COP26 saw delegates from 196 countries jet into Glasgow from all corners of the planet, while observers included indigenous activists and leaders from the Andes, Amazon and Arctic.
One group that really made themselves felt was the US Democratic Party. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, left-wing icon Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, President Joe Biden, and former President Barack Obama all made an appearance. The message was clear: the US is back at the climate change table – even if the $1.2trn infrastructure package that passed at the start of November was smaller than first intended, and doubts remain over whether the $1.85trn Build Back Better bill (with $555bn earmarked for climate and clean energy investments) will make it through the Senate.
A perhaps less-expected group that also came to Glasgow was the first solely Republican congressional delegation to attend a UN climate conference. The delegation’s presence is emblematic of how GOP climate politics is gradually shifting away from the outright climate scepticism seen under former President Donald Trump.
“I am here to show the world that Republicans also care about climate change,” says John Curtis, Representative for Utah’s 3rd Congressional District. “We have not been as vocal as we should be and I want to change that.”
Curtis founded the Conservative Climate Congress in June 2021 in order to push for greater climate action from the US right. It now contains 70 out of 213 Republican members of the House of Representatives. Also in attendance with the delegation were Representatives Dan Crenshaw of Texas, David McKinley of West Virginia and Garret Graves of Louisiana.
“Louisiana is coastal, and is amongst the most vulnerable to climate change in the United States, and climate change is now one of the most important things that the people we represent [care about],” says Graves. “Our state already has some of the fastest rates of coastal subsistence in the world. Storm intensity is also growing, with Hurricane Ida hitting the area I represent this summer.”
Data shows extreme weather is a phenomenon increasingly experienced across the US. Two-thirds of adults said they were experiencing more extreme weather than in the past, according to a September survey from think tank the Pew Research Center. Some 46% said their area had experienced extreme weather in the past 12 months.
In Utah, communities are facing the state’s longest drought on record, adds Curtis. “There are also fires to the west and our ski season is getting shorter, so I would tend to say yes, we are absolutely feeling the impact of climate change,” he says.
Climate change is becoming an important issue for voters across the US political spectrum. Recent analysis from think tank E3G found a majority of voters in key battleground districts ahead of the 2022 midterm elections want Congress to do more about climate change.
The congressmen at COP26 were brought by a right-wing climate advocacy group called Citizens For Responsible Energy Solutions. The group, says its executive director Heather Reams, has a budget of $15m in annual revenues, much smaller than comparable Democrat groups.
“We advocate tackling climate change and clean energy solutions, but we are Republicans, so it is not about growing government and giving away our liberties,” says Reams. “Every four or eight years a president will come into power with totally different policies. Instead of this pendulum swing, we are calling for more pragmatic climate solutions that can garner bipartisan support, and provide businesses with certainty in the long term.”
Net zero – with fossil fuels
Also in attendance at COP26 were Tuvalu, Fiji and the Marshall Islands – countries which, unless the global temperature rise is limited to 1.5°C, face an existential threat. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says global emissions must be brought to net zero by mid-century to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C. Is what the Republican climate caucus is advocating for in line with that ambition?
Curtis will not be drawn out on whether the Caucus will support a net-zero ambition, and the group has not yet presented a plan. Members of the caucus have a poor track record when it comes to voting for environmental bills, while Curtis himself has only voted for 2% of environmental bills since joining the House in 2017. Just 13 House Republicans supported Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, with only West Virginia’s McKinley doing so among the four Republicans in the COP delegation.
Utah and Louisiana respectively are major producers of coal and offshore oil and gas, and both Curtis and Graves say they believe the US can decarbonise while protecting jobs in those industries.
“Our economy is based on fossil fuels, so I think it is very important that we don’t move forward in an emotional way that demonises traditional energy sources,” says Graves. “The future is going to not just see renewables but ‘all of the above’, with wind and solar, as well as nuclear, hydropower and fossil fuels with technology like carbon capture and storage [CCS].”
Data shows this “all of the above” strategy is what is already taking place across America, with annual renewables generation increasing 223% in the past decade, and oil and gas production increasing 135% and 68%, respectively, as the shale revolution has taken off. Yet the International Energy Agency says fossil fuel production must begin declining rapidly from the 2020s to reach net zero by mid-century. Meanwhile, the CCS technology Davis advocates remains uneconomical at scale without massive subsidies.
While House Republicans are still unsure of their plan, Senators Dan Sullivan, Kevin Cramer and Cynthia Lummis released an 'American Energy, Jobs and Climate' plan, which they say would deliver a 40% reduction in emissions by 2050. The senators described it as “realistic, achievable solutions to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions”, adding that it would allow Americans to continue to extract oil and gas until mid-century.
Separately, an analysis from Massachusetts-based think tank Climate Interactive modelled that the plan would actually only deliver a 14% drop in emissions. However, we should not necessarily conflate this plan with what the Conservative Climate Caucus plans to do, says Climate Interactive’s co-founder Andrew Jones.
“The Conservative Climate Caucus is doing important work helping the Republican party catch up with the rest of the world,” says Jones. “As climate advocates, we are excited by John Curtis’s leadership in the climate crisis, and we are excited to hear what they are proposing.
“But the science of climate change shows we must bring emissions of coal, oil and gas to zero by mid-century. What is politically possible in the Republican Party remains unclear, but the science is completely clear.”