U.S. House’s Climate Solutions Caucus: Lessons on the Politics of Climate Change

 

“The Caucus will serve as an organization to educate members on economically-viable options to reduce climate risk and protect our nation’s economy, security, infrastructure, agriculture, water supply and public safety.”

This is the guiding mission of the “Climate Solutions Caucus” (CSC), a group of 26 Republicans and 26 Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives who label themselves to be serious about climate change. As we all know, U.S. Republicans have generally opposed any climate change mitigation policy in recent years, even questioning the proven scientific consensus that human activity is the primary driver of the problem. So, how serious are these 26 Republicans about advancing climate solutions?

In this article, I (1) provide background about the CSC, (2) investigate the demographics of the 26 Republican CSC members in search of factors explaining why a member of that party would choose to label herself as serious about the issue, and (3) discuss this evidence to decide, beyond the rhetoric, how serious these Republicans actually are about climate change.

(I leave out Democrats because nearly all Democrats in the House and Senate favor some form of mitigation policy, so joining the CSC as a Democrat isn’t as significant of a political signal.)

 

About the Caucus

Congressmen Carlos Curbelo, a Republican, and Ted Deutch, a Democrat (both of Florida), officially filed paperwork to found the CSC in February 2016. For some background: A caucus is simply a group of members of Congress who meet to pursue shared legislative priorities. It has no formal legislative power, simply the ability to meet to discuss and plan legislative strategy.

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Since its inception 18 months ago, the CSC’s membership has reached 52 total members, or 12.0% of the entire U.S. House (435 members). Twenty-six (26) Republicans are 10.8% of all House Republicans (240 total). A rule of this CSC mandates there will always be an even number of Republicans and Democrats.

Notably, the CSC has grown significantly in recent months, increasing from 34 to 52 members from the end of March through early August—a 35% increase in membership over the most recent 22% duration of its existence. This doesn’t help in showing that members are actually serious about climate change, just that more and more want to label themselves as such.

 

Issue Backdrop

Fortunately, the percent of Americans who believe humans are causing climate change has increased from a low of 50% in 2010 to 65% in 2016 (see below).

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Unfortunately, it has also become one of the most polarized political issues, with just 38% of Republicans believing humans are causing climate change in 2016, compared to 85% of Democrats (see below, bottom box).

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Over this time, the U.S. Congress has failed to make progress on passing any serious policy to mitigate climate change. In 2009–2010, the House passed a bill to create a cap on carbon emissions, but the Senate didn’t have enough potential allies to bring the bill to a vote. Since then, even discussing solutions to global warming has been a non-starter for Republicans.

 

Quantitative Indicators about CSC Members

As promised, this article will describe a host of metrics that describe the 26 Republicans in the U.S. House who’ve joined the Climate Solutions Caucus, with the hopes of determining factors that might predict such a stance on the issue. (Reminder: twenty-six Republicans make up just 10.8% of the 240 House Republicans.)

I focus on a handful of factors that might seem to cause a Republican to care more about climate change, or at least signal that he does:

  1. Experience in Congress, because it’s possible the longer someone has been around, the more entrenched she is in standard Republican issue stances, but it’s also possible that the longer someone has been around, the more likely he is to speak out about a polarizing issue.
  2. Overall (quantified) ideology of the member—i.e., how relatively conservative she is—because it would be telling if the ones who care most about climate change are either significantly less or more conservative than most (or in the middle).
  3. Age of the member, as it seems more likely that younger members would care more about an issue the will affect future generations more than current ones.
  4. The member’s own margin of victory in his 2016 congressional election, as the relative political leaning of the district (is it easy for a Republican to win?) would be telling.
  5. Trump’s 2016 margin of victory in the member’s district, similarly telling us about the constituents in the district and the relative political leaning.
  6. Obama’s 2012 margin of victory in the member’s district, similarly telling us about the constituents in the district and the relative political leaning.
  7. (Estimated) % of district constituents who [A] believe climate change is caused by humans and [B] are worried about climate change, as, theoretically, constituent preferences should translate into stances of elected representatives.
  8. Campaign donations from the fossil fuel industry, as money might either flow to people who doubt climate science, or more might flow to those who say they care about the issue, as an effort to change their minds.
  9. Lifetime environmental voting record, as we would expect those who are generally more supportive of environmental conservation, generally, to also care more about climate change.

All originally aggregated, quantitative data used for this article can be found on this spreadsheet. Most factors about these 26 House Republicans are compared to the median or average House Republican, in order to uncover major differences between the two types.

Here’s a table of the metrics:

Indicator (Bold+Italic = Most telling metrics) Caucus Republicans ALL House Republicans
Experience (# terms; avg.) 3.2 4.5–5.0
Overall Ideology (avg.) 0.68 / 1.00 0.76 / 1.00
Age (median) 54.5 57
Victory Margin (2016 election; median) 13% 26%
Trump Victory Margin in their district (2016; median) 2.8% 19.8%
Obama Victory Margin in their district (2012; median) -1.75% -16.9%
% Constituents Believe Human-Caused (2016) 53.1% 49.3%
% Constituents Worried About Climate (2016) 57.6% 52.9%
Fossil Fuel Industry Donations (2016; median) $35,325 $35,300
Lifetime Environmental Voting Record (median) 11 / 100 4 / 100

See APPENDIX for some further description of metrics.

 

The primary predictors of any House Republican joining the CSC seem to be*:

  1. if their districts are definitively more politically moderate / mixed, with Donald Trump’s (2016) and Barack Obama’s (2012) victory margins way closer to zero than in all House Republicans’ districts, and
  2. if their own victory margin was half that of other House Republicans.

(*To get closer to the truth of the matter of what factors drive Republican membership in the Caucus — inevitably in a future research project — I would be more exhaustive about variables to include, and perform a statistical regression analysis.)

