How One Lawmaker Is Breaking the Bipartisan Barrier on Climate Change

Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo of South Florida represents one of the U.S. regions most vulnerable to sea level rise. Now, he’s breaking with GOP orthodoxy to help build a bipartisan coalition in the House to influence climate legislation.

In the three years since Representative Carlos Curbelo joined Congress, he has emerged as one of the Republican Party’s most vocal advocates for climate action. He has criticized the GOP’s and Trump administration’s climate denial on cable news networks and in newspaper op-eds and co-founded the congressional Climate Solutions Caucus, a bipartisan group of lawmakers devoted to pursuing policy actions to combat global warming and prepare for its impacts.

Representative Carlos Curbelo

Representative Carlos Curbelo

Last week, Curbelo, who represents Florida’s 26th district — an area that stretches south from Miami to the Florida Keys and is expected to be one of the hardest hit by sea level rise — announced four new members, two Republicans and two Democrats, to the Climate Solutions Caucus. That brings the group’s total number to 66, evenly split between Republicans and Democrats and large enough that the caucus is evolving into a potentially influential voting block on environmental legislation.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Curbelo talks about how President Trump’s climate-denial rhetoric has actually spurred some Republicans to embrace action on climate change, discusses the biggest mistakes made in recruiting conservatives to the climate cause, and explains the dangers of making environmental policy using presidential executive orders — a drawback, he says, of both the Obama and Trump administrations.

“Executive orders come and go, just like presidents come and go,” Curbelo said. “The key in our country, and that’s why it’s Article One of the Constitution, is for Congress to act. And that’s the goal of the caucus.”

Yale Environment 360: Since joining the House in 2015, you’ve emerged as a Republican leader on climate action. What led you to take this position, one that runs counter to so many of your colleagues in the GOP?

Carlos Curbelo: Well, number one, it’s a local issue for me. The environment is front and center in South Florida, it’s an economic issue for our community. People from all over the world come to South Florida, specifically to my district, to enjoy our natural treasures: Everglade National Park, Dry Tortugas National Park, Biscayne National Park, Florida Bay, the National Marine Sanctuary. It’s also a moral issue for me. We need to be good stewards of the environment. We know that human activities, specifically carbon emissions, are contributing to rising global temperatures, rising sea levels, and we just need to find a way forward that embraces clean energy and secures the future.

e360: Was there ever a point at which you were skeptical of climate science?

Curbelo: I always accepted the basic science. I wouldn’t say I was ever skeptical, I was not engaged in the past as I am now. It’s an issue where the more I learned about it, the more I was moved to action. And when I arrived here [in Washington, D.C.] in 2015, there were maybe two or three Republicans in the House who were even talking about this issue. But you look at where we are now — 33 Republicans on the record on climate change, [members of] the Climate Solutions Caucus — this is a drastic change. 

“The number one goal was to have a conversation about climate change, a sober conversation, based on the facts, based on the evidence.”

e360: What exactly was the impetus for creating the caucus in 2016?

Curbelo: There was a lot of encouragement from activists, specifically Citizens Climate Lobby. [Democratic] Representative Ted Deutch [of Florida] and I came to realize that this issue was hyper-politicized and highly polarized. And we knew that unless we worked to change that, to extract some of the politics from the issue, some of the demagoguery, then it would be very hard to have a rational conversation about what’s happening and what we can do about it.

The number one goal was to get Republicans and Democrats together to have a conversation about climate change, a sober conversation, based on the facts, based on the evidence. We brought in climate policy leaders from foreign countries, energy company executives, environmental organization leaders, and we listened. Then we spoke among ourselves, built trust, and that was the first phase of the caucus. And that was a success. And now we are in what I consider the second phase of the caucus, which is the blocking and tackling phase where we try to take on anti-climate legislation and defeat it on the House floor, which we’ve done a couple times. Then hopefully in the near future, perhaps this Congress, perhaps next Congress, the caucus can become a true ideas factory where we proffer good policy solutions for the environment, for rising sea levels, for climate change-related challenges. That’s the goal.

e360: Has recruiting members to join the caucus changed at all since Trump took office?

Curbelo: I think actually some of his rhetoric and actions on climate policy gave at least some House Republicans a greater impetus to learn about the issue and to get involved. We’ve seen a major growth in the caucus this Congress. Last Congress, this caucus had 20 members and today we have over 60, so we’re three times bigger than we were in the 114th Congress and growing. It’s encouraging and at the same time we realize it’s still an uphill climb.

e360: In your opinion, why isn’t there a similar group in the Senate?

Curbelo: There are a growing number of senators on the Republican side of the aisle who want to be impactful on this issue, who take it seriously, who want to work constructively with Senate Democrats, so I think that it’s possible that in this Congress we could see a similar dynamic in the Senate, meaning a group of bipartisan senators coming together, committing to advancing a good policy agenda on climate.

“At least privately, very few [Republicans] deny that the earth’s climate is changing and that human activity is at least partially responsible for the changes.”

e360: Campaign donations from fossil fuel interests are often portrayed as the single most important reason Republicans deny global warming. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?

