On Thursday, President Joe Biden pledged to cut emissions between 50 and 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, doubling down on his commitment to tackling the climate crisis. It more than doubles the U.S.’s national determined contribution to the Paris climate agreement previously set under former President Barack Obama. To avoid being totally left in the dust, congressional Republicans announced competing plans this week. After decades of misdirection, denial, and obstruction, the GOP finally has a legislative climate agenda.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican from California, unveiled a suite of more than 30 measures on Tuesday that comprise a wider climate platform called the Energy Innovation Agenda. That platform builds on four policies introduced by Republicans in 2020. The bills would expand federal tax credits for new climate-friendly technologies like direct air carbon capture and direct new funding toward natural climate solutions such as trees and biochar, a type of charcoal that can be used to trap and store carbon. The plan leans heavily on carbon storage and sequestration, a relatively nascent technology that is favored by conservatives because it can be applied to existing fossil fuel–powered plants to make them cleaner. And it champions nuclear energy and hydroelectric power, carbon-free power sources that Republicans tend to prefer over wind and solar energy.
“Democrats often dismiss Republicans as being disinterested in addressing global climate change,” McCarthy wrote in a statement announcing his plan. “This is just false.”
Not all of the bills pass the straight face test. One of the bills would require Congress to approve any executive branch effort to ban new energy leases on public lands. Another streamlines the pipeline permitting process. Climate scientists and more than a few Democrats would argue that those are anti-environment bills.
The House agenda, which has no price tag, pales in comparison to Democrats’ vision for what the next decade or more of climate action will look like. The Biden administration is talking about emissions reductions at a scale never seen before in U.S. history. Biden’s $2 trillion climate and infrastructure plan will fundamentally change the nation — it would pepper the U.S. with half a million electric vehicle charging stations, retrain fossil fuel workers in green industries, launch a climate civilian conservation corps, erect massive offshore wind farms, and more. The House GOP’s Energy Innovation Agenda is a start, but it’s hard to see how a plan that doesn’t include an emissions reduction target could accomplish McCarthy’s stated goal to “reduce global emissions.”
A similarly lackluster response to Biden’s agenda is playing out on the Senate side of the Capitol Building. On Thursday, Senate Republicans unveiled an infrastructure plan that is solely focused on their definition of “traditional” infrastructure: transportation, broadband, and water systems. It would cost $568 billion over five years — that’s $53 billion less than the transportation section of Biden’s proposal alone costs. The Senate GOP hasn’t said how it’ll pay for the package, aside from levying a tax on electric vehicle owners. The “green” part of the GOP plan is still forthcoming, Senator Shelley Moore Capito from West Virginia, one of the coauthors of the bill, said on Thursday. “We fully expect when we get to the negotiating phase, climate will be part of the discussion,” she said.
Unless Capito and company come to the bargaining table armed with aggressive climate solutions and willing to make concessions, Democrats are unlikely to go for the Senate GOP’s infrastructure plan for the same reasons they aren’t likely to embrace McCarthy’s climate agenda — both barely scratch the surface of the problem.
But the GOP’s evolving position on global warming does present some political opportunities for Democrats. For decades, Republicans’ bottom line on climate change was outright denial. Now, at least they’re acknowledging that it exists. It’s easier to negotiate climate policy — even if Republicans are preparing to battle the climate crisis with a butterknife — when both parties have a baseline understanding of the problem.