Episode 3: Why Climate is political. Why is climate political?

I have a theory, and you’re welcome to shoot it down. Heck, I’m not entirely convinced of it, but I’ll mention it here. Climate Change became a political baton when the film Inconvenient Truth came out.

That film was significant on many levels, but it failed in ONE HUMONGOUS way. It was just Al Gore. There, I’m done.

OK, I’ll elaborate. The divisive vitriol we are experiencing today could be tightly linked to the workings of former Republican House Leader Newt Gingrich, and it’s grown like an unattended yard full of weeds. When Gore told the world that we were in trouble and a climate crisis was coming, the climate became fodder for the GOP.

What if, and I am serious, what if Gore had stood on that stage with a Republican? What if he was in the film with Republican Senator Trent Loft, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Dick Armey, or Tom Delay? And they agreed that there’s a big problem coming, and we all have to work together on this.

Picture the scene where Gore gets on a lift to show how one chart on carbon emissions is getting out of control. He then looks down on Senator Loft and says, this doesn’t look good for OUR future. Loft responds you’re right, and WE need to do something now to protect the future of OUR country.

The world may likely be a different place today.

I think that was Gore’s one big mistake. He needed bipartisan support to make this an issue EVERYONE would back. Instead, it became the Democrat’s cross to bear, and the Republicans made sure to nail him to it as much as possible.

Here’s some good news, the issue of climate change is slowly becoming a WE problem. In other words, it’s not just an argument one side is making. Republicans have come to realize that the rising temperatures and the seas will be a big problem for all of us. So I reached out to former Republican House Representative Carlos Curbelo. He helped form a bipartisan group in Congress to combat the issue. And he planned on doing what Gore should have done; he made sure to bring someone from the opposing party into the fight against the coming crisis.

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When did you first hear the words climate change, do you remember? 

Carlos Curbelo Well, you know, living in South Florida, obviously, it started creeping up. I don’t know, maybe some 10 years ago in earnest. And I remember I would have conversations with one person, in particular, Roy, who worked with me at my old firm at the beginning of the 2010s. And it was just a casual topic of conversation, not something of great alarm or concern back then. But really, what caught my attention and made me realize that this is something that needed some urgent work was a meeting with scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. I met with them in the spring of 2015, just at the beginning of my first term in Congress, and they went through some data with me. They showed me some projections for South Florida, and that’s when I said, all right, this is serious business here. This is not just something that we should care about. This is something that we need to act on as soon as possible. And that’s really what began my deep engagement on the issue. 

I want to know what happened at that meeting and what they showed you. 

Carlos Curbelo, growing up in Florida, our environmental or collective environmental conscience here is probably elevated or more sophisticated than people in other parts of the country. We live between the ocean and the Everglades. Obviously, for over two decades now, Everglades restoration has been an issue of consensus and an issue that unifies the state and Republicans and Democrats. So I think our baseline here is healthier. I always cared about the environment. It was an important issue to me, but it wasn’t an issue I ran into. It wasn’t something I thought would occupy at least a plurality, not most of my time in Congress. So that meeting was revolutionary for me because they showed me projections concerning sea-level rise, the threats to coastal real estate, the damage our economy could face, and the worst-case scenario in the coming decades. I looked around at my staff and said, OK, this is what we need to get to work. I know this was not on our top three list; that was immigration and foreign policy, and taxes. But we need to make it a top three, and we made it number one for the rest of my time in Congress after that meeting. This was the issue that I worked on the most. 

How did you go about it? How did you convince your peers, Republicans, that this is important?

Carlos Curbelo, I immediately started reaching out to fellow House Republicans. At the time, there were two hundred and forty-seven of us, a significant number, the greatest number of Republicans since the 1920s. And I really only found a handful of mostly younger Republicans who were even willing to entertain a conversation or had any interest. I tell people the big problem with the Republicans was not denialism contained to a tiny group, but that the challenge was apathy, disinterest, and truthfully ignorance. It was a lack of understanding and knowledge about the issue, so once I realized that not only did we have a climate challenge, but we also had a political challenge. That’s when I joined forces with Ted Deutch, a Democrat from the Broward/Palm Beach area, and we said, let’s start a caucus. Let’s bring Republicans and Democrats together to start having conversations to establish a dialog about this issue. And you look at where we are today, where we’ve made so much progress. Nineteen Senate Republicans, including the Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, voted for a bipartisan infrastructure bill that had some significant climate provisions. You look at where we are today, and I think we planted the seeds of that with the bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus, which started off very modestly. At the end of the 114th Congress, this would be 2016, there were 20 members (in the caucus), 10 Republicans, and 10 Democrats. At the end of 2018, we had 90 members, 45 Republicans, and 45 Democrats, who came together and said climate change is an important issue that requires our attention. It requires the government to act. And that coalition defeated anti-climate amendments on the House floor for the first time ever under a modern Republican majority. So that was the beginning of bipartisan climate action in Congress. Before that, there was just nothing, crickets on the Republican side. And that has yielded much progress, growth, and sound policy, most recently, the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Before that, a bill to ban HFCs, which are a lot more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. The Murkowski/Manchin Bill at the end of the Trump presidency included record amounts of funding for research and development to cut emissions. So we’re in a much better place politically than five or six years ago. I’m grateful to Ted Deutch under the many Republicans and Democrats in the House who joined us to launch this significant effort and face probably the most daunting challenge we all face as a country and as a world right now. 

When you started that caucus, you had a rule, and people may not know. But there’s a reason why you have an even number of Democrats and Republicans in the caucus. 

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Carlos Curbelo, So we thought it was a bit gimmicky when we came up with the idea. And by the way, I want to give credit to a group called the Citizens Climate Lobby, a grassroots organization with chapters in every state. And they were the external support group for all of this. But the idea we came up with was to only allow members to join in pairs – the Noah’s Ark rule. You can only head on the Ark if you bring along someone from the other side. 

When did this issue become partisan? When did Democrats take over the topic? 

Carlos Curbelo So that’s an important question because many people wonder how that happened. Of course, the environment was not always a polarizing issue. Richard Nixon signed the EPA into existence in the 1970s, and George Herbert Walker Bush signed the Clean Air Act, which of course, the EPA relies on that legislation to help reduce emissions. So it wasn’t always a partisan issue. There were two significant events. Newt Gingrich introduced a lot of acrimony and the politics of confrontation and personal destruction. And he, in the mid-nineties, did pick a fight with environmental organizations and kind of pushed them away. And many of these organizations, which for years had worked with Republicans and Democrats, started gravitating more towards Democrats. So that was, I think, an important event in the history of environmental politics in our country. The second, and I think this had an even more significant impact, especially since we Floridians remember that the 2000 election was highly contentious at the time. The 2000 election, with all the uncertainty surrounding it and the Supreme Court weighing in, was extremely divisive for the country. George W. Bush ended up winning the presidency. After that, Vice President Gore became the face of American environmentalism. Many Republicans who were still upset about the election and how the vice president handled the controversy surrounding it reflexively understood that if this was Al Gore’s cause, they must surely oppose it. I wonder if he (Al Gore) regrets not having embarked on this environmental journey, which I’m sure he did with the best intentions and made significant contributions. Still, I wonder if he regrets not having done it with a Republican partner. Our country has a long history of teaming up a Republican and a Democrat when fundamental controversial issues must be addressed. The Bowles-Simpson Commission, which attempted to address our country’s fiscal situation, which many would call a crisis, was the idea of a Republican and a Democrat who would avoid any politicization or polarization of the issue. Vice President Gore has dedicated much of his life to the cause of the environment and fighting climate change. But inadvertently, I think he fueled a lot of the polarization we’ve lived through over the last two decades. The process of undoing that polarization has undoubtedly begun, and we see the fruits of that, but we still have a long way to go. 

I wanted to ask you about the Green New Deal. I heard an interview where you said you would never vote for the Green New Deal. And yet you think it’s great that it exists. What do you mean by that?

Carlos Curbelo So, the Green New Deal drove a lot of attention to the issue of climate change, and in Congress, it achieved something of significance. And again, I don’t support it. I would never vote for it. It is essentially a program that uses climate change as an excuse to fundamentally change our economy in a way that I disagree with. However, by introducing the Green New Deal, Democrats, the progressives who did so, would force the media to deal with the issue and to, write about the issue and interview people about the issue. Republicans were asked about the Green New Deal, and they bashed it. But then there was a follow-up question: OK, we understand you don’t support this. What is your plan to handle this issue? What are your solutions for climate change? And that’s one of the reasons why, whereas a few years ago, Republicans had no interest in this issue, didn’t care about it. Today, Republicans in the House and Senate have their own climate agenda, and this is something that we should celebrate, even if people think it’s too modest or not sufficiently bold. The fact that Republicans now have a set of policies that they support because they want to make contributions in this climate change space, whatever the motivations, maybe the motivations are political, maybe for some of them, the motivations are science-based, and they’re genuinely concerned. Whatever the case, we can now have a truly productive consensus-building exercise because both sides are bringing ideas and solutions to the table. Both sides agree that this is a challenge that needs to be confronted. This is what we wanted to do with a bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus, and it is now happening. The Green New Deal gets a little credit for forcing Republicans to pivot to their own solutions. 

