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Rising conservative voices call for climate change action

May 14, 2017 at 3:35 PM EDT
Climate change is one of many issues seen as dividing Democrats and Republicans. A dominant wing of the GOP has denied climate change exists, as some Democrats have tried to reduce air pollution and push for alternative forms of energy. But meanwhile, some Republicans are also pushing for climate action. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Stephanie Sy reports.
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By: Saskia de Melker and Laura Fong

STEPHANIE SY: In the rising Eco-Right movement, you could say these are the Eco-Righteous.

EVANGELICAL MARCHERS: Hey, hey! ho, ho! Fossil fuels have got to go!

STEPHANIE SY: Among the throngs of environmentalists at the Climate March in Washington last month, they stand out because they not only chant, they pray.

EVANGELICAL MARCHER: I pray that you would help people to listen and to be able to change things around so that we can impact this world, your creation, in a positive way.

KYLE MEYAARD-SCHAAP: This is what democracy looks like!

STEPHANIE SY: At 27, Kyle Meyaard-Schaap is the leader of the Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, a group that’s grown to 10,000 members in the past five years.

KYLE MEYAARD-SCHAAP: There’s a general perception out there that Evangelicals are apathetic or antagonistic toward climate change. And that’s just not the case.

SEN. JAMES INHOFE (R-OK), Senate Floor, February 25, 2015: We keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record…

STEPHANIE SY: That perception comes in part from this moment two years ago when Republican Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe who has said that only God controls the weather, brought a snowball onto the Senate floor to prove the earth is not warming.

KYLE MEYAARD-SCHAAP: For a lot of the more conservative lawmakers who have been able to depend on support from an Evangelical voting bloc we want them to hear us saying, ‘If you want to continue to be able to depend on this voting bloc, you need to start listening to what the next generation of Evangelicals are saying is important to them.’ And more and more, we’re saying with a louder and louder voice, ‘That’s climate.’

KYLE MEYAARD-SCHAAP: May our work for climate action be a witness that points to you triune God

STEPHANIE SY: After the Climate March, his group gathered at the U.S. Capitol to rehearse talking points to use when lobbying members of Congress.

KYLE MEYAARD-SCHAAP: Let us now offer prayers for our political leaders…

STEPHANIE SY: The generational shift in Republican leaders is personified by 37-year-old Florida Congressman Carlos Curbelo. He voted with the party to repeal the Affordable Care Act but he’s bucking the party leadership on climate change.

STEPHANIE SY: We met up with him at a solar-powered farm in his district, just south of Miami.

REP. CARLOS CURBELO (R-FL): People here live between the Everglades and the ocean, so the environment is always on our minds.

STEPHANIE SY: Last year, Curbelo and Florida Democrat Ted Deutch co-founded the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus. It now has 38 members in the House of Representatives.

REP. CARLOS CURBELO: It’s what we call a Noah’s Ark caucus. You can only join if you identify a member of the opposing party to join with you, so it kind of forces bipartisanship, and the caucus is equally Republican and Democrat. I never thought that we would grow so fast.

STEPHANIE SY: Curbelo’s constituents are already living with the effects of global warming, such as high tides that reach higher every year and flood residents even on sunny days, depressing property values.

STEPHANIE SY, Homestead, FL: They’re experiencing the threats of rising sea levels, coastal erosion, loss of wildlife, the Zika virus, all of which scientists say are worsened by climate change.

STEPHANIE SY: Curbelo supports continuing and expanding subsidies for carbon-free and renewable energy sources.

REP CARLOS CURBELO: Most members of Congress are open to this idea of the United States leading an energy revolution in the world, innovating, creating the jobs of the future today and one of my major priorities in tax reform is to protect the solar and wind tax credits that are in place today.

STEPHANIE SY: At 96, George Shultz, a former cabinet secretary to Presidents Reagan and Nixon, whose administration created the Environmental Protection Agency, is weighing into the debate.

SHULTZ: Use the marketplace. Do it the Reagan way.

STEPHANIE SY: He’s touting a solution to curb carbon-dioxide emissions consistent with what he considers “Republican principles.”

SHULTZ: You don’t have to rely on any fancy science to figure out that the globe is warming. That is a fact. But if you have questions about it, why don’t you take out an insurance policy, because the consequences are considerable.

STEPHANIE SY: For Shultz, the insurance policy is a plan he’s put out as a member of the Climate Leadership Council –”A Conservative Case for Carbon Dividends.” The proposal is to charge energy companies a tax, say $40, for every ton of carbon that comes out of mining coal or refining oil. The proceeds would be distributed back to Americans, a “carbon dividend,” worth around $2,000 dollars a year for a family of four. The tradeoff? The plan would strip away much of the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon emissions and cancel President Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

STEPHANIE SY: It may surprise you to learn that many of the world’s largest oil companies say they’d support a carbon tax, including ExxonMobil, which told NewsHour Weekend: “We support carbon policies that would ensure a uniform and predictable cost of carbon across the economy.”

