A week ago, three lawmakers from the Northwest joined dozens of their Republican colleagues in creating the new Conservative Climate Caucus to show they were serious about addressing the growing threats to the planet.
Then they went silent as a devastating heat wave hit the region.
The trio — Reps. Cliff Bentz of Oregon and Dan Newhouse and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state — have been largely invisible as the heat wave shattered temperature records, melted streetcar power cables and caused rolling blackouts, all the symptoms of a warming climate that scientists say will only become more common in the future.
For conservatives outside of government who are anxious to see some congressional action to combat climate change, it’s simply a sign that Republicans haven’t fully recognized the threat.
“Conservatives are learning to think differently about climate change but they don’t yet know what to think,” said Alex Flint, executive director of Alliance for Market Solutions, an organization of conservatives seeking market-friendly climate policies. “Despite this new approach, many conservatives are not yet comfortable with the scale of the policy needed to address climate change,” he added.
Much like past GOP responses to hurricanes, floods and other climate-linked calamities, the Northwest Republicans’ lack of responses to the heat wave raise questions about whether even deadly consequences in their home districts can dislodge Republican lawmakers from their usual stances and talking points on global warming.
And at least one, McMorris Rodgers, is also continuing to lambaste Democrats’ and President Joe Biden’s climate proposals as too expensive and grandiose in what she slammed Tuesday as the “left’s ‘rush to green’ agenda.”
Democrats’ push for massive spending on wind, solar and new electric transmission would burden workers and families, she warned at a committee hearing on Tuesday, and proposals to slash greenhouse gas pollution by 2030 could “take us backwards to a time before reliable electricity and modern conveniences.”
That was more than her colleagues offered when asked if they supported spending on climate measures in an infrastructure bill. Bentz declined to comment, while Newhouse’s office did not reply to requests for comment.
While progressive Democrats are fuming over the lack of climate measures in the framework agreement for a bipartisan infrastructure bill announced last week, Republicans are warning against any linkage between that $1.2 trillion measure and a more climate-focused bill that would promote clean energy and electric vehicles that Democrats are expected to push on their own.
Democratic Washington Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray and Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden all called for attaching climate investments to the infrastructure package.
McMorris Rodgers’ spokesperson for the Energy and Commerce Committee, Jack Heretik, said in a statement in response to a query that “she believes that in order to address climate change risks, America must embrace and unleash innovation in a wide range of energy solutions, including emission-free and low-emission energy like hydropower, nuclear and natural gas.”
But climate experts say those measures on their own won’t stop the planet from warming above thresholds that will lead to catastrophic changes, including devastating storms, droughts and worsening heat waves — like the one that’s driven up temperatures in Seattle to levels 35 degrees Fahrenheit over the normal June highs and notched the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada.
Flint said Republicans are stepping onto the climate politics turf while the “reality is setting in” that the limited solutions to combating the issue are daunting given the party does not want to endorse Democrats’ proposals that would curb fossil fuels.
“They see the evidence, they acknowledge the reality, but they don’t want to embrace progressives’ climate policies because everything in Washington is political,” Flint said.
The science notes one major truth: Reducing human-caused emissions, largely produced by burning fossil fuels, will be needed to keep the planet from overheating. Scientists say the world needs to cease emitting greenhouse gases by 2050 to avoid crossing a dangerous tipping point that would bake in the worst effects of climate changes.
Evergreen Action Executive Director Jamal Raad, who worked on Washingon Gov. Jay Inslee’s climate-focused presidential campaign last year, said the Republicans’ responses showed their joining the climate caucus was done out of political necessity rather than a sincere effort to solve climate change.
“Even on a curve, they get an F,” said Raad, who experienced record-setting heat on consecutive days from his Seattle home. “They are literally talking about this as the need to reach out to more voters, not as actually solving the problem, because they don’t agree on this problem. And they don’t actually have any interest in taking on the burning of fossil fuels, which is causing the warming. I give them no credit.”
Emergency managers have warned the heat wave will kill people in the Pacific Northwest, where only about half of households have air conditioning units. That will likely change after Seattle and Portland experienced record-setting highs of 108 degrees F and 116 degrees F on Monday — topping records set the previous day.
Human-caused emissions have already warmed the world nearly 1.2 degrees Celsius, making heat waves more intense. Scientists suggest warmer temperatures have prolonged heat waves and drought by weakening the jet stream as temperature gradients between the Arctic, which is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, and lower latitudes flatten. That has altered the flow of the jet stream and helped exacerbate events like heat waves that can stall in one place.
Current climate patterns suggests an extremely hot June is likely to occur twice every three decades in the Western U.S., said Nikos Christidis, a climate scientist with the U.K.’s Met Office, but not reaching the temperatures that were seen this week.
“Without human-induced climate change, it would have been almost impossible to hit such record-breaking mean June temperatures in the Western United States as the chances of natural occurrence is once every tens of thousands of years,” Christidis said in a statement.
Human-driven climate change has made rare heat events hotter by three to five degrees Fahrenheit compared to a scenario of no human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, according to research by Michael Wehner, a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. And climate change will continue to make those events hotter: Temperatures during heat waves are projected to rise 1 to 3 degrees F by 2050 under a low emissions scenario or 3 to 5 degrees under a high emissions scenario.
Hospitalizations have spiked during the heat wave, with the Oregon Health Authority reporting 250 heat-related visits on Monday.
Heat waves disproportionately affect the elderly and the sick in cities, where people live in apartments that are “more or less death traps,” said Brian Vant-Hull, a research associate at City College of New York who has studied the effects of heat waves on the indoor environment. In more rural areas, outdoor workers comprise a larger share of fatalities.
“People need options to escape,” he said.
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