We Talked to Congressional Republicans at UN Climate Talks About Their ‘Rational Approach’

We Talked to Congressional Republicans at UN Climate Talks About Their ‘Rational Approach’
Photo: Ethan Miller, Getty Images

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND — The Republican climate delegation has landed at the Glasgow climate talks. As 100,000 protesters took to the streets to demand radical, transformational change, Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas, Rep. Garret Graves of Louisiana, and Rep. John Curtis of Utah walked into the convention centre where negotiators are hammering out a climate deal.

Their pitch is decidedly not transformational, though it certainly is radical. Instead of decarbonizing by building out renewable capacity as quickly as possible, the group is pitching exporting more American natural gas and investing in costly nuclear power and unproven carbon capture technology as what’s needed to address the climate crisis.

Earther happened to run into the entourage as they were wandering the country pavilions where nations host talks from experts and tout their climate bona fides. Crenshaw paused at one point to snap a photo of an art installation featuring polar bears wearing life vests at the pavilion for Tuvalu, an island nation facing the prospect of extinction due to sea level rise, before taking a meeting in the Danish pavilion. We were able to catch up with him after.

“As a Republican delegation here, I would say generally [we’re here] to bring more rational perspective to all of this,” he said. When asked about the solutions the group was here to promote, he noted that it included nuclear energy, including advanced modular reactors, carbon capture, and Texas natural gas. “This is more of a rational discussion on promoting nuclear energy, promoting carbon capture, promoting natural gas exports from the U.S., which would displace coal around the world and have a heck of a lot more impact on reducing emissions than, frankly, any of the goals that are being talked about here. … The reason Republicans are in favour of those type of solutions because they actually work.”

The rationality of these positions, though, is on somewhat shaky footing, including how well they actually work. Let’s start with nuclear power, which is a vital source of carbon-free energy that’s in serious danger. Many plants in the U.S. are nearing or past retirement age. In New York, Indian Point was shuttered this year, while in Illinois, the state government recently threw a lifeline to the ageing nuclear fleet to keep it online, underscoring the two wildly divergent options available.

New nuclear plants, however, have proven incredibly challenging to build out. There’s currently only one under construction in the U.S., the Vogtle Nuclear Plant, which is years behind schedule and is now double its initial cost. Investments in nuclear are certainly one avenue to decarbonization, but the challenges at Vogtle show that it’s not a slam dunk nor is it likely enough nuclear capacity could come online in the timeline needed.

Carbon capture and storage, or CCS, has so far been a pipedream that has failed. That includes the shuttering of the Petra Nova facility in Crenshaw’s Texas earlier this year because it was too costly and ineffective. (The carbon it captured was also used to extract more oil, which isn’t exactly a win for the climate.) Crenshaw said that was a “pilot project,” which in itself says a lot about the state of CCS. That’s not to say it’s not a worthy technology to invest in, and in fact, it would buy the world time to reduce emissions. But it’s not a silver bullet or a major plank in the race to decarbonize the energy system.

Then there’s the natural gas thing. Gas is better than coal, yes. But it still releases methane. Even relatively “cleaner” Texas gas poses a climate challenge, with fugitive methane emissions that cause the planet to warm 80 times faster than carbon dioxide.

A major report from the International Energy Agency, which was founded in the wake of the 1970s oil crisis and isn’t exactly a granola-and-hemp-loving group, released earlier this year found that new oil and gas exploration must stop next year. Crenshaw said he hadn’t seen the report, but “that’s not feasible at all.”

Meanwhile, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on reaching the 1.5-degree-Celsius goal found oil and gas use must decline 37% and 25% respectively by 2030. Crenshaw also said the Texas blackouts showed the need for more natural gas and the risk of relying on renewables. (Peer-reviewed science has found the blackouts showed the risk of not weatherizing natural gas infrastructure.)

“There was a strawman argument made like, ‘oh, the Republicans are saying the wind turbines froze,’” he said. “Maybe some did say that. I didn’t say that. There was a meme that said that on the internet.”

Indeed, there was a debunked meme. While Crenshaw did not share said meme, he did tweet a thread about why Texas’ grid failed, starting with “Frozen Wind Turbines” and that he would be digging into what happened “so we’re not relying on frozen wind turbines to heat our homes during a blizzard.” Again, this is simply not what experts who study energy policy have found was the main cause of suffering.

The Republican vision for rationality at the UN talks, then, is essentially continuing to rely on fossil fuels with some CCS and nuclear bells and whistles that, while very important investments, are not enough to keep the tides from swallowing places like Tuvalu.