Matt Gaetz, the Climate Solutions Caucus and the bumpy road to bipartisan consensus

Matt Gaetz

Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz is the newest Republican to join the Climate Solutions Caucus.

Matt Gaetz, the Climate Solutions Caucus and the bumpy road to bipartisan consensus

By Steve Valk

When Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-FL) joined the Climate Solutions Caucus recently, eyebrows elevated in many quarters. After all, this is the same Matt Gaetz who introduced legislation earlier this year to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency.

Many people, voters and pundits alike, have been watching the caucus to see if its members are sincere about environmental action or if they’re merely looking for political cover. When Gaetz came on board, some took it as confirmation that the Climate Solutions Caucus is just an empty gesture—but we don’t think so.

Amid the skepticism, I was pleased to get a call early last week from E&E reporter Arianna Skibell seeking CCL’s take on Gaetz. Here’s what I said:

“Any time any Republican, no matter who they are, joins the caucus, that’s a good thing,” said Steve Valk, CCL’s communications director.

“Two years ago, there were no Republicans even willing to acknowledge that climate change was a problem that needed to be solved,” he said. “And now you have 31 Republicans and more coming on each month who are saying, ‘Yes, we have a problem that needs to be addressed.’ “

Valk added: “That looks like progress to me.”

Gaetz was invited to join the caucus by New Jersey Democrat Josh Gottheimer. In the E&E article, I playfully speculated on the backstory:

“Who knows how that connection happened? Maybe they met at a freshman orientation and went out for a beer and found out they both like Led Zeppelin or something.”

Little did Skibell know that this quote would lead to a response from Gaetz on Twitter in which he declared that 1) he’s not a fan of Led Zeppelin, and 2) he agrees that humans are causing climate change. He included a screenshot of a quote he had given in another story, stating that position clearly:

Over the weekend, caucus co-chair Carlos Curbelo talked about Gaetz on PRI’s “Living on Earth”:

“Our most recent addition was Matt Gaetz, and I want to give him great credit because he is also from Florida, but you know Florida there’s like five states in one. He is up from the panhandle, lower Alabama, which is much different than Miami. His district is very conservative, but I told Matt, I said, ‘Hey, do you recognize that climate change is real?’ ‘Yes, yes I do,’ and ‘Do you recognize that human activity is responsible for at least a significant part of it?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely,’ and I said, ‘You’re in if you can acknowledge that and you’re willing to work with us, welcome.’ And he joined and of course a Democrat joined with him, and we hope to see more members from those kinds of districts because this is not a political issue. This is an environmental issue. This is a human issue that is having an impact on human lives and needs to be addressed.”

You may be reading, thinking, “That’s all well and good, but doesn’t he still want to eliminate the EPA?” I can certainly appreciate the fear his bill aroused and the suspicion it raises about his goals. But notice: that bill has gone nowhere since its introduction 10 months ago. Eliminating the EPA is not a serious topic of discussion in Congress, and especially not among the members of the Climate Solutions Caucus. Instead, what has gone somewhere this year is the caucus—its membership has more than tripled.

For those who say these officials are just worried about what their constituents think, I say: Hell, yeah! That’s the way this representative democracy thing is supposed to work. Essentially, what happened here is that Gaetz came by the caucus table, heard an interesting conversation, and decided to pull up a chair. The caucus has invited everyone, no matter what their motivation, to pull up a chair, provided they acknowledge we have a problem and want to work on solutions.

This is where bipartisan work can feel like a bumpy road at times—when someone new joins the conversation, it can jostle people’s perceptions and cast fear or doubt on the process. But in reality, this is an indicator that the dialogue is on the right path. The caucus is bringing legislators in from the fringes of the climate conversation and exploring truly viable, bipartisan climate solutions. Ultimately, that will strengthen the impact and reach of any bipartisan legislation they present.

Because of that no-judgment, welcoming spirit, the caucus has created a safe space where politicians, tired of the partisan posturing, can have productive conversations. And while we all wish the caucus could have moved quickly and found a silver bullet for climate change by now, they’re doing the important work of consensus-building that will lead to the breakthroughs we’re looking for on climate change.

So, could Gaetz’ enthusiasm for market-based solutions lead to support for a carbon fee? Skibell put the question to him in their Twitter exchange:

What do you think about a carbon tax in general?

The carbon tax proposals I’ve seen won’t solve climate change. They will merely export our pollution to other countries. I think our innovations historically have spread across the globe far faster than our regulations have.

What I’m hearing in that answer is that Gaetz is probably unfamiliar with CCL’s proposal for a revenue-neutral carbon fee with border adjustment. Fortunately, there are lots of folks eager to educate him, like Jerry Taylor from the libertarian-leaning Niskanen Center:

Returning to the question of whether there should be some sort of litmus test for members of Congress wanting to join the caucus, I agree with co-chair Curbelo: If you accept that climate change is happening, that humans are primarily responsible and you want to work on solutions, you’re in. Gaetz meets those requirements, which he emphasized at a town hall two weeks ago. He said, “I think that history will judge very harshly those who are climate deniers. And I don’t want to be one of them. I want to work together with Republicans and Democrats on bipartisan solutions to climate change.”

For Gaetz and other Republicans who have joined, membership in the caucus is simply the first rung up the ladder of leadership on climate change. Rather than denigrating them for past votes, our focus should be on supporting them to grab the next rung on that ladder.

Steve Valk
Steve Valk is Communications Coordinator for Citizens' Climate Lobby. Steve joined the CCL staff in 2009 after a 30-year career with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter at @valklimate.
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