The Seven Unexpected Republicans to Watch If You Care About Climate Change

These GOP lawmakers and candidates could shape their party’s future on global warming.

The smoke stacks at American Electric Power's (AEP) Mountaineer coal power plant in New Haven, West Virginia, October 30, 2009. In cooperation with AEP, the French company Alstom unveiled the world's largest carbon capture facility at a coal plant, so called 'clean coal,' which will store around 100,000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide a year 2,1 kilometers (7,200 feet) underground.
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
Jan. 5, 2015, 4:45 p.m.

Several Republicans who aren’t the usual suspects could play important roles in the next battles over global warming.

At the highest-profile posts, the GOP climate positions are basically set in stone. The famously climate change-denying James Inhofe is taking control of the Senate’s environment panel. And new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is preparing fresh legislative attacks on President Obama’s climate agenda.

But other Republicans contain more mysteries—or at least have more complicated histories—when it comes to addressing climate change. And as 2015’s climate fight plays out, the decisions they make will provide clues into the Republican Party’s future. Here are seven Republicans to watch:

Rep. Chris Gibson

The upstate New York lawmaker wants to chip away at the rejection of climate science that’s common within GOP ranks. He served notice of his quest in early December by announcing plans for a resolution aimed at getting his party to accept the scientific consensus on global warming. The party, he said, must “operate in the realm of knowledge and science.”

“My district has been hit with three 500-year floods in the last several years, so either you believe that we had a one-in-over-100-million probability that occurred, or you believe as I do that there’s a new normal, and we have changing weather patterns, and we have climate change. This is the science,” Gibson said last month.

Gibson’s office hasn’t divulged details of his plan yet. But when it arrives, it’s sure to attract attention at a time when the party’s leaders are waging fresh assaults against the Environmental Protection Agency’s carbon-emissions rules. Gibson’s ability to gain GOP supporters will be a barometer of whether a shift within the party could happen anytime soon.

Gibson may be especially emboldened heading into the new congressional session. A GOP source confirmed that he’s not planning to seek reelection to a fourth term in 2016 and may seek another office in 2018, news first reported late Monday night in Roll Call.

Sen. Lindsey Graham

The South Carolina Republican will lead the Senate subcommittee that sets spending for the State Department and other foreign operations. That means Graham could help or hurt Obama’s push for $3 billion for the Green Climate Fund, an international initiative to help poor nations battle global warming.

The White House will formally ask Congress for a chunk of the money when Obama’s fiscal year 2016 budget request arrives early this year. Many Republicans have already bashed the proposal, but Graham has a history on the issue of climate change with Secretary of State John Kerry. In 2009 and 2010, those two and then-Sen. Joe Lieberman spent months trying to write a sweeping climate bill. Graham ultimately bailed on the talks, taking any hope of GOP support with him, and the bill collapsed. Can Graham and Kerry rekindle their cooperation a half-decade later?

Sen. Cory Gardner

Like many Republicans, incoming Sen. Gardner of Colorado doesn’t buy into the scientific consensus that human activity is largely driving climate change.

Unlike many Republicans, however, Gardner represents a purple state that has voted Democratic in the last two presidential elections. He will sit on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, so the topic is bound to surface repeatedly during his first term.

If Gardner makes moves to the center, it would be a sign that Republicans see political jeopardy in the future if they’re viewed as roadblocks to thwarting global warming.

Jeb Bush and Sen. Rand Paul

OK, all the GOP presidential hopefuls are worth watching. But these two stand out.

Why? For one thing Bush, Florida’s ex-governor, is from a state that’s bearing the brunt of sea-level rise, which could mean an extra bright light on his views about tackling climate change. He could face a political crossroads: either playing to the base in a nominating contest where he’s not going to win a sprint to the right, or playing the “governors as problem-solvers” card that could steer him in a more moderate direction.

Thus far, he hasn’t chosen the latter route on climate. Bush is a self-proclaimed “skeptic” and early pioneer of the now-common GOP “I’m not a scientist” refrain on climate change. He made both comments in a 2009 interview with Esquire magazine. And in 2011, he told Fox News, “What I get a little tired of on the Left is this idea that somehow science has decided all this so you can’t have a view.”

As for the Kentuckian Paul, he’s a coal-state senator who has strongly attacked EPA regulations. But he’s also got a strong dissident streak, breaking with many other Republicans on criminal-justice policy and other issues. The question of whether or not he tries to separate himself on climate policy is worth watching in 2015.

Sen. Susan Collins

Five years ago, the Maine Republican jumped right into the congressional fray over global-warming policy. Will she do it again?

Back when sweeping cap-and-trade legislation still had a pulse in 2009-10, Collins teamed up with Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington to float what they called a better approach. (It was a more streamlined bill that limited pollution from big “upstream” energy companies—think coal mining and oil production—and didn’t allow a freewheeling market in carbon-pollution credits.)

In 2015, the political battles over global warming in Congress will be about rolling back various pieces of Obama’s agenda. Collins, as she begins her fourth term, can command attention as one of a dwindling number of GOP moderates. That means the veteran lawmaker, if she chooses, can help determine whether that small band carves out a role for itself in the climate-policy struggles to come.

Rep. Garret Graves

The newly elected Louisiana lawmaker is the former chairman of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. That means he’s had a front-row seat to the effects of sea-level rise and the loss of coastal wetlands, dunes, and other natural barriers against powerful storms.

Graves will be on a pair of committees—Natural Resources, and Transportation and Infrastructure—that will provide the chance for him to delve into the effects of climate change on his state and the country. Graves told Bloomberg News recently that “South Louisiana is somewhat of a canary in a coal mine.” He has repeatedly made clear that he doesn’t like the kind of mandatory carbon-emissions controls that EPA is imposing. But he has made equally clear that he wants to be involved in congressional climate policy (including the work of the Army Corps of Engineers, which he accuses of doing a lousy job protecting his state).

“You obviously have scores of different positions on how to properly balance economic and environmental policy, and I am looking forward to participating in those discussions and sharing some of the unique perspectives from South Louisiana,” Graves told a New Orleans public radio affiliate last month.

This story has been updated.

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