Crying about hamburgers is dead-end on climate crisis, Republicans warned

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Lies that hamburgers will be banned, conspiracy-laden claims of government tyranny, blame for environmental degradation foisted upon immigrants – the Republican response to Joe Biden’s climate agenda suggests the base instincts of Donald Trump still strongly animate the party.

Amid Biden’s attempts to cut planet-heating emissions, Republicans remain mired in the protection of fossil fuel interests, using aggressive, and sometimes invented, claims in the process.

But the continued embrace of Trumpian rhetoric has concerned some younger Republican lawmakers aware of the increasingly dire warnings from climate scientists and growing voter alarm over global heating.

“Plenty of members of the [Republican] conference are still in perpetual skeptic mode,” Peter Meijer, a 33-year-old Republican House representative, told the Guardian. “When you talk to younger conservatives, the issue of climate is No 1 or 2, but for older generations that’s not the case. It’s important for the future of our country and the party we stop viewing it as a partisan issue.”

Meijer, one of the 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach Trump over the former president’s role in the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, said that the party was in the midst of a “generational shift” on climate but that progress was slow.

“It’s moving a very large ship a matter of degrees. It won’t happen overnight,” said Meijer, who represents a Michigan district. “Climate is one of the areas I was concerned about in terms of the long-term trajectory of the party. We are seeing first steps in messaging and proposals. There’s a recognition that we have not been on the right side of this and we need to get on the right side of this.”

Such progress can be hard to ascertain.

Last month, in the wake of a major White House summit of world leaders where Biden vowed to cut US emissions in half this decade, the most prominent Republican response was a parade of invented claims that the president was going to restrict meat-eating to once a month. “OK, got that? No burgers on the Fourth of July. No steaks on the barbecue,” claimed Larry Kudlow, a former Trump adviser now a host on Fox News, which remains a hotbed of climate science denial but did ultimately acknowledge Biden has no such proposal.

“We’ve always had a problem in respect to climate and now there’s this retreat to reactionary rhetoric that Biden is a socialist or Marxist,” said William Reilly, a Republican who was administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under George HW Bush. “It’s just not true and it doesn’t work because the country knows it’s not true.”

Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, did unveil a narrow climate plan based largely around tree planting and clean energy innovation, although it does not mention phasing out the fossil fuels that are driving the climate crisis, nor set out any sort of emissions reduction target.

Meijer said he supported McCarthy’s plan and that Biden had embraced “fanciful and implausible priorities that are more about messaging to a progressive base than moving the needle on emissions”, but conceded that the untruths spread on meat bans showed “we are still prone to latching on to things without checking their veracity.”

Republicans have also aligned themselves with rightwing groups to claim Biden will forcibly take away private property to meet his goal of protecting 30% of America’s land and waters by 2030, despite the White House pointing out this has never been proposed.

Peter Meijer: 'It's moving a very large ship a matter of degrees. It won't happen overnight.'

On 4 May, a bill put forward by Lauren Boebert, a Republican congresswoman from Colorado, to prevent the federal government acquiring more land was first announced in a newsletter sent by American Stewards of Liberty, a property rights group whose members have likened the Biden conservation plan to a famine caused by Joseph Stalin, as well as to the actions of Adolf Hitler.

A spokesman for Boebert denied that American Stewards of Liberty crafted the bill and said it was “common practice” to consult outside groups before public announcements. The congresswoman herself said that Biden was guilty of a “massive leftist land-grab” driven by “extremist enviros funded by George Soros that believe the federal government should control every aspect of our daily lives, including our land”.

Moves at the state level on climate change have also veered towards the extreme. Republicans are attempting to make Louisiana a “fossil fuel sanctuary state” to block federal rules that affect polluting industries, while their counterparts in Wyoming have set up an extraordinary legal fund to sue other states that refuse to take and burn its coal.

The Arizona attorney general, Mark Brnovich, has even channeled Trumpist nativism by claiming in a lawsuit that immigrants are, in fact, the cause of the climate crisis as they release “pollutants, carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases” into the atmosphere.

“Muscle memory has taken over when we should be playing an entirely different game,” said Joseph Majkut, director of climate policy at the center-right Niskanen Center. “There are plenty of alternative, market-based policies for climate change but instead we just have this grab-bag of predictable, reflexive responses. If you’re crying about hamburgers you don’t really get to influence the policy debate.”

Republican recalcitrance on the climate crisis is increasingly out of step with other conservative-led countries, such as the UK and Germany that have vowed to phase out polluting industries such as coal and eliminate emissions, and even its own voter base, with polling showing that GOP voters are increasingly worried about climate change and support measures such as limits on carbon emissions.

Biden’s allies worry that the ability to combat the climate crisis will be hampered without a sea change in Republican opposition.

“Eventually we will need a Republican party that has original, effective climate change ideas but right now it’s just utterly pathetic, it’s driven by grievance and exploiting resentments,” said Paul Bledsoe, who was an energy and climate adviser to Bill Clinton’s administration.

Bledsoe added: “Biden’s proposals are very popular and clearly Republicans are getting desperate. They just aren’t interested in solving problems or governing, they have no proper identity. That will remain the same as long as Trump dominates the party.”

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