Commentary: GOP climate resolution deserves wider support

Environmentalists Climate Plan
Demonstrators gather in front of the White House during a rally Friday against President Trump's Energy Independence Executive order. Environmental groups are looking to mobilize a public backlash against the elimination of many restrictions of fossil fuel production.

It has already been a tough year for those who want bipartisan leadership on climate change.

President Trump's recent executive order is intended to unwind much of the Obama administration's work on climate change. Trump wants to cut funding by a third for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has a major role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and he appointed Scott Pruitt, who has openly questioned the reality of climate change, to lead EPA.

But even in the face of hostility for climate action from the Republican leadership in Washington, there are signs of positive change within the party.

Seventeen Republican lawmakers - including Pennsylvania Congressmen Ryan Costello, Brian Fitzpatrick, and Patrick Meehan - just introduced the Republican Climate Resolution. It states that it is "a conservative principle to protect, conserve, and be good stewards of our environment." It also calls for Congress to commit to economically viable solutions to climate change.

Through this resolution, these congressional Republicans show support for commonsense solutions to climate change, stay true to principles, and demonstrate that not everyone in Washington is caught up in the unprecedented political polarization there. As more Republicans sign on, they could yield considerable influence in the House. Note that the 30 or so members of the House Freedom Caucus, made up of some of the most conservative members of Congress, hold considerable sway because when they vote together they effectively have the ability to block legislation from Democrats or Republicans.

This House resolution on climate change is the latest sign that more Republicans are changing their tune on this and other environmental protection issues. Earlier this year, nine Republicans broke with their party on a vote to repeal an Obama-era rule to protect waterways from coal mining runoff. And 11 Republicans voted against a repeal of a rule to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas industry.

It is little wonder that Republicans are increasingly willing to buck special interests on the issue. Lawmakers are seeing more and more climate change-related impacts in their home districts. The economic opportunities provided by climate action are enormous. And their constituents are calling for solutions.

That is certainly the case in Pennsylvania.

The latest update of the independent Pennsylvania Climate Impacts Assessment predicts that continued disruption to the state's climate will mean more destructive storms, more flooding, increases in insect-borne diseases, and worsening air quality that will cause higher allergy risks and more asthma attacks. The cost of doing nothing to stop climate change is going up rapidly.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania's clean energy industry - which includes renewable energy such as solar and wind power, energy efficiency, advanced transportation, and greenhouse gas emission management - employs more than 66,000 workers at more than 5,900 businesses. And that number grows by the year.

For too long, Republicans in Congress have been portrayed as the party of "climate deniers." The hostility shown toward our country's bedrock environmental safeguards by the party's leadership doesn't help fight the image.

But in Pennsylvania and around the country, Republicans can look to their own heritage to see a strong tradition of environmental leadership. President Theodore Roosevelt was one of the most influential conservationists of the 20th century. Gifford Pinchot is considered the father of the U.S. Forestry Service and, as Pennsylvania governor, he expanded the state park system.

It was a Republican state senator from Delaware County, Ted Erickson, who sponsored the Climate Change Act of 2008, which calls for state impact assessments and a climate change action plan. A Republican chief justice of the state Supreme Court, Ronald Castille, wrote the 2013 opinion upholding the Environmental Rights Amendment of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

The House resolution does not make specific policy recommendations for preventing future climate disruptions. And more signers are needed before the caucus will have the votes necessary to command the respect it needs. But this is real progress.

Costello, Fitzpatrick, and Meehan recognize that everyone has much to gain if we act on climate change, regardless of political affiliation. Let's hope they convince more of their GOP colleagues to join them. And those of us who live in other districts represented by Republicans can do our part by asking them to join this resolution.

John C. Dernbach is the commonwealth professor of environmental law and sustainability and the director of the Environmental Law and Sustainability Center at Widener University Commonwealth Law School. jcdernbach@widener.edu