Trump vs. an emerging Republican climate strategy

“We’re not dependent on a standard-bearer outside of the House,” said Rep. John Curtis (R-Utah), the chair and founder of the 82-member Conservative Climate Caucus who is now running for Senate.

“I don’t think it’s a surprise to anybody that charting the course as a Republican to talk about climate has never been easy,” Curtis said, “and so if there are headwinds, we’ll keep pushing forward.”

Trump’s ascendance could do more than just create headwinds. The climate caucus, which represents a little more than a third of House Republicans, already lost a pivotal ally when lawmakers deposed then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy last year.

Now, the likely Republican nominee for president has shown no signs of moving away from his denial of climate change science and his rejection of major action to reduce emissions.

He pronounced, as recently as December, that “the only global warming we should be worrying about … is nuclear warming” — a reference to the threat of an “arms race” with foreign adversaries. He has previously called climate change a “make-believe problem” and “nonexistent,” as well as a “hoax.”

Trump has repeatedly called for the elimination of the clean energy tax credits contained in the Inflation Reduction Act that are contributing to major green job booms around the country, including in Republican-held districts.

He also promised at an event this fall to slash incentives around electric vehicle production specifically, saying, “You can be loyal to American labor, or you can be loyal to the environmental lunatics.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of conservatives, including many who worked in the last Trump administration, have penned a 900-page memo,
dubbed Project 2025
, to preview some of the actions Trump could take if returned to the White House.

Recommendations include dismantling a carbon capture tax credit — technology many Republicans support because it could allow fossil fuel-burning plants to remain active while also reducing emissions — and gutting a program to assist cash-strapped nuclear reactors — at a time when Republicans are touting nuclear power as an alternative fuel source to oil, gas and coal.

It all threatens to undermine the work many Republicans have done lately to try to improve their party’s image on climate issues, specifically to show that they care about actively solving the climate crisis.

Curtis, for instance, has spent the last three years building out the Conservative Climate Caucus to become the second largest member organization in the House GOP Conference. Acknowledging human contributions to climate change is a prerequisite for joining the group.

A long-lapsed bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus was relaunched last summer to bring Republicans to the table with Democrats to talk about “combat[ing] climate change while also protecting the economic prosperity of the United States.”

And across the Capitol, a growing number of Republicans are embracing a policy that would compel foreign trade partners to pay tariffs on the carbon intensity of certain imported industrial goods, while advocacy groups catering to conservative climate policies are expanding as well.

Colin Hayes, a former GOP Senate aide who is now a founding partner at Lot Sixteen, a communications and lobbying firm representing clean energy industry clients, said there’s real concern Trump’s rhetoric could reflect reality, further complicating Republican messaging efforts.

“From the perspective of folks who are trying to build and deploy renewable energy projects, I’d say the anxiety level is pretty high” about a Trump victory in November, said Hayes, “because they don’t really know what to expect.”

Leaning into the ‘battle’

Given the House GOP’s razor-thin majority, the climate-conscious Republican voting bloc led by Curtis and others is one that has held, and could continue to hold, some sway.

In October, a contingent of New York Republicans helped tank the candidacy of Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) to succeed McCarthy as speaker, partly because of Jordan’s history of voting against relief funding for natural disasters.

Just days later, a group of GOP members brought down several spending bill amendments that would have scaled back energy efficiency programs — a success that inspired Conservative Climate Caucus leaders to seek out other ways to leverage their clout.

Now, congressional Republicans working on climate policies largely insist they’re going to ignore the noise and continue messaging on those issues the way they’ve been doing.

“I think the majority of our conference has adopted the fact that we need to address climate change,” said Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.), a vice chair of the Conservative Climate Caucus and newly minted chair of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment, Manufacturing and Critical Materials.

“I can’t say what President Trump may or may not do, but I think, for the Republicans in Congress, that would be our approach,” said Carter.

In 2022, Hyundai broke ground in Carter’s district to build an electric vehicle production plant. It’s a $7.6 billion investment that will create more than 8,000 jobs, and the car manufacturing giant has said it’s all thanks to the IRA.

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), who has for years staked his reputation on being a centrist and frequently breaks from Republicans on climate issues, said, “There should be room in both parties for different points of view.

