by Abby Smith
When the Senate’s new bipartisan climate caucus meets for the first time this week, members will be joined by another group looking to engage more in climate policy discussions on Capitol Hill: industry CEOs.
The choice of guests reflects how the caucus formed. Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware and Republican Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana, co-founders of the caucus, told the Washington Examiner in a joint interview on Capitol Hill that they initially bonded over their backgrounds in the manufacturing industry and their pragmatic approach to legislating.
It was companies’ public push to become greener, led by the once Delaware-headquartered chemical major DuPont, that helped spur the creation of the caucus. Coons said the company told him there was a shift happening in how industry viewed its role in tackling climate change.
Companies were discovering they could improve their bottom line by cutting their environmental impact, but Republicans weren’t exactly catching on, the Delaware senator added.
“That made me realize, there’s a window here to appeal to Republicans who are grounded in business, who want metrics for an outcome, and who are willing to meet with and hear from not so much advocates as industry,” Coons said.
Coons and Braun launched the Senate Climate Solutions Caucus on Oct. 23. The group is the first such bipartisan forum for senators to talk about climate policy, and its creation comes amid a rapidly shifting political landscape on the issue.
The upcoming meeting with CEOs is to “ground-truth” and “get a gut check of are there businesses large and small that agree that there are things we can and should do together,” Coons said.
“I’m pretty confident the answer’s going to be that there’s lots who would like to talk to us,” he added.
In the last year, Republican lawmakers who either were once hesitant to talk about climate change or had outright rejected the science have declared a need to address rising greenhouse gas emissions and the effects of climate change.
At least three other Republicans — Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham — are joining Braun on the climate caucus, he said.
Braun said he got a lot of attention from his colleagues when he brought up the nascent caucus at a Republican political retreat a few weekends ago to “take some temperatures” on who might be interested.
The reaction was positive, along the lines of “glad you did it, we need to be in the conversation,” Braun recalled. “That’s all I wanted to do was be in the conversation.”
Coons didn’t share which of his Democratic colleagues would be joining the caucus. There’s been a lot of interest among Democrats, he said, but he also stressed that he and Braun want to keep the caucus balanced with equal members from both parties.
Some climate policy advocates say the formation of the Senate caucus represents a different sort of turning point in the climate conversation than the creation of its House forerunner. The House Climate Solutions Caucus was formed in 2016 by Florida Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ted Deutch, and it now has 63 members — 22 Republicans and 41 Democrats.
That caucus had initially been comprised of equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats, too, but its Republican membership took a hit in the 2018 midterm elections.
The House caucus, though, was created during a time when there were no climate change hearings on the Hill and policy discussion on the issue was sparse. “So, the most important dynamic about the House caucus was members declaring an interest in the topic,” said Alex Flint, executive director of the Alliance for Market Solutions, a conservative climate group that advocates for a carbon price.
The policy conversation has evolved since then amid expanding public awareness of the issue, dire warnings from international science organizations, rapid changes in clean energy markets, and increasing corporate commitments to cut emissions.
“The declaration of an interest isn’t as important,” Flint said of the Senate group. “Today, the important thing is moving to a discussion of solutions.”
The House caucus needed to have a focus on numbers simply because the nature and size of the chamber means a handful of members can’t make a difference, said Ben Pendergrass, senior director of government affairs with the grassroots Citizens’ Climate Lobby.
A few senators working together, by contrast, can have an “outsized” influence, Pendergrass added. “That will allow the Senate caucus to be smaller but more nimble and potentially more action-oriented.”
Not every reaction to the caucus has been positive, though. The senators acknowledged they’d received some criticism from colleagues — Republicans scorning work on any climate policy and Democrats questioning whether working across the aisle could prompt meaningful action to cut emissions.
“I’ve got a lot of colleagues who want to do sort of transformational, bold, immediate action, which is great,” Coons said about policies such as the Green New Deal. “I just don’t see a path toward enactment on any reasonable time horizon.”
Thus, an important starting point for the caucus is a desire to find “science-informed, market-based solutions to climate,” Coons added.
Braun and Coons say the Senate group will operate on a consensus basis, seeking agreement from all members before backing any particular policy. And they’ve said all potential policies to address climate change would be in consideration, including technologies such as advanced nuclear and carbon capture, which have drawn skepticism from some on the far Left, as well as carbon pricing, which most lawmakers on the Right have blasted.
The caucus won’t center on any of those policies, however, even carbon pricing, which Coons has advocated but acknowledges is controversial politically.
Groups such as the Alliance for Market Solutions and Citizens’ Climate Lobby that push publicly for a federal carbon price also say it’s a good thing the caucus won’t focus on carbon pricing. The caucus should be a forum that doesn’t set up any barriers or conditions to interested members, they say.
Building trust through smart policy development will ultimately be what continues to attract senators to the caucus, said Sean Mobley, senior climate and clean energy policy associate for the Nature Conservancy.
“Even from the state level on up to Congress, I think that lawmakers, in general, are trying to think about where the 21st-century energy economy is going to take us,” he added.
Coons and Braun are optimistic there is low-hanging fruit where members of the caucus from both parties would be able to find quick agreement.
Braun, who said his interest in climate and conservation comes from the 100 acres of land he owns and manages at home in Indiana, expressed optimism about policies such as reforestation, recycling, and getting plastic out of the oceans.
“I’d love to know who’s against that,” Braun said.
Moving any policy through the federal government “gets complicated,” Braun added, “but I still think you can plow through some of this stuff, where it doesn’t cost much and at least to where you’re pulling away restrictions and opening up possibilities.”
Coons, for his part, pointed to specific examples of climate and clean energy legislation where he’s already found Republican partners. One example, he said, is a bill he has co-sponsored with Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran. It extends the favorable tax treatment of what are known as master limited partnerships to all forms of energy, not just oil, gas, and pipelines.
“I haven’t seen or heard any significant opposition to it. It’s just one of those things that everyone looks at it and says, ‘Yeah, it’s a nice idea,'” Coons said. “It would actually be the single-biggest new permanent tax advantage for renewables ever,” as well as technologies such as combined heat and power and carbon capture and storage.
Coons said he and Braun haven’t talked about that particular bill yet. Still, it’s an example of the sort of technical tweaks to existing policy that could “literally move billions of dollars” to support clean energy, energy efficiency, and other low-carbon technologies.
The two senators appear to see the potential for taking political risks within their respective parties.
Climate change “is an area that’s been frozen for most of the last eight, nine years that I’ve been here. It’s been incredibly hard to have a constructive, positive conversation about, ‘OK, what are we going to do?'” Coons said.
“So, I think I opened the door, but more importantly, Mike walked through it,” he added.
“Sometimes, you get lucky, too, in the sense that you just happen to bump into the right individual,” Braun said in response.