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Conservative Climate Caucus? Not for Alabama

Alabama is becoming warmer, its soils drier, annual rainfall amounts increasing and sea levels rising about once inch every year, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report release five years ago.

Coastal storms have intensified, and relatively new construction codes in Baldwin and Mobile counties require fortified roofs and stronger overall structures aimed to withstand powerful hurricanes.

Tornado outbreaks have caused death and destruction throughout the state in recent years. Hurricane Sally’s slow-slog into Baldwin County was linked by scientists to climate change.

But climate change denial continues to swirl in one of the deepest red states in the country, where Republicans hold all statewide offices. Lawmakers, in recent years, have referred to climate change as either a “liberal hoax” or have outright ignored the issue. No Republican in Alabama has scored above 10% in the League of Conservation Voters annual scorecards on issues pertaining to climate change.

Alabama’s Republican congressmen are also staying out of the newly formed conservative groups that are expected to take a fresh look at the issue.

A “Conservative Climate Caucus” formed last month includes Republican lawmakers from over 30 states. The group wants to focus on free-market solutions that include more private sector innovation toward reducing emissions.

None of Alabama’s congressional delegation is a member. They are also not participants on House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy’s Energy, Climate and Conservation task force that is chaired by U.S. Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana.

“What has happened in more recent years is they are finding the evidence is too clear that climate change is real,” said John Morris, a political science professor at Auburn University. “That they can just ignore climate change is not a viable political position. That this congressional caucus even exists is an interesting step forward.”

He added, “But it’s clear to me that the Republican Party as a whole has not accepted this position. What strikes me is the membership (within the caucus) is from states where the effects of climate change are more obvious.”

Indeed, the membership of the caucus consists of lawmakers from Western states where officials are battling disastrous wildfires punctuated this summer with record-breaking heat waves.

But membership also includes a sizable number of Republicans from so-called SEC states: Six are from Texas, four from Florida, three from Arkansas, three from South Carolina, two from Tennessee, and one each from Mississippi, Georgia, Kentucky, and Louisiana. Other conservative states have lawmakers who are also participants. Three come from Oklahoma, two from Indiana, and one each from North and South Dakota.

“This does offer some encouragement that more conservatives are willing to talk about ‘climate change,’” said Rebecca Romsdahl, a professor in the Earth System Science & Policy Department at the University of North Dakota. “To me, this means more people are recognizing how the climate has changed and that damages are happening in our daily lives. But I’m not convinced yet that Congress is willing to make difficult decisions about what needs to be done to address the variety of problems.”

Alabama lawmakers

U.S. Rep. Jerry Carl, R-Mobile, hosts a town hall meeting on Thursday, July 15, 2021, at Prichard City Hall in Prichard, Ala. (John Sharp/[email protected]).

Alabama’s congressional delegation consist of one Democrat, Rep. Terri Sewell, and six Republicans: Reps. Mo Brooks, Robert Aderholt, Mike Rogers, Barry Moore, Gary Palmer and Jerry Carl.

Of the six Republicans, representatives from four of the lawmakers responded to AL.com inquiries as to why they were not participants in the new caucus.

A spokesman for Aderholt, R-Haleyville, said the congressman has been busy in his role as a ranking member of the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies appropriations subcommittee. But Aderholt “plans to look into this caucus and its goals soon,” according to spokesman Carson Clark.

A spokeswoman for Palmer, R-Hoover, said the congressman does not join many caucuses, “as he wants to be fully engaged with anything he joins.” Palmer is a member of the Energy & Commerce Committee, which already includes climate and energy-related subcommittees. He is also a member on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, and the Republican Policy Committee, which are roles that “already take up most of the time he can give in a meaningful way,” according to spokeswoman Elizabeth Hance.

A Moore spokesman said the congressman supports “innovative conservation solutions” that do not handicap Alabama’s competitiveness globally.

Carl, R-Mobile, following a town hall meeting in Prichard on Thursday, said he believes the group is “primarily western based” and that their focus is on water issues. The group is chaired by Utah Republican Rep. John Curtis.

“I’ll talk to them again and try to better understand what their needs are,” said Carl. “We don’t have a water shortage here. It’s the opposite here.”

Carl said he felt a conversation about climate change policy, which has generated attention among Democrat and is likely to fuel international trade policy in the years ahead, is “a fair conversation to have.”

“I don’t know if you spend your last dollar on it,” Carl said. “To come up with trillions of dollars to fix it overnight, that’s impossible.”

Carl said he believes that society, in general, has “come a long way” on the issue over time. He also believes the focus should be on cleaner energy in other countries, such as China.

“I grew up in the 60s and whenever you’d change the oil in your car, you’d take that used oil and pour it along the fence line to kill the weeds,” Carl said. “We’ve come a long way from an environmental standpoint. We’re much better. We are not where we need to be. Coal fired plants, there are around 13 left in America. Do you know how many are in China? Over 3,000. We need to focus maybe less on us and focus on other places and other countries.”