“Just like it’s a challenge for my Democrat colleagues when they have nominees saying things that they don’t agree with,” he continued. “Everybody answers for their own statements and positions.”

Rep. Marc Molinaro (R-N.Y.), whose race is likely to be one of the closest in the House, was also dismissive of potential political concerns over Trump’s environmental positions.

“There are a good number of really conservative leaders who understand the need to confront climate change to build up climate resiliency and to address natural resource conservation. And that won’t end,” he said. “I think that we’ll be able to convince others to embrace smart conservation policy.”

Ultimately, it could be up to individual Republicans to chart that course to differentiate themselves from Trump.

When McCarthy was House minority leader, the California Republican directed a task force to develop an energy plank that would become a part of the GOP’s platform to retake control of the House in 2022. He is credited with having created an opening for his party to move away from climate science denialism.

Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), whom McCarthy put in charge of that 2022 task force, said new Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) won’t be following that example.

“I think that you’ve lost an open-minded leader on the Republican side in terms of McCarthy,” he said. “I don’t think you’re going to have a Mike Johnson or a [Majority Whip Tom] Emmer or a [Majority Leader Steve] Scalise pick up on the baton on that one and say, ‘Oh, we’re going to lead on that one.’”

Graves added it would be “a huge mistake for Republicans to forgo, give up or cave on this fight, because the data and the science on this issue is so much on our side, and I think it’s a battle we should actually lean into.”

Republicans have repeatedly pointed to statistics showing that U.S. energy is produced more cleanly than anywhere else in the world and that domestic greenhouse gas emissions have decreased as a result.

The GOP also tends to tout innovation as the solution to climate change in an alternative to Democratic-style climate regulations and efforts to transition the economy away from fossil fuels.

Conservative climate and clean energy groups, which have largely stayed out of the presidential primaries, support this approach, while environmentalists have long regarded it as insufficient for meeting the scale of the crisis.

‘Mixed bag’

Johnson did not respond to a request for comment about whether he would be putting together a similar plank ahead of the 2024 elections.

Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee and a trained forester, said, “There’s nothing formal in the works that I’m aware of.”

But he added, “It’s important we get our message out about what real conservation is.”

Westerman also told POLITICO’s E&E News he wasn’t familiar with what Trump has said on the subject.

Graves, when asked whether Trump’s climate talking points complicate the GOP’s message, asserted that although the former president “has said things against climate,” his environmental policies are solid.

Other Republicans are likewise bullish about Trump’s record.

“I think we’re aligned,” said House Energy and Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.). “Good energy policy is good climate policy. And when America is energy independent, when America’s producing and when America’s innovating on energy solutions, that’s helping the climate.”

Quill Robinson, a senior adviser at ConservAmerica, a group seeking to get conservatives to back environmental policies, agreed it was worthwhile to distinguish between rhetoric and actual policy proposals when it comes to parsing Trump’s positions.

“President Biden frames the Inflation Reduction Act as a policy to restore American manufacturing, reduce reliance on China and fight climate change; President Trump is on board with the first two priorities. In fact, they have consistently been his top priorities,” Robinson said. “Discerning semantic and substantive differences is key. The focus should be on policy impact.”

For Republicans, “it’s the pollution, not the energy source, that’s the problem,” said Heather Reams, president of Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions.

“I think that President Trump has some alignment there — not perfectly — but has some alignment that I think we can absolutely work with.”

Trump’s anti-China policies could also be a boon to clean energy by helping grow domestic manufacturing, Reams added, where goods are made with lower carbon footprints.

Hayes, of Lot Sixteen, predicted Trump could loosen guidelines for who can leverage the IRA’s hydrogen tax credits. Some critics of the Biden administration’s interpretation, climate hawks included, have complained the guidance is so rigid it could hinder efforts to lower carbon pollution.

He said Trump also might unlock federal lands now being protected from non-conservation activities, an alarming proposition for environmentalists who don’t want to create more opportunities for oil and gas development but a welcome move for those looking to build new renewable projects.

“I’m not trying to tell you that a Trump presidency would be better for clean energy,” Hayes said. “But I am saying there’s more nuance involved than a lot of people seem to think. It’s a mixed bag.”

A version of this report first ran in E&E News’ Climatewire. Get access to more comprehensive and in-depth reporting on the energy transition, natural resources, climate change and more in E&E News.