What the 6th District race can teach vulnerable Republicans on climate change
Before his loss on Tuesday, Congressman Peter Roskam had been showing signs that he may have been coming around on climate change. But voters delivered their Election Night verdict: too little too late.
In late September, Roskam joined our organization (Young Evangelicals for Climate Action) for a hike through the West DuPage Woods, braving mosquito clouds and muggy humidity. The purpose of the hike, co-sponsored by Wheaton College faculty and the organization RepublicEN, was to show Roskam with his own eyes the effects that our changing climate is already having on his district.
Throughout the hike, he was curious and receptive. At one point, he stopped and asked Wheaton faculty, "How does climate change manifest itself here in what we're observing?" and listened attentively as they explained how warmer temperatures are disrupting the life cycles of local species and throwing the delicate forest ecosystem out of balance.
Earlier this year, he had joined the Climate Solutions Caucus, a bipartisan group of representatives who meet regularly to discuss legislative options for addressing the climate crisis.
All of this seemed to signal that he may have been ready to show the kind of conservative climate leadership we desperately need in Congress.
Former Rep. Roskam's past record on climate change, however, was anything but encouraging. In 2006, he famously referred to climate science as "junk science." Last year, he received a 3 percent rating on the League of Conservation Voters annual scorecard.
It is this record and not his recent efforts to distance himself from it, that seems to have been too much to overcome for Roskam. The voters of the Sixth Congressional District seem to have been unimpressed by his last-minute gestures. Instead, this consistently conservative district sided with the Democrat who built his campaign on his clean energy credentials and on calling for strong action to address climate change - what he called "an existential threat."
And Roskam isn't the only Republican member of the Climate Solutions Caucus licking his postelection wounds. Other conservative members, including Republicans Mia Love of Utah and caucus co-founder Carlos Curbelo of Florida, were also ousted by their Democratic challengers. While wave elections often have several contributing factors, one thing should be abundantly clear to other Republicans in swing districts who held on to their seats: empty words and gestures toward climate action are not enough. Voters demand concrete solutions.
Luckily, there are plenty of robust, conservative policy solutions Republicans can get behind that would grow the economy, create jobs, keep government spending in check and preserve a stable climate future for their constituents.
One such solution is a targeted fee on carbon emissions, the revenue of which could either be used to offset other taxes or returned directly to American households.
Consensus has long existed among economists of all political persuasions (including this year's Nobel Laureate in Economics) that a price on carbon is the best way to capture the external costs of burning fossil fuels currently being paid by acidifying oceans, sick kids and a rapidly warming atmosphere. It would use the principles of free enterprise to maximize market efficiency and create a truly level playing field among all energy sources, catalyzing a long-nascent clean energy revolution once and for all.
Former Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Republican whose South Florida district is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise and climate-related hurricane damage, introduced such a proposal this past summer. The MARKET CHOICE Act would have put a price on carbon and would have directed the revenues toward popular, bipartisan infrastructure projects and toward offsetting rising energy costs on America's poorest households. That Curbelo still lost his re-election bid after becoming the first Republican to introduce national climate legislation in a decade shows that even strong conservative climate action can fall victim to rising voter frustration.
If vulnerable Republicans are going to avoid the same backlash, they must recognize this kind of conservative solution for what it is - a win for the economy, a win for the climate and a win for their future re-election hopes - and they must champion it immediately rather than in the waning months of a tight election cycle.
Some questioned us for engaging with former Rep. Roskam. They claimed he was simply using us for political cover in a tight re-election race. That he had no intentions of coming around on climate change and that, had he won re-election, he would have gone back to his previous positions of inaction and apathy.
But the implication of such a view is that no legislator without a blemishless environmental record could ever contribute anything positive to the climate solution conversation. No lawmakers are ever allowed to learn, to listen, to change their mind. This kind of ideological stridence spells disaster for our prospects of ever building a bipartisan movement toward durable climate policy solutions.
As evangelicals, conversion is part of our DNA. The very heart of the Gospel is the ability, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to recognize the error of our ways, to repent and to continue forward in a new direction. No one, no matter their past, is beyond redemption.
We congratulate Congressman-elect Casten on his win, and we urge him to fulfill his promises to act boldly and swiftly on climate change.
We say to other vulnerable Republicans who survived the night: conversion is possible. If ever there was a time to get serious about putting forward real climate solutions, it is now.
Learn from this race, before it is too late.
Chelsey Giesz is a junior at Wheaton College and a 2018-19 Climate Leadership Fellow with Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. Lindsay Mouw and Melody Zhang are co-chairs of the steering committee for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, a national network of young evangelicals working to overcome the climate crisis.