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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