in oversight hearings, go after corporate CEOs for their sustainability policies and try to redirect climate funding authorized under last year’s Inflation Reduction Act.

While none of these lawmakers responded to questions about their positions on climate change, all represent constituents hit by the impacts of a warming world. Here’s who they are, and the districts they represent:

Kevin McCarthy

California, House Speaker

Newly installed as speaker by a slim and fractious majority, McCarthy has one clear priority: Maintaining his hold on power, which means placating his right flank.

This lawmaker from Bakersfield, Calif. has blasted Biden’s climate agenda and faulted it for rising gas prices.

In a September interview with Breitbart News, McCarthy called Biden’s energy agenda “just wrong” and pledged to increase oil and gas production. He’s since continued to criticize Biden for high fuel prices.

“We’ve watched what the Democrats and Biden have done to our gasoline costs,” McCarthy said. “We will bring that cost down.”

McCarthy’s stance on oil and gas development reflects his district, a conservative swath of the southern San Joaquin Valley that includes parts of Kern, Fresno, Tulare and Kings counties.

Kern, in particular, is known as “the energy capital of California.” Drilling rigs bob up and down across much of the landscape, allowing the county to produce more oil and gas than any other statewide. The district’s most populous city is Bakersfield, where McCarthy grew up and played for the Bakersfield High School football team, the Drillers.

McCarthy has maintained ties with oil companies — those operating locally and worldwide — and the industry has reciprocated. In the 2022 campaign, oil and gas companies donated more than $500,000 to McCarthy, according to data collected by OpenSecrets.org, more than any other member of the House.

Despite its deep attachment to fossil fuels, McCarthy’s district is a diverse one economically, with growing suburbs and tens of thousands of acres of fertile farmland. Kern County also has some of the nation’s largest wind and solar farms. The companies building these projects could benefit from the clean energy provisions in the new climate law McCarthy and other House Republicans did not support — something McCarthy may be forced to confront if the House attempts to divert funding away from the sector.

McCarthy, who said in 2019 that Republicans “should be a little nervous” about where their party will be in 20 years if it does not recognize global warming, helped prepare the party’s climate plan in the months leading up to the midterm elections. It gave hope to younger Republican lawmakers and conservative environmental groups, who’ve pressed the party to abandon its previous stances rejecting the scientific consensus on climate change.

The plan backed carbon-free hydropower and streamlined permitting that could bolster both renewable energy and fossil fuel projects, but it didn’t include targets for cutting planet-warming pollution. Climate advocates panned it as a status-quo proposal that would not reduce emissions as quickly, or to the degree, that scientists say is necessary. To win over opponents in his campaign for the speakership, McCarthy also agreed to cap discretionary spending, which could strangle government funding for clean energy and conservation measures.

McCarthy’s district — with tens of thousands of acres of productive farmland and ranches — is also especially vulnerable to climate change, as is most of California. The most serious local threat is severe drought, which scientists say is becoming worse as rising temperatures reduce the state’s snowpack and more precipitation falls as rain.

The most recent dry spell has lingered for three years, becoming so severe that some farmers have left parts of their land fallow, preferring to sell their unused water instead of cultivating a crop. Without surface supplies, farmers are relying more on groundwater, which is being pumped faster than nature can replenish it.

“The earth is literally sinking in some areas of the county because we’ve grown so dependent on the overuse of ground water,” said Cesar Aguirre, Kern County director for the Central California Environmental Justice Network, an environmental advocacy group.

Farmworkers are already feeling the economic effects. “They are becoming a type of climate refugee — they have to find work in other places,” said Aguirre.

The League of Conservation Voters, founded in 1970, is a non-profit advocacy group that annually rates members of Congress for their legislative votes on climate, environment and other issues. The lifetime score reflects the percentage of times a lawmaker voted in a manner the LCV supported. Many Republicans say the LCV ranking is unfair, because of the legislation the group chooses to highlight. In 2021, the average ranking for House Republicans was 13%. For Democrats, it was 99.5%.

Steve Scalise

Louisiana, House Majority Leader

The second most powerful leader in the House hails from Louisiana, a state that is a giant in the production — and consumption — of fossil fuels. Louisiana ranks third nationwide in production of natural gas, and its 14 oil refineries account for one-fifth of the nation’s refining capacity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Scalise, whose district reaches from just north of Lake Pontchartrain to the rapidly disappearing coastal wetlands, has advocated for the petroleum sector since he was elected in 2008.