Tariff talks

Policy matters that include climate change are not going away, and Alabama officials are likely to face them in the years ahead. Federal requirements to address rising seas and powerful storm surges, for instance, loom over the state’s plans to build a new bridge and overhaul the Interstate 10 Bayway in South Alabama.

Trade could also be impacted over varying international views about the issue. The end result could affect the state’s economy and the import and export activity overseen by the Alabama State Port Authority.

The European Commission, an arm of the E.U., announced last week a plan to pivot away from fossil fuels entirely. The group cited the potential to impose tariffs on certain imports from countries with less stringent climate rules.

The European proposal, according to The New York Times, includes eliminating the sales of gas- and diesel-powered cars in 14 years.

The U.S. has vowed to reduce emissions by 40 to 43 percent by 2030, and auto makers are eying a complete phase out of internal-combustion-engine vehicles. By 2050, Mazda, Mitsubishi, and Nissan have said they plan to reach net-zero carbon emissions. Other companies, like GM, are angling to do the same sooner.

But the tariff talk is concerning to Alabama Republicans, who even expressed worries about similar tariff threats during President Donald Trump’s Administration.

Alabama Republican Party Chairman John Wahl

Alabama Republican Party Chairman John Wahl talks with other Republicans after being the party’s winter meeting on Saturday in Montgomery. Wahl was elected chairman, replacing Terry Lathan, who stepped down after six years.

John Wahl, chairman of the state party, said he calls the E.U.’s decision to impose tariffs on certain countries based on their less stringent climate-protection rules as “disturbing.”

“The EU is basically saying they want to manipulate the behavior of people in other countries without representation or jurisdiction,” said Wahl. “I can’t help but ask the question, what will they try to force us to do next? I believe Europe just needs to stay out of American policy and stay out of the lives of American citizens.”

Wahl said a single-minded focus on carbon emissions is a “fundamentally flawed policy.”

Wahl, of Athens, is a butterfly farmer who says he works on environmental issues daily and, “I can assure you, there are far more dangers to our environment than carbon dioxide.”

He added, “We know the earth goes through natural cycles, and we have no scientific proof for what compounds might affect those long-term movements.”

Anson Knowles, chairman of the Madison County GOP, said that in his personal view climate change is a manufactured “crisis” used to manipulate people “into giving up more freedom.”

Said Knowles, “Most folks don’t care about climate change because it was a natural feature of the planet before man, and it will continue to be a natural feature after man is extinct. The media generated climate propaganda excites folks on this issue using emotion and manipulation.”

‘Frank effects’

Hurricane Sally damage in Baldwin County

Huge fishing boat grounded on Hwy. 161 in Orange Beach. Hurricane Sally damage to Baldwin County September 17, 2020. (Joe Songer | [email protected]).Joe Songer | [email protected]

Polling from the Pew Research Center last year suggests a majority of Americans are wanting to see change pushed by the federal government, and the Democratic politicians are including climate change initiatives in a $3.5 trillion budget resolution that has the backing of President Joe Biden.

The latest plan restores Biden’s climate proposals that were cut from a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal to include, among other things, incentives for electric vehicles, the creation of a civilian climate corps program and a mandate that would require a portion of the country’s electricity to come from renewables like wind and solar.

But the polling from Pew also shows the stark political divide that remains on the issue. A much larger share of Democrats and those who lean toward the Democratic Party than Republicans and Republican leaders say human activity is contributing to a great deal of climate change (72% to 22%), and that government is doing too little to reduce its effects (89% to 35%).

Morris, the Auburn University, said it’s inevitable that policy discussions will continue to include climate change policy, noting that “we are a place where the frank effects of climate change cannot be ignored.”

But he said in Alabama, unlike in western states, the evidence of a changing climate is limited.

“Are the winters a little warmer? Yeah. But we are not seeing huge wildfires or coastal flooding,” said Morris. “I would suspect, from an Alabama congressional point of view, if it’s not something their constituents care much about, then there is no reason for them to dive into this thing.”

Morris said the biggest impact of climate change is likely to occur along the Gulf Coast.

The issue popped up in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sally, the destructive Category 2 storm that creeped along at 2 to 3 mph before making landfall in Gulf Shores last September. The storm’s erratic and unpredictable course was attributed to climate change by scientists who have noticed multiple slow-moving storms creating havoc along the Gulf Coast such as Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

“The closest thing we get in Alabama (to frank effects of climate change) is the higher number of hurricanes,” said Morris. “But unless they affect Alabama and the Gulf Coast, in particular, we don’t see those frank effects of climate change.”

Romsdahl, at the University of North Dakota, said that those who are working to advance climate change policies might find better successes away from Washington, D.C., and should focus “at every level of government.”

She said, “There are so many challenges that there is work to be done in every institution where we can push steps forward.”

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