Otherwise, CSC Republicans are slightly less experienced, slightly less conservative overall, and barely younger; their constituents are slightly more worried about climate change and believe humans are causing it; they have slightly better lifetime pro-environment voting records, but don’t get any more direct money from the fossil fuel industry.

There is something to say about a few outliers within the CSC. Five members have lifetime pro-environmental voting records between 27 and 41 (by far the highest among Republicans). Donald Trump actually lost their five districts by 7.8% (avg.), and Barack Obama won their districts by 3.4%.

 

Are These 26 (And Counting) Republicans Actually Serious About Climate Change?

From the previously described metrics, we can see that the primary predictor of a House Republican joining the Climate Solutions Caucus is how close their district voted to elect Barack Obama in 2012 or Donald Trump in 2016. Unfortunately, we can’t quantify and understand what the existence of this Caucus means for any chance of making progress toward serious climate change policies in Congress.

Thus far very few, if any, of these 26 Republicans have come out in support of a particular policy to mitigate climate change (like a carbon tax)—whereas virtually all Democrats support some sort of taxation or cap on carbon emissions, or at least agree climate change is caused by humans and deserves a solution. A few Republicans in the CSC have said they would not support a carbon tax, which is believed to be the only policy mechanism that could attract significant Republican support (i.e., CSC Republicans not supporting it = not a good sign).

In addition, prior to President Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the international Paris climate agreement, just four Republicans sent a letter to the president, disagreeing with the eventual move—a very public move, although one that you’d think others in the CSC (which was close to 20 Republican members at the time) would join. Again, generally all Democrats publicly disagreed with Trump’s decision.

Given these two facts, there’s really no evidence to indicate that the existence—and growth—of this CSC will lead to a sufficient number of Republicans vocally (and eventually with their votes) supporting a serious effort to work toward serious climate change mitigation policies.

On one hand, it seems very possible than many of these 26 members have simply joined the CSC because they know their districts have the most moderate, “swing” voters, and joining could be a signal to more moderate and liberal voters that they do agree with them on climate change, but won’t ever take action—i.e., this is an empty gesture. On the other hand, it seems possible that the existence and growth of the CSC could be the beginning of necessary coalition-building until there’s a critical mass of Republicans who would support serious climate policy.

Time will tell.

 

APPENDIX

*Again, to make this a more serious piece of research, I would (1) include more variables, such as the salience of climate change in the member’s 2016 campaign, how often she speaks out about it, his recorded stance on a carbon tax policy (for example), voter turnout in her district, all kinds of industry donations—not just donations directly to his campaign, and more, and (2) utilize some sort of statistical regression function to properly analyze the role of each of the variables in determining why a Republican would join the Caucus.

Descriptions of variables:

Experience of Member. The average tenure of Caucus Republicans (Republicans in the Climate Solutions Caucus) is moderately shorter (3.2 terms, average) than all House Republicans (4.5–5.0 terms).

Overall Ideology of Member. The average overall quantified ideology (scored between 0.0 and 1.0; 0.0–0.5 is liberal, 0.5–1.0 is conservative) of Caucus Republicans is slightly less conservative (0.68, average) than all House Republicans (0.76). (The ideology metric not available for 6 of the 26 Caucus members, as it was measured as of 2015, when a few of them weren’t yet in office.)

Age of Member. Caucus Republicans are barely younger (54.5 years old, median) than all House Republicans (57 years old).

Margin of Victory of Member. Caucus Republicans won by half as much in their 2016 elections (13%, median) as did all House Republicans (26%), which is definitely a significant difference, but 13% still isn’t a close race.

Donald Trump’s Margin of Victory in Member’s District. This metric and the next display the most telling story: Donald Trump won by just 2.8% (median) in the congressional districts of Caucus Republicans, compared to winning by 19.8% in all House Republicans’ districts.

Barack Obama’s Margin of Victory in Member’s District. Similarly displaying a large difference between the two camps of Republicans: Barack Obama lost by 1.75% (median) in Caucus Republicans’ districts but 16.9% in all House Republicans’ districts.

What Member’s Constituents Believe about Climate Change, estimated. Caucus Republicans’ constituents believe a bit more (53.1%, median) that humans are causing climate change than all House Republicans’ constituents (49.3%). Caucus Republicans’ constituents are also slightly more worried about climate change (57.6%) than all House Republicans’ constituents (52.9%). (These public opinion metrics are estimated using smaller, but still nationally representative, polling data.)

Donations from the Fossil Fuel Industry. Possibly surprisingly, Caucus Republicans didn’t receive any less money from the fossil fuel industry ($35,325, median) than all House Republicans ($35,300). However, this metric obfuscates a much more complex process, as the money won’t necessarily all flow to members taking stronger stances on an issue (e.g., money might be given to try to change a member’s mind over time, or simply to be friendly to form a relationship). (This is just money from PACs and individuals giving $200+, not including outside Super PAC-type spending.)

Lifetime Environmental Voting Record. Caucus Republicans have a slightly higher (11 / 100, median) lifetime pro-environment voting record compared to all House Republicans (4 / 100). (This metric is not available for the 6 of the 26 Caucus members who were not elected until 2016.)
SUMMARY OF METRICS. So, compared to all House Republicans, Climate Solutions Caucus Republicans are slightly less experienced, slightly less conservative overall, and barely younger; their constituents are slightly more worried about climate change and believe humans are causing it; they have slightly better lifetime pro-environment voting records, but don’t get any more direct money from the fossil fuel industry; however, (1) their districts are definitively more politically moderate / mixed, with Donald Trump’s (2016) and Barack Obama’s (2012) victory margins way closer to zero than in all House Republicans’ districts, and (2) their own victory margin was half that of all House Republicans.

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