“Steve Scalise will always be a rock star in the eyes of the oil and gas industry,” Stephen Brown, a former lobbyist for Tesoro, an oil refining company, said in an email. As a Republican from Louisiana, Brown added, Scalise “and his staff just understand our issues and the dynamics of their play in ways other members just can’t.”

Yet few places reflect the ravages of climate change more clearly than Louisiana. In 2005, 2008 and 2021, hurricanes inflicted extensive damage in New Orleans and the southern part of the Bayou State. In recent years, the state’s coastal wetlands have been disappearing at a rate of approximately an American football field every 100 minutes, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report.

As House majority leader, Scalise will set GOP legislative priorities and oversee the daily workings of the House floor.

In the past, Scalise supported legislation to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from reducing methane pollution from new and modified sources in the oil and gas industry. Like all House Republicans, he did not support last year’sInflation Reduction Act, the largest climate bill ever adopted.

Business has been generous. Though his seat is safe, he has been one of the top five House recipients of oil and gas campaign contributions since 2016. Scalise through 2021 had received nearly $1.8 million from the fossil fuel industry, according to Public Citizen. His top donors include Edison Chouest Offshore, which owns offshore drilling vessels, the New Orleans utility Entergy, and Koch Industries. Scalise has also been a prolific fundraiser for the GOP: His Eye of the Tiger PAC raised $3.2 million in the last cycle.

Scalise has taken a dozen congressional delegations on tours of oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. During the BP oil spill, he urged President Barack Obama to drop his temporary drilling freeze. “Louisiana’s economy continues to be crippled by the Administration’s reckless offshore drilling ‘permitorium,’” Scalise said.

“We could be producing enough energy here in America to have cheap gas, more jobs, and plenty to export to our allies,” Scalise said in a recent tweet. “But instead, Biden caved to the woke climate mob and has us begging foreign nations for oil.”

Highly personable, Scalise is liked by colleagues in both parties, many of whom cheered his recovery when he returned to the House in September of 2017 after being shot and gravely wounded at a GOP congressional baseball team practice.

“I haven’t had a conversation with leader McCarthy recently,” Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat from New York who is the House Minority Leader, told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” after the 2022 midterm elections. “I do have, I think, a much warmer relationship with Steve Scalise.”

But the two colleagues are unlikely to collaborate on addressing climate change. As recently as 2019, the Louisiana lawmaker was echoing an old GOP talking point: “We do know that the earth’s temperature changes — it goes up and down,” he said.

Cathy McMorris Rodgers

Washington, Chair, House Energy and Commerce Committee

Every year, hundreds of runners and spectators converge in Spokane, Wash., for the Lilac Bloomsday Run, held in May to coincide with the seasonal blooming of lilacs.

But as spring gets hotter in Spokane County, more and more runners have suffered from heat exhaustion and heat stroke, said former county health officer Bob Lutz. It’s yet another example of how climate change threatens public health in eastern Washington, where some residents have reported respiratory issues caused by wildfire smoke.

For nearly two decades, McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the new chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has represented this region. Herpowerful panel will be at the forefront of House Republicans’ plans to pass energy legislation and conduct oversight of President Biden’s climate policies.

McMorris Rodgers, who won a 10th term in November’s midterm elections, has shifted her stance on the scientific consensus on climate change since coming to Congress in 2005, moving from denial to acceptance.

Despite acknowledging now that “global industrial activity” is helping to warm the climate, McMorris Rodgers has sponsored legislation that would deepen the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels. This month, she introduced a bill that would bar Biden from tapping the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve unless he opens up more federal lands to oil and gas leasing.

At the same time, however, McMorris Rodgers has been a vocal advocate for hydropower, a carbon-free power source that accounts for about two-thirds of Washington’s electricity generation. Her support for hydropower has earned her endorsements from conservative environmental groups such as Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions. But liberal green groups like the League of Conservation Voters have given her low marks, saying the removal of hydroelectric dams on the Snake River would help protect endangered salmon.

