Earlier this week, Kevin McCarthy, leader of Republicans in the House of Representatives, announced the formation of a task force on climate change. Led by Rep. Garret Graves, ranking member of the House Climate Committee, Graves’s job will be to develop an “America First” legislative agenda on climate that will be introduced if Republicans regain the lower chamber in next year’s midterm elections.
While Democrats may find it tempting to dismiss the GOP plan as political distraction or a devious attempt to preserve the role of fossil fuels, they would be overlooking a shift within the GOP that could flip conventional climate policy thinking on its head. In the end, it may be Republicans who outflank Democrats, wholly devoted to supporting the nonbinding Paris Agreement, on how aggressively America should reduce global emissions.
In multilateral negotiations during the Clinton era, America’s role in polluting the atmosphere made it difficult for us even to recognize that climate change is a problem. After all, by the time the world understood the challenge, America was already the largest contributor of greenhouse gases. Moreover, the Clinton administration’s push for steep U.S. greenhouse gas cuts under the Kyoto Protocol, when there was no end in sight for the growth of U.S. emissions, produced staunch resistance. Republicans, including President Donald Trump, became anchored in opposing a carbon constraint on the economy because it would undermine U.S. competitiveness. But America is far removed from those days. Between 2005 and 2019, America led the world in decarbonization, having reduced more than the next 12 reducing emissions countries combined, thanks largely to fuel switching from coal to natural gas, increased renewable growth, and energy efficiency gains.
Even without new regulations and further technology breakthroughs, America’s carbon efficiency is expected to improve for at least the next decade. Republicans aren’t blind to this. In fact, they are looking to exploit it by asking an important question: If America is reducing its emissions, why should China, as called for in its Paris pledge, be allowed to increase its greenhouse gas pollution by 50% by 2030? Hence, the GOP no longer opposes the Paris Agreement because it’s about climate. Instead, it rejects it because China, the major competitor to U.S. interests, is granted a near-term free pass.
To correct this flaw, Graves and his House colleagues, Michael McCaul and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, introduced H.R 2578, the Paris Transparency and Accountability Act, which calls for a renegotiation of the Paris Agreement or a new deal negotiated to ensure that China reduces greenhouse gas emissions at a pace and scale equivalent to America. This evolving Republican position is likely to gain momentum as the GOP recognizes that integrating climate and trade policy could produce a competitive advantage. A study by the Climate Leadership Council last year, for example, found that U.S. manufactured goods are 80% more carbon efficient than the world average. Further, it discovered that America’s carbon advantage is three times that of China and more than four times that of Russia.
From a GOP perspective, America should explore creating a global framework that benefits U.S. producers and addresses U.S. geopolitical concerns, such as checking the rise of China’s state-owned enterprises and Russia’s use of energy as a political weapon. The U.S. National Energy Technology Laboratory, for example, found that Russian natural gas shipped by pipeline to Europe has roughly 40% higher life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions than U.S. liquefied natural gas shipped to the same destination. If Europe cares about climate change, why should it consume dirtier Putin gas?
Republicans are increasingly likely to view the climate economic nationalist agenda as a component of the political shift that Trump launched. It’s a realignment of political interests that brings blue-collar voters closer to the GOP. While Democrats work to ensure that their position on labor squares with an ambitious domestic climate policy, the GOP is likely to do the opposite by making sure that the interests of workers define U.S. international climate policy. Instead of simply dismissing the GOP task force, Democrats should recognize the shortcomings of the Paris Agreement and search for common ground on China and climate, including a possible international regulatory regime that bolsters U.S. competitiveness while seriously reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.
Together, the two parties could find agreement that achieves a national consensus on an important component of climate change policy, an agreement that merges President Joe Biden’s “Made in America” plan with Trump’s America First approach.
George David Banks is the former chief strategist for Republicans on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. He was also an international climate adviser to Presidents Donald Trump and George W. Bush.