The plan that Republicans have put forward. Do you like it? Is it enough? 


Carlos Curbelo, It’s not enough. But a lot of the ideas are good. Republicans are funding, for example, new research and development into new nuclear technology and safer nuclear technologies that can power communities without generating any emissions. Republicans were adamantly against expanding the carbon capture tax credit, which allows natural gas plants to operate without generating emissions. Now they fully embrace it. Republicans have supported massive investments into new technologies, negative emissions technologies, that can literally remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. One of these is called direct air capture, which Republicans support. Republicans are now also supporting extended tax credits for wind and solar. So we’ve come a long way. Is this enough? No, because we have to get to a net-neutral situation within a few decades. And that’s going to be difficult unless we take even bolder action. But are we in a much better place than four or five years ago? No question. Are many Democrats happy that they now have Republican counterparts to work with? Certainly not. I speak to many of them. And this is something we should celebrate, something we should try to continue encouraging. 

Scientists keep telling us we’re running out of time. Do you think that we’re making the moves fast enough? 

Carlos Curbelo No, we’re not. But we have the political system that our Founders left us. We can only tackle this issue and address it in a meaningful way by building bipartisan consensus in Congress, so this is a challenge that requires global solutions. If we go to net zero tomorrow and India, China, and every other country in the world continue polluting, we’d be doomed to the same fate. So it requires a global solution. We still live in a world where if we’re going to get global solutions, it means the United States is leading because it is the most incredible power in the world. We have the privilege and the responsibility to lead when the world faces significant challenges. If the United States is going to lead, that can only happen if we achieve a minimum level of bipartisan consensus. That doesn’t mean we need every Republican-Democrat to agree on every solution. We need a minimum number of Republicans to participate in this process. The number of Republicans engaging in favor of climate policy, some doing it quietly, and some doing it more openly, is growing, which means we’re getting closer to the goal now. Are we going to do it in time? I don’t know. I know this cause is so important that we can’t give up. We have to continue working. And the truth is there’s a deadline, but no one knows precisely where that deadline is. We know that the more we act to reduce emissions, the healthier our planet will be for future generations. These speeches and messages about this being hopeless and helpless, they contribute nothing. Well, many of them may throw their hands up in the air and say, OK, let’s just enjoy the next 12 years, and you know, whatever happens. We don’t want to sow pessimism and hopelessness in our society. We want to explain to people why this matters and help more of them join this cause. 

What’s next for you in this fight? What are your plans over the next few years? 

Carlos Curbelo So, a lot of my work these days still revolves around this issue and explicitly trying to build out that center space for Republicans and Democrats to convene and find solutions to help accelerate this transition to clean energy. So I do work with several organizations. One of them is the Climate Solutions Foundation, which supports the House Climate Caucus and the Senate Climate Caucus, meaning those members of Congress working constructively in a bipartisan way to advance solutions that will be durable. And that’s another critical point. When one party acts unilaterally, those policies tend to be more vulnerable to the shifts of the political winds. Still, those policies tend to be more durable when both parties act together. We need durable policies for climate change. We can’t get an ambitious policy passed in two years and then have it swept away in two or four years. So that’s what I dedicate a lot of my time to, and I feel very blessed. Even though I’m no longer in the system to continue supporting and delivering resources to those who are still in Congress and working to address this issue in a meaningful way

There are a lot of thoughts on the future of the region, but everyone agrees that the area will change dramatically by the end of the century.

I ask everybody this question. I want you to imagine that we’re in the year 2072, and I guess you would be in your 90s. Just picture Miami in that year. And what do you think it looks like? 

Carlos Curbelo, I think it looks like a city that has adapted to a new reality. We have to accept that no matter how bold and ambitious we are in addressing this challenge, there will be changes to our natural environment that will make life a little more challenging. So I think this city is already adapting, making significant investments in coastal infrastructure, and not waiting for the federal government to come in and do it for us. This city would have survived the worst projections of climate change. I envision a city that is not just net zero but contributing to continuing to reduce emissions to clean the atmosphere. I would hope that Miami would become a hub for direct air capture technology where we can clean the air of all the damage we’ve done to it over the last few hundred years. Most importantly, I see my daughters living here with their families. That’s what I work toward every day that I contribute to this cause, and I hope everyone who’s listening will do the same. 


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