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Republican Leaders Aim to Make Conservation Conservative Again

A new Republican caucus will tackle conservation and climate change. Is the GOP changing its tune or merely paying lip service to environmental issues?
Though climate studies broadly show that global warming is happening and human-driven, scientists are still working to zero in on exact forecasts for the future.

The creation of the new caucus shows that Republican leaders are willing to talk openly about the threat of global warming.

In case you forgot that the "conservation president," Theodore Roosevelt, was a member of the Republican Party, Wednesday's official launch of the Roosevelt Conservation Caucus is here to remind you.

In an attempt to rebrand conservation as a conservative issue, a group of Senate and House Republicans say they plan to take on issues like public lands protection, clean air, and clean water.

"The Roosevelt Conservation Caucus will give a platform to effective and common-sense solutions to environmental and conservation issues that affect all Americans," Senator Rob Portman (R–Ohio) said in a press release.

Taken at face value, the formation of the caucus marks a shift in how the Republican Party wants to be seen following years of environmental deregulation and inaction on climate change. It's part of a larger movement as Republican lawmakers have come forward in recent months with proposed legislation like the "Green Real Deal" to invest in carbon-capture technology and the "New Manhattan Project" for clean energy.

A key tenet of the newly formed caucus is a focus on market-driven solutions to environmental problems. In finding those solutions, the group embraces "innovation" and "exceptionalism" rather than regulation. As Kate Wheeling wrote for Pacific Standard in May:

Indeed, innovation is a recurring theme so far in Republicans' approaches to climate policy. The conservative lawmakers know their audience: Different types of messaging on climate change are more convincing for conservatives than those that typically appeal to left-leaning voters. Research shows that messaging that focuses on the overwhelming consensus among climate scientists doesn't persuade conservatives to back climate action, but focusing on free-market solutions to climate change does. Unsurprisingly, many Republicans tend to take the view that technological innovations will solve the climate crisis, while stricter regulations will only serve to stymie progress and threaten the economy.

The announcement of the creation of the Roosevelt Conservation Caucus has further solidified the divide in environmental policy between innovation-hungry conservatives and regulation-inclined liberals. "We believe our friends on the other side care about the environment, but they care so much they're going to destroy the economy in the name of saving the environment," Senator Lindsey Graham (R–South Carolina), co-chair of the Senate Caucus, said, according to the Hill.

In her story for Pacific Standard's Ideas section on recent conservative climate plans, Sharon Zhang called out the use of the word "innovation" and described Republican environmental proposals as "procrastination methods":

"We keep hearing this buzzword: innovation. It's basically code for, 'Let's let the fossil fuel industry and other carbon-intensive industries figure this out. Government shouldn't get involved,'" says Jesse Bragg, media director at the non-profit Corporate Accountability. "Innovation, in that sense, is the status quo."

Still, the creation of the caucus is a marked change. It shows some Republican leaders are willing to talk openly about environmental destruction and the threat of global warming, even as the Trump administration continues to deny and suppress evidence of its existence.

Both of the caucus' leaders in the Senate, Graham and Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, are up for re-election in 2020 in states already experiencing sea-level rise, drought, and wildfires associated with climate change. In fact, a majority of adults in both South Carolina and Colorado say global warming is happening and will harm future generations.

More than a shift initiated by conservatives themselves, the creation of the caucus shows Republican lawmakers playing catch-up with their constituents. Instead of losing voters worried about the environment to Democrats, Republicans can now offer up their own environmental vision.