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Why a Senate GOP leader said, 'We all believe climate change is real'

A Senate GOP leader declared, "We all believe climate change is real." That's a nice first step, but his "beliefs" aren't nearly enough.


A group of 10 Senate Republicans held a Capitol Hill press conference this week to complain about rising energy prices, but it was a line from Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso that stood out for me:

"We all believe climate change is real. We believe mankind is certainly contributing to that....We want to make sure the American people have affordable energy and we want to make energy as clean as we can, as fast as we can."

It's important to note that the quote comes with all kinds of relevant caveats that detract from the point. The GOP senator, who also serves as chair of the Senate Republican Conference, was making the pitch for an all-of-the-above energy policy — a favorite of the right for many years — that would incorporate a continued reliance on polluters.

What's more, Barrasso's pitch was built around the idea that any energy policy that asked U.S. consumers to pay more is a mistake, regardless of any environmental considerations.

But as notable as this context is, there was still something important — even heartening — about seeing the third highest-ranking Republican in the Senate, representing one of the nation's reddest states, standing alongside a sizable contingent of GOP senators, and saying on camera, "We all believe climate change is real. We believe mankind is certainly contributing to that."

It's not the kind of rhetoric we've come to expect from Republican leaders. It's also worthy of some closer scrutiny.

At this point, as the climate crisis intensifies, standards for GOP politicians are so low that a simple acknowledgement like Barrasso's assertions on Wednesday looks like a breakthrough.

Motivations, however, matter. I'm reminded of a New York Times report from June that said, "[M]any in the Republican Party 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."

In other words, some GOP officials are prepared to pay lip service to global warming, not because of the planetary threat, but because failing to make such acknowledgements might interfere with the party's electoral prospects.

The more Republicans are seen as climate deniers, the more the national party puts itself at a political disadvantage.

But at this point, some of you are probably shaking your heads. "Who cares about motivations?" you're asking. "If the political conditions are forcing GOP politicians to take sensible positions on the climate crisis, so be it. The important thing is that Republicans arrive at a responsible point after too many years of doing the opposite."

I wish it were that simple. Yes, Barrasso acknowledged reality. Yes, the Republican senators around him went along with his simple declaration.

But "belief" in the reality of climate change isn't nearly enough. From the Times' report in June:

A package of bills [House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy] introduced on Earth Day championed carbon capture.... It also promoted tree planting and expansion of nuclear energy, a carbon-free power source that many Republicans prefer over wind or solar energy. Those policies would do little to reduce the fossil fuel emissions that are driving up average global temperatures and causing more extreme heat, drought and wildfires; more intense storms; and rapid extinction of plant and wildlife species. Republicans have not offered any specific targets for cutting emissions.

Two months later, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a terrifying report, which generated shrugs and blank stares from GOP lawmakers.

If Barrasso's acknowledgement of reality is going to be the first in a series of constructive steps toward responsible governance, I'll be among the first to celebrate. But all of the available evidence suggests that's extremely unlikely.