Coaxing Congress Out of the Climate Closet

August 18, 2014


In stark contrast to their party’s public stance on Capitol Hill, many Republicans privately acknowledge the scientific consensus that human activity is at least partially responsible for climate change and recognize the need to address the problem.

However, they see little political benefit to speaking out on the issue, since congressional action is probably years away, according to former congressmen, former congressional aides and other sources.

In Bloomberg BNA interviews with several dozen former senior congressional aides, nongovernmental organizations, lobbyists and others conducted over a period of several months, the sources cited fears of attracting an electoral primary challenger as one of the main reasons many Republicans choose not to speak out.

Most say the reluctance to publicly support efforts to address climate change has grown discernibly since the 2010 congressional elections, when Tea Party-backed candidates helped the Republican Party win control of the House, in part by targeting vulnerable Democrats for their support of legislation establishing a national emissions cap-and-trade system.

“Climate change needs to be in the mix of all of our other discussions,” former Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio), who represented his Ohio district from 1995 through 2013 in the House and is now president of McDonald Hopkins Government Strategies, told Bloomberg BNA. “I do think privately—and some not so privately—Republicans are coming to the point where this has been an issue that’s been pretty much settled with regard to the science. A lot of it has to do with people calming down and saying let’s have a conversation.”

Former House and Senate aides faulted both the Tea Party and environmental groups for making it nearly impossible for thoughtful Republicans to speak out on climate change.

Several former senior committee aides, who did not want to be identified so that they could speak freely, said the environmental movement has become partisan since the 1980s, and Republicans receive little support from groups if they take pro-environment positions.

“Republicans don’t gain votes or positive recognition from environmentalists but [they] do alienate their base when they vote green,” one former Republican Senate aide said. “So, it’s not surprising that most Republicans don’t spend a lot of time talking about climate change.”

Sunlight Foundation:

The Environmental Defense Action Fund, a politically-active nonprofit, has made waves this cycle fortrashing Republican Senate challengers in sharply-worded ads. Now, the group is wading into a much-watched congressional race in New York’s 19th District on behalf of Republican incumbentChris Gibson. EDF’s latest ad praises Gibson for “fighting to stop climate change by preserving common sense limits on air pollution.”

The ad cites four Gibson votes on environmental legislation this year, including one in which the two-term lawmaker was the only member of his party to oppose a measure aimed at barring the Energy Department from studying climate change. Gibson was also the lone Republican House member to oppose a measure to block the Environmental Protection Agency from imposing tougher restrictions on carbon emissions.

Ad documents collected by Political Ad Sleuth show the group has bought $25,000 worth of air time at broadcast stations in Binghamton and Utica. EDAF will run ads there from Thursday through Aug. 20.


Maine’s longtime senator Susan Collins (R) doesn’t lash out against Environmental Protection Agency “overreach” or decry the “war on coal.” In fact, she has repeatedly supported conservation and environmental protection measures over her nearly three terms in the U.S. Senate and has earned the endorsement of the League of Conservation Voters. While Collins has broadly supported the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases, however, she has opposed specific efforts to rein in air pollution. She has voted against rules that would limit toxic air pollution that travels across state lines. And she has voted to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring more than 800,000 barrels of Canadian tar sands crude into the U.S. every day.

This is the complete picture Shenna Bellows wants Mainers to remember when they go to the polls this November. Bellows, the Democrat vying for Collins’ long-held Senate seat, is running on a pro-environment platform that puts climate change at the forefront. And despite the fact that Collins is widely seen as an environmentally-friendly Republican, Bellows says she’s just not good enough for a state like Maine, which is particularly vulnerable to the devastating effects of climate change.

“In some ways, Republican Susan Collins is an anomaly,” Bellows told ThinkProgress. “She is representing a blue state with progressive values on the environment and across the board, and she has gained support by taking half-measures.”

While polls show Bellows as a long-shot, her candidacy sparks an interesting examination of environmentally moderate candidates. Collins is able to maintain unwavering support among voters and environmental groups, and has done so by straying from the common, anti-climate Republican rhetoric to vote with Democrats on most environmental issues. But is moderation in Maine’s best interest?

Bellows doesn’t think so. “She has failed to be a climate champion,” she said. “And Maine needs climate champions in the Senate.”

Midwest Energy News:

Four years ago, a Wisconsin Republican urged his party to overcome its fear of environmental action, saying that a conservative green movement could strengthen both the economy and GOP candidates. Then he got clobbered.

Now his son is taking a turn. Matt Neumann hopes to convince state officials that Wisconsin needs a big expansion of solar power. Among his audience are members of the Republican Party including friends of his father, former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann, who was later defeated in back-to-back primaries, first for governor in 2010 and then for the Senate two years later.

The younger Neumann resembles his dad, a former math teacher, both in looks and in his conspicuous conservatism. They both promote the environment, and they hope to make money conserving it. They do have one big difference: “Politics drives me nuts,” Matt Neumann said.

Instead of running for public office, he’s making his energy pitch as president of the Wisconsin Solar Energy Industries Association and as the co-owner of a solar installation business that he runs with his father.