“You have to remove dams to let the salmon run. And she is totally against that,” said Lennon Bronsema, vice president of campaigns for Washington Conservation Voters, a state affiliate of the League of Conservation Voters.

In addition to Spokane, McMorris Rodgers represents more rural areas with sprawling apple orchards and grain farms. At Nelson Farms in Farmington, Wash., owner Bruce Nelson said McMorris Rodgers has been supportive of his efforts to sequester carbon in the soil where he grows wheat, canola, peas and lentils.

Not all farmers in the district feel the same way. Stephen Bishop, the owner of Bishop’s Orchard in Garfield, Wash., said McMorris Rodgers has “failed to recognize” that fossil fuels are a primary driver of climate change, which is leading to earlier freezes that imperil the buds on his apple trees.

“I used to joke that I was looking forward to climate change because I could grow bananas,” Bishop said. “But it isn’t really very funny.”

Bruce Westerman

Arkansas, Chair, House Natural Resources Committee

Westerman, a forester and engineer, wants to plant more trees by 2050. One trillion of them, to be exact, in an effort to help pull legacy carbon emissions out of the atmosphere and avert global warming.

As chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, Westerman will be in a position to advance his arboreal agenda — he oversees one of Congress’s most crucial environmental panels and will be a point person for shaping Republican positions on climate change.

Rather than shift away from fossil fuels, this Arkansas engineer and forester argues that storing carbon is the better option.

During an interview last year with The Washington Post, Westerman said that while he agrees with the scientific consensus that humans have put more planet-warming emissions into the atmosphere since the start of the Industrial Revolution, he does not a support a full-scale transition away from oil and gas to counter climate change.

“Fossil fuels are obviously one of the sources of the carbon in the atmosphere, but there are other sources as well,” he said. “The challenge is actually reallocating where the carbon is. There’s possibly a way to do that and still use fossil fuel if we develop the right technology.”

Many scientists and environmentalists disagree, long warning that natural solutions and carbon sequestration alone are not enough to reverse global warming.

“I think that we’re at a time where we need all options on the table,” Kathy Fallon, the Clean Air Task Force’s director of land and climate, said. “So, we certainly need to be pursuing growing carbon sinks and carbon capture, but we also need to be decarbonizing our energy systems.”

Along with his support for widespread tree planting, Westerman has other priorities. He told The Post in October he plans to focus on oversight and a bipartisan push to overhaul the nation’s permitting process for energy projects.

Westerman said Republicans would broadly support legislation to speed up mining and procurement of critical minerals, needed for electric vehicles and other green technologies.

“Especially if my colleagues on the left think we need to electrify everything, you’ve got to have copper and rare earth minerals to do that,” he said.

Westerman represents a 20,950 square-mile district that, like much of Arkansas — otherwise known as the Natural State for its rivers, forests, plains and mountains — faces severe impacts from human-caused climate change.

Douglas Zollner, the director of science and strategy at the Nature Conservancy in Arkansas, said the state is seeing more storms that drop heavy rain in a shorter period of time, contributing to frequent catastrophic flooding. At the same time, he said winters are not getting as cold, “so no snow.”

One consequence for the farmers in Westerman’s district is reduced crop yields and more invasive species on farmlands, he said.

Zollner added that Westerman, Congress’s only licensed forester, has been a big supporter of protecting forest health in the fourth district through responsible controlled burning and by keeping fuel loads at a relatively low level.

But despite being concerned about wildfires, Westerman has hesitated to connect them to climate change, saying during a 2017 hearing that climate change “is not affecting forest fires in my state.”

Westerman also applauded the Trump administration’s 2017 decision to exit the Paris climate agreement. In 2021 he criticized President Biden for shutting down construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

And this month, when he officially took charge of the consequential committee, Westerman told reporters he plans to “unlock our resources and end our dependence on China once and for all.”

Elise Stefanik

New York, House Conference Chair

Ambitious and fast-climbing, Stefanik now holds the No. 4 role in the GOP majority, overseeing the day-to-day operations of the Republican Conference, which encompasses all GOP members of Congress.

But as her star has risen, this once-moderate congresswoman from Upstate New York has grown more quiet on issues she once was vocal about, including the threats posed by climate change.

Back when she was first elected in 2014, environmental advocates saw her as a glimmer of hope amid the intense partisanship that often accompanies the issue.