Currently no Republican in Congress has endorsed Shultz’s carbon tax plan, although Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island says privately, some do. He introduced a similar plan in 2015.

SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: Virtually every Republican who has looked at the climate change problem and come to a solution comes to the same solution, which is a price on carbon, a market signal that is revenue-neutral and gives all the money back to the public. And I think our answer is, ‘Yes, yes, we’ll do that.’ So, we agree on the getaway car, we agree on the need for escape, and really the last political problem is how you get Republicans through that kill zone that the fossil fuel industry has set up in Congress.

STEPHANIE SY: The fossil fuel industry has actually come out in favor of some sort of carbon pricing. Do you view them as genuine allies on climate action?

SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: No. Every part of the fossil fuel industry’s and Big Oil’s political apparatus is still lined up to say, ‘If you dare talk about a carbon price, we are coming after you.’

ANDY SABIN: The carbon tax may be a good idea. It’s not doable. Even a revenue-neutral carbon tax.

STEPHANIE SY: Andy Sabin, is a longtime Republican Party donor, who made his fortune from a metal recycling business. He sees climate change as an urgent problem, but a carbon tax as politically dead on arrival.

ANDY SABIN: Kellyanne, House leadership, Tillerson…

STEPHANIE SY: Sabin contributed more than $700,000 to Republican candidates in last year’s election, including those he feels support environmental issues. But he also donated $100,000 to President Trump’s inauguration, even though Trump has called man-made climate change a “hoax” and is considering withdrawing from the 2015 Paris climate accords, when the U.S. pledged to significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

ANDY SABIN: I talk to friends in the White House about the Paris climate change agreement. I’m constantly texting people very close to the President. I want to be his environmental advisor, so he could at least hear the other side. And I’m hopeful he’s going to say, ‘Hey, maybe I should take a look at the environment?”

STEPHANIE SY: Sabin spends his free time taking care of his menagerie of animals and tending to his organic garden.

STEPHANIE SY: What do you think the solutions are to lowering carbon emissions?

ANDY SABIN: I think we’re on the track now. I believe in obviously wind, solar, hydro, modular nuclear, all of these things. What’s nice is the renewable energy is becoming much cheaper than fossil fuels.

STEPHANIE SY: An ardent nature lover who buys prime real estate on New York’s Long Island just for conservation, Sabin has also given millions to endow Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

ANDY SABIN: The real solution, biggest solution, stop cutting down trees and plant new trees.

STEPHANIE: That’s carbon capture.

ANDY SABIN: Right. But that’s natural carbon capture.

STEPHANIE SY: Florida Congressman Carlos Curbelo disagrees with President Trump’s attempts to dismantle the Clean Power Plan. And he’s considering the carbon tax.

REP. CARLOS CURBELO: I’m trying to avoid going out there and endorsing or rejecting specific ideas. My point is we have to do something, and if we’re going to get rid of the regulations like the clean power plan, what’s the alternative? There must be an alternative.

STEPHANIE SY: The political momentum for Republican solutions to climate change is overlapping with another reality — shifting public opinion. A national survey by Yale and George Mason Universities last December found half of trump voters think global warming is happening. Six in ten trump voters supported taxing or regulating the pollution causing it.

For the varied voices in the rising Eco-Right movement, it’s a matter of making the issue a priority for Republicans by speaking their language.

KYLE MEYAARD-SCHAAP: And the reconciling saving work of Christ extends to the entire created world.

STEPHANIE SY: Young Evangelical leader Kyle Meyaard-Schaap argues climate action is in line with other Christian values, including anti-abortion views.

KYLE MEYAARD-SCHAAP: To be pro-life means that you care about human life, you care about human flourishing free from the impacts of a changing climate on people’s ability to grow their food and provide for their families.

STEPHANIE SY: Republican donor Andy Sabin highlights the public health hazards.

ANDY SABIN: If you really want to relate to a working-class Republican, tell him he’s going to live longer, tell him his health bills are going to go down, and he may not get cancer or asthma or heart disease. That resonates with somebody.

STEPHANIE SY: And George Shultz, the Republican statesman promoting the free market fix, says for the sake of his grandchildren and great grandchildren, he hopes history comes full circle.

GEORGE SHULTZ: The original guy who worried about the environment was a Republican, Teddy Roosevelt. President Reagan did the ozone layer, President H.W. Bush did the acid rain problem. The record shows this is a Republican issue.

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