He enters public policy at a turbulent time. Wisconsin has seen its installation of solar systems drop since 2010, following eight years of modest growth. The state now has about 17 megawatts of installed solar power, enough to provide electricity to about 2,600 homes, according to Neumann’s group. That amounts to about 0.1 percent of the state’s renewable energy. In other words, it’s barely perceptible.

The key reason behind Wisconsin’s sluggish growth is opposition by its utility sector, according to advocates of renewable energy. Utilities like We Energies, Wisconsin Public Service Corp. and Madison Gas and Electric Co. are pre-positioning themselves to avoid potential future losses from homegrown power, like solar arrays, by seeking fixed rates rather than charging customers for the amount of energy they use.

That can discourage conservation, clean energy advocates say, and it might dampen the economic impetus for installing solar on your rooftop: If a customer can’t lower his or her power bills by using solar electricity, then the investment doesn’t make sense, advocates say.

Neumann uses conservative touchstones to describe the state of things. For him, it’s a lack of “liberty” that prevents a property owner from choosing how to power his or her home or business. He said this absence of “energy choice” contradicts Republican tenets, which run strong in a state where the governor, Scott Walker, is favored by the tea party.

“We’re very conservative here in Wisconsin,” Neumann said. “The reality is free market capitalism, the choice to choose how you buy your energy, and how you finance that acquisition, the ability to lower your long-term energy costs — those are all very conservative principles and yet for some reason we’re struggling to adapt.”

Protecting customers, or profits?

Rate proposals currently being considered by the Wisconsin Public Service Commission would increase fixed monthly costs from $9 to $16 for customers of We Energies, the state’s biggest utility. Bigger jumps are being sought by Wisconsin Public Service Corp., which wants to double the fixed costs for residential customers to $25, and Madison Gas and Electric, which proposed a monthly fixed fee of $68 by 2017 before settling for $19 next year. That’s an 82 percent jump.

We Energies is also asking regulators to allow it to pay much less for electricity generated by homeowners, who can sell excess power derived from solar panels and other systems to utilities. The company is seeking to decrease the current price of 14 cents per kilowatt-hour to between 3 and 5 cents.

Cathy Schulze, a spokeswoman for We Energies, said the current price is above market rate, and the cost is passed on to other ratepayers. She also said the utility is moving to fixed prices to ensure that customers without solar aren’t required to shoulder more of the costs of maintaining the grid’s infrastructure — like poles, wires and utility employees.

“The costs are shifting to those people who don’t have their own generation right now,” Schulze said. “It may not be as big of a problem right now, but as that [solar] industry continues to grow, you’re going to see that disparity and that cost grow wider.”

Others see it differently. Tyler Huebner, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, which advocates for cleaner power, said that the utilities are trying to cover recent investments in coal and gas plants with higher fixed fees. Customers shouldn’t be tied to the cost of those plants, he said, if they find cheaper, cleaner power alternatives.

If the buyback rate for excess solar power drops from 14 cents to 4 cents, it would price solar systems out of the marketplace, he said. “That’s the concern,” Huebner said.

Neumann said solar could thrive in Wisconsin if lawmakers would clarify that third-party ownership of solar systems is allowed. His company is an example. SunVest Solar Inc. installs its own photovoltaic systems on homes, businesses and churches, and then sells the power to the property owner at a fixed rate over 20 years.

The rate is usually equivalent to the cost of conventional electricity, or lower, Neumann said, and it can expand the use of solar power because property owners don’t have to buy the equipment, which can cost up to $15,000 installed for a home.

Neumann, like his dad, is a conspicuous member of the Republican Party. As he emphasizes renewable energy, his party avoids it. The state GOP’s platform, adopted this year, doesn’t prioritize cleaner energy, or even mention it. Instead, the document promotes eliminating the Department of Energy and encourages environmental stewardship based on technology rather than “unnecessary government regulation.”

Neumann’s father, favored by some tea party groups during the primary for governor in 2010, pushed his party to expand its reach with young voters and others “put out from the Republican Party,” by mixing environmentalism into the GOP’s economic messaging. Among the ideas that Mark Neumann introduced in 2010 was a job-friendly plan to reduce carbon emissions.

“When I talk about the environment, that’s an issue people have been afraid to talk about on our side of the aisle,” he said at the time, seated beside future Gov. Scott Walker, a conservative Republican.

Neumann lost badly in the primary several months later as Walker sailed away with a 20-point victory.

For his part, Matt Neumann may stray from his party’s bosom, but he doesn’t abandon it. He looks at environmentalism through a lens of commerce. Pursuing it can enhance economic activity and provide jobs, he seems to say, but it’s unclear if environmentalism is an exclusive priority for him without the fiscal hangers-on.

He also treads carefully when asked about climate change. He declined to say if it’s occurring, something that might perhaps give him credibility when talking to conservatives about renewable energy.

“I don’t know on climate change,” Matt Neumann said. “I have no idea. I would have to study it a lot more — and probably should, given the industry we’re in.”

“I’m being totally honest with you — I just plain don’t know.”


But there’s at least one election where a strong environmental record and commitment to taking action to address climate change has become something to defend, not avoid or suppress — a race that could give us a glimpse into the future of elections in America, as climate change becomes increasingly impossible to ignore: California’s 52nd Congressional district.

The contest to represent downtown San Diego and part of Southern California pits incumbent Democrat Scott Peters against GOP challenger and self-described “new generation Republican” Carl DeMaio. Peters has a slim lead in the latest polls, with DeMaio’s more moderate views, including his acknowledgment of humanity’s role in climate change, appealing to the district.

Climate change is already being acutely felt by San Diegans: In May, more than 20,000 residents had to be evacuated when wildfires spread through San Diego County, aided by high heat and strong Santa Ana winds. San Diego, like the rest of California, is also enduring an extreme drought, which fuels wildfire conditions and intensifies the area’s water woes.




8 Responses to “Coaxing Congress Out of the Climate Closet”

  1. […] Blooomberg:In stark contrast to their party's public stance on Capitol Hill, many Republicans privately acknowledge the scientific consensus that human activity is at least partially responsible fo…  […]

  2. The company is seeking to decrease the current price of 14 cents per kilowatt-hour to between 3 and 5 cents….If the buyback rate for excess solar power drops from 14 cents to 4 cents, it would price solar systems out of the marketplace, he said. “That’s the concern,” Huebner said.

    This is the problem in a nutshell.  The utility’s residential retail rate is intended to spread the fixed costs of the grid across all electric consumption, assuming a typical consumption profile.  Net metering pro-sumers violate that assumption, being paid for what are in fact costs rather than benefits they generate.  In times of high solar generation, they would even be paid premium rates for energy that is almost worthless at spot wholesale.

    By “pricing solar systems out of the marketplace,” Huebner means that the true value of their generation would be recognized… and it is woefully insufficient to put more of it on rooftops.  That’s why the utilities aren’t installing it either.  This is not the utilities against consumers, this is ideology against economics.  If ideology wins, society is the loser.  The solution is to recognize that some things just don’t work, and find some other way to accomplish the goal.

    Unfortunately, restarting Kewaunee is not on the list of allowed options.

  3. dumboldguy Says:

    Once again, we chase our tails around the circle of grid costs, so-called “exponential growth” of renewables, and climate change due to pollution caused by burning fossil fuels—-and we find ourselves in the same places—–Germany, coal, CHINA, INDIA, natural gas, fracking, we need nuclear, economic growth, more JOBS, etc, etc.

    I have just finished reading “THE BOOM: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World”, by Russell Gold, energy reporter for the Wall Street Journal. A great read—-interesting and informative, and reads like a novel in places with its treatment of characters like Aubrey McClendon, Carl Pope, and others.

    Anyone who reads it will learn a lot about fracking—its history, technology, financing, and its many impacts on our society and the world. Although Gold does mention some warts, his basic message seems to be that fracking is a boon—-that it will help cut carbon pollution by replacing coal with “cleaner” oil and natural gas, make the U.S. “energy independent”, bridge the gap until renewables can take over, and allow the U.S. economy to GROW as we create jobs and export oil and gas abroad.

    Bright-sidedness in action and deja vu all over again as the CO2 level in the atmosphere rises by 2 PPM every year.

  4. dumboldguy Says:

    To get back on topic, since my other comment was mainly in response to E-Pot, this post nicely revisits the question of whether or not politicians will ever stop playing politics with AGW and get behind the science before it’s too late. I say “Nope, not in time”.

    I was surprised to see several pieces that quoted Dr. Jason Box as recently saying rather bluntly about the whole climate change picture—-“We’re F**ed”. Peter, is that an accurate summation of his latest thinking?

    • andrewfez Says:

      I saw that make the rounds last month, but it was in the context of ‘If all or a lot of the arctic methane was released, then we’re f-ed’…

      • dumboldguy Says:

        Really? I don’t remember the qualifier of methane being in there

        • andrewfez Says:

          My mistake:

          Jason Box tweeted ‘If even a small fraction of Arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere, we’re f’d’, on July 29th.

          It was in the context of the methane plumes coming off the ocean floor.

          • dumboldguy Says:

            No, my mistake—-CRS strikes again—-Box DID indeed mention methane, and this link was one of the ones I saw. Box and others are starting to speak very plainly about their concerns, and they are right to be worried about arctic methane release. Here’s another quote from following that link back to other comments—“inappropriate ” language IS becoming appropriate.

            “What’s the magic number? Which one will it be, when the feedback loops kick in? Four hundred-fifty—goodbye permafrost? When the tundra melts and spews out methane that traps even more heat and melts more tundra, and holy hell what does that planet look like then? Do you have any idea how that world works? I f*****g don’t! When there’s no f*****g Arctic ice in the summer? When Tuvalu is underwater? When Bangladesh is uninhabitable from constant flooding? Kenya a permanent desert? Millions and millions and millions of f*****g homeless, displaced, thirsty people?”

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