She spoke about the climate with a fluency and urgency practically unheard of among the older GOP set. She introduced the first Republican resolution saying House lawmakers should act on “economically viable solutions” to address climate change. She was one of a handful of Republicans who bucked President Donald Trump on environmental issues, opposing drilling for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and criticizing the former president’s decision to exit the Paris climate agreement.

Climate activists didn’t agree with everything Stefanik said, but they didn’t doubt she cared. In 2020, the League of Conservation Voters ranked Stefanik seventh-highest among House Republicans in voting in favor of the environment.

In the same interview, Stefanik listed the ways her 15,000-square-mile district spanning most of the Adirondack Mountains is already suffering from rising heat. Thanks to warming temperatures, ticks and Lyme disease are spreading at altitudes that had previously been too cold to host them. The region is watching as warming winters rob it of the snow and ice that have made it a winter sports paradise and shaped its tourism economy.

A warming world threatens the region’s identity, which is built around winter, said Curt Stager, a climate scientist at Paul Smith’s College and co-author of a recent study documenting how the Adirondacks are changing. Within their lifetime, young people will probably see the region lose its snow and ice, he said.

“We’ve hosted two winter Olympic Games; we’ve got the World University Games this month in Lake Placid; we’ve got more than a century of winter carnivals and ice palaces. When we lose all that, we’re going to lose a culture,” Stager said.

“This is going to look like a climate sweet spot to people with money,” Stager said. “It’s a huge, huge threat.”

But as New York’s 21st District faces these monumental shifts, Stefanik is talking about them less.

Her determination to lead a younger, more climate-aware generation of GOP millennials cooled as Trump strengthened his hold on the party, and her fealty to him smoothed her path to the top of Republican leadership.

“Honestly, I have been really disappointed,” said Benji Backer, president of the American Conservation Coalition, a conservative climate advocacy group. He had previously seen Stefanik as a source of inspiration — proof that younger Republicans are taking climate change seriously. Not now.

These days, Stefanik “doesn’t engage,” Backer said. “Her priorities are just not the same as they used to be.”

Tom Emmer

Minnesota, House Majority Whip

Like many in the GOP, Emmer once openly questioned the scientific consensus on global warming.

Speaking on the floor of the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2007, Emmer dismissed climate science as “Al Gore’s climate porn” — a reference to former vice president Al Gore, who wrote and hosted the 2006 climate documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.”

A couple of years later, Emmer lost the race for governor of Minnesota. But he would soon see a meteoric rise through his party’s ranks.

In 2015, Emmer was sworn in to his first term in Congress. From 2019 to 2023, he was selected to chair the National Republican Congressional Committee, House Republicans’ campaign arm.

And in November, his colleagues elected him House majority whip, where he will play a pivotal role in counting votes for McCarthy and trying to hold together the chamber’s fractious GOP majority.

Since climbing the political ladder, however, Emmer has not talked much about climate change. In fact, he “tries to mostly avoid” the topic, said Paul Austin, executive director of Conservation Minnesota, an environmental group based in Minneapolis.

Mounting scientific evidence suggests that climate change is causing Minnesota winters to warm faster than nearly every other state. By the end of the century, they could be up to 11 degrees warmer and have up to 55 fewer days with snow on the ground, according to research by the University of Minnesota.

Sen. Tina Smith, a Democrat from the state, said Emmer’s silence may amount to a tacit acknowledgment that climate action is popular among Minnesota voters.

“As Americans and Minnesotans are moving toward clean energy and fighting the climate crisis, we see Republican politicians moving away from it and seeking to politicize it,” Smith said in an interview. “And that puts leaders in the House more and more at odds with their constituents.”

Minnesota voters delivered Democrats a “trifecta” — control of both chambers of the state legislature and the governor’s office — in November’s midterm elections. Democrats are expected to use their new power to pass a law requiring 100 percent clean electricity in the state by 2040.

Stefan Liess, a climate scientist at the University of Minnesota who led the research on the state’s winters, said Emmer’s stance on fossil fuels is incompatible with the climate science he once dismissed.

“Regardless of politics, we all have to obey physics,” Liess said. “And physics tell us that the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is increasing and becoming unhealthy.”

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