What the new Conservative Climate Caucus believes, and why Utah Rep. John Curtis is leading this effort

At its launch, 52 House Republicans join the new group that promises to promote climate-change solutions.

(Ting Shen | The New York Times) Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, in his office in Washington on June 15, 2021. A small but growing number of Republicans are coming to terms with what polls have been saying for years: independents, suburban voters and especially young Republicans are worried about climate change and want the government to take action.

Growing numbers of House Republicans are acknowledging that climate change is taking place, that the actions of industries are warming the planet, and that the government should do something about it.

They are lining up behind Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, who launched the Conservative Climate Caucus on Wednesday outside the U.S. Capitol.

“The caucus is a place for Republicans to advance serious climate solutions, but it does not ask them to leave their conservative values at the door,” Curtis said. “Those who watch this caucus will see Republicans do care about this Earth — deeply. We, too, want to leave this Earth better than we found it.”

At its birth, the new caucus has 52 members. That’s one out of every four House Republicans. The group includes all four of Utah’s House members. They’ve signed on to a list of beliefs that starts with this: “The climate is changing, and decades of a global industrial era that has brought prosperity to the world has also contributed to that change.”

Caucus members also believe that efforts should focus on encouraging private-sector innovations, that solutions must be global, and that stopping the use of fossil fuels is not the goal. Rather, they believe, “with innovative technologies, fossil fuels can and should be a major part of the global solution.”

In supporting the new caucus, freshman Rep. Blake Moore, R-Utah, directed his attention to the energy industry, particularly the oil and gas companies that he represents.

“We cannot continue to vilify our industry that has taken on this challenge, that acknowledges the need to address this,” he said at Wednesday’s news conference. “I represent the northeastern part of Utah, which has a strong focus on energy production. Every visit that I make to these organizations, these companies, these groups, they put me in front of their environmental standards people. They are working on this. They are staying out ahead of this. They are trying to lead the world in addressing this challenge.”

Economy vs. environment?

(Carolyn Kaster | The Associated Press) Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington last July. The lawmakers has founded the Conservative Climate Caucus.

Curtis also said Republican solutions should be crafted to make minimal disruptions to the economy. Republicans have argued that more expansive climate plans offered by Democrats would hurt businesses and shift some jobs elsewhere. For their part, Democrats have criticized Republicans for ignoring science and refusing to take action on an issue with worldwide consequences.

Curtis has rejected President Joe Biden’s goal to reduce U.S. 2005 emission levels in half by 2030.

“We don’t need to kill the U.S. economy to reach our climate goals,” Curtis said at the news conference. “Republicans will show the need to depart from the shaming culture found in today’s climate dialogue and celebrate our successes.”

He favors exporting natural gas from states like Utah to places like China that rely heavily on coal, which emits more pollution. He wants to explore technology to capture carbon before it enters the atmosphere.

“I like to remind people that carbon itself is not bad,” he said. “It’s carbon in the air that’s bad.”

Don’t expect the Conservative Climate Caucus to lead out on legislation. The caucus is billed as a place to educate Republicans on climate change, a starting point after most party leaders have spent years denying that climate change is a serious phenomenon and rejecting Democratic efforts to respond to it.

The goal is getting more Republicans comfortable talking substantively about climate change, which Curtis said would be a major step forward for his party.

“I’m not pretending at all that Republicans haven’t been absent from this debate. And that’s a huge mistake,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune. “And I want them comfortable.”

Curtis can point to Utah’s delegation as an example. Curtis and Moore attended the caucus kickoff and say without reservations that climate change is happening. Their Utah GOP colleagues, Rep. Chris Stewart and Burgess Owens, have not been as outgoing on this topic.

All four of us are on a very different place on the spectrum, but they’re willing to jump into the caucus,” Curtis said. “And I think that should be applauded.”

Warning to Republicans

Curtis has been nudging his colleagues to craft a conservative response to climate change, including in a February gathering in Salt Lake City. In part, his message has been that Republicans must take action to stay relevant politically.

“If Republicans don’t make it an issue, we will lose the upcoming generation of Republicans,” he has warned. “The upcoming generation will not be patient with us. This is a deal-breaker for them. They’ll leave the Republican Party over this one issue.”

Curtis released names of conservative groups and energy industry associations that support the new caucus, including the American Petroleum Institute and the National Taxpayers Union.

That list also included the National Audubon Society, with Jesse Walls, the society’s lobbyist, saying, “We are encouraged to see Republican members of Congress continue to engage with the formation of the new Conservative Climate Caucus. We hope they will focus on meaningful solutions that put us on a path to a net-zero emissions economy by midcentury and guarantee a healthy environment for birds and people.”

The Wilderness Society’s Drew McConville also praised Curtis, though he expressed impatience when it comes to government action on climate change.

“We really welcome Rep. Curtis helping other Republicans recognize what the science has shown us for decades,” said McConville, who works in government relations for the environmental group. “Our political leaders ought to be judged by the actions they take and the progress they make and whether they make this a priority.”

McConville said Curtis and the other Republicans are right, that the oil and gas industry shouldn’t be demonized and neither should those who are new to working on this issue.

“But,” he said, “we need to be holding people accountable for the impacts of their action, and that has to include polluting industries, and it has to include elected officials who are in a position to do something about the problem before it is too late.”