Curbelo: That’s a very shortsighted perspective. The reason this issue has been so challenging for the last, say, 15 years is that after the 2000 election, this issue became hyper-politicized. I’m always very careful when I discuss this, because I don’t want my theory to be misconstrued or for anyone to take it personally, but after the 2000 election — which was then perhaps the most divisive in our country’s history — Al Gore adopted the environment as a cause. It is something I admire because it is an important and worthy cause, but I really wish he would have done it with a Republican partner. The country was so divided after that election, and I think a lot of Republicans just reflexively believed that if Al Gore was for something, they would have to be opposed to it. And over the years that polarization just grew and grew. 

That’s the reason we’re in this rut and that a lot of Republicans take the position that this is unimportant. By the way, at least privately, very few deny that this is a real issue, that the earth’s climate is changing, and that human activity is at least partially responsible for the changes that we’re observing.

e360: What do you think has been the biggest mistake made by Democrats or environmentalists in framing the climate change issue for conservatives over the years?

Curbelo: I always say that on this issue, neither the alarmists nor the deniers have much to contribute. If you’re trying to convince someone that they need to get involved in an issue or perhaps change their thinking on an issue, trying to scare them is not always effective and can actually sow resentment. There are people who tell Floridians that we have hurricanes as a result of anthropogenic climate change. That’s just dishonest. Now, we can say that the types of hurricanes we’re seeing could be a result of that, the strength and the size, but obviously hurricanes have been coming across the Florida peninsula for centuries. That type of alarmism is not helpful. 

“Those who work to double down on the current dynamic that has inhibited progress for so long are not part of the solution, they’re part of the problem.”

And I do think that there are some in the environmental movement that put the cause of the Democratic Party over the cause of building bipartisan consensus in Congress for sound environmental policy. And that’s truly regrettable, because we all know that unless one party controls the House, the Senate, and the White House — and by the way that means 60 votes in the Senate, not 51 — that it’s very difficult to enact a major policy. I truly hope that for the sake of this cause, more of these environmental groups really keep their eye on the goal, which is to build consensus in Congress for sound climate policy. 

Those who work to double down on the current dynamic that has inhibited progress for so long are not part of the solution, they’re part of the problem.

e360: Many current and former Republican leaders argued that last month’s tax reform was sort of the perfect opportunity to pass a carbon tax. As a member of the House Ways and Means committee, was there ever any talk of incorporating a carbon tax into the final bill?

Curbelo: For a bill that many assumed was going to be Republican-only, I think that would have been a very ambitious goal. I think that the idea of carbon pricing should be debated, should be considered. I do think we need a broad comprehensive solution for environmental policy, for CO2 emissions, but the fact is that it would have been premature to try to advance that concept in the context of tax reform legislation.

e360: You voted for the tax reform bill, which opens up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. As the co-founder of the caucus, how did you reconcile voting for the bill when it contained that provision?

Curbelo: I’m upset about that provision as well, and it’s not the only provision in the tax bill that I would have deleted if I could have written it myself, but when you’re weighing broad comprehensive legislation such as an overhaul of the tax code, you really have to consider the bill in its entirety. And the reason that I supported the bill is because I think it’s going to be very helpful to lower- and middle-income families in my South Florida district. There are too many people in my community who had read about economic recovery without actually experiencing it.

I made it clear here in the House that I was strongly opposed to [the drilling provision], and it was not included in our version of the bill. But obviously the people who Alaska elected, both to the Senate and the House, were very supportive, and Republican leaders deferred to them.

“The next meaningful transcendental environmental policy will emerge from Congress, not from any administration.”

e360: Over the last decade, national environmental policy has been dominated by the executive branch: pro-climate executive orders by the Obama administration, and now deregulation by the Trump administration. Is that the danger of having Congress gridlocked on this issue, that it’s not shaping environmental policy?

Curbelo: This is a major concern for me. I think for something as serious and as sensitive as the environment, we need stable predictable policies. Not just for the environment, but for industry, for American companies. We need to find legislation that can get a majority of House members, 60 senators, and the signature of a president. These executive orders come and go, just like presidents come and go. The key in our country, and that’s why it’s Article One of the Constitution, is for Congress to act. And that’s the goal of the caucus. No matter who is in control or what the ratios are, it is important for all of us who care about this issue to commit to building bipartisan consensus both in the House and Senate, because the next meaningful transcendental environmental policy will emerge from Congress, not from any administration.

e360: Nearly all of the members in the caucus are up for reelection this year, including yourself. Is there any concern from them, particularly your Republican members, that the stances they’ve taken on climate change could potentially influence their re-election?

Curbelo: No, none of my colleagues have that concern. We have very moderate members and we have very conservative members in the caucus. And all of them are in it because they believe in the cause. They’re not worried about the politics or whether it will benefit them or hurt them. Obviously in every district, there are climate deniers and climate alarmists, and I don’t think that those are the constituents that the members of the caucus are really listening to when it comes to this issue. People at the political extremes generally make it very difficult to build consensus, so I don’t think any of my colleagues are acting in response to political pressures. From my conversations with them, their commitment is sincere. They accept the science, and they know that we as a Congress have a role to play here.