WASHINGTON (AP) - As Speaker Kevin McCarthy visited a natural gas drilling site in northeast Ohio to promote House Republicans' plan to sharply increase domestic production of energy from fossil fuels last month, the signs of rising global temperatures could not be ignored. Smoke from Canadian wildfires hung in the air.
When the speaker was asked about climate change and forest fires, he was ready with a response: Plant a trillion trees.
The idea — simple yet massively ambitious — revealed recent Republican thinking on how to address climate change. The party is no longer denying that global warming exists, yet is searching for a response to sweltering summers, weather disasters and rising sea levels that doesn't involve abandoning their enthusiastic support for American-produced energy from burning oil, coal and gas.
"We need to manage our forests better so our environment can be stronger," McCarthy said, adding, "Let's replace Russian natural gas with American natural gas and let's not only have a cleaner world, let's have a safer world."
The Biden administration has also boosted exports of liquefied natural gas to Europe after Russia, one of the continent's largest suppliers of energy, invaded Ukraine. The Democratic president has also said that coal, oil and gas will be part of America’s energy supply for years to come.
Scientists overwhelmingly agree that heat-trapping gases released from the combustion of fossil fuels are pushing up global temperatures, upending weather patterns around the globe and endangering animal species. But the solution long touted by Democrats and environmental advocates — government action to force emissions reductions — remains a non-starter with most Republicans.
Enter the idea of planting a trillion trees. A 2019 study suggested that planting trees to suck up heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere could be one of the most effective ways to fight climate change. Major conservation groups, and former President Donald Trump, who downplayed humanity's role in climate change, embraced the idea.
But the tree-planting push has drawn intense pushback from environmental scientists who call it a distraction from cutting emissions from fossil fuels. The authors of the original study have also clarified that planting trees does not eliminate "the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."
Planting one trillion trees would also require a massive amount of space — roughly the size of the continental United States. And more trees could even increase the risk of wildfires by serving as fuel in a warming world.
"There is a lot of value to planting trees, but it is not a panacea," said Mark Ashton, a professor of forest ecology at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
The GOP’s new approach on climate was apparent in 2021. McCarthy and other GOP lawmakers, led by Arkansas Rep. Bruce Westerman, backed a bill to incentivize growing timber forests in the U.S. as part of a worldwide effort to plant 1 trillion trees. Westerman said he expects a similar proposal to advance this year.
For Republicans, the bill checks the right boxes. It is friendly to the timber industry and touts a climate solution — sequestering a massive amount of carbon from manmade emissions — that would also partially alleviate the need to wean the country off fossil fuels.
Now that he has a slim House majority, McCarthy has also pushed for expanded energy production. He made the " Lower Energy Costs Act" the top legislative priority of the new GOP majority, as signified by its bill number — H.R. 1. The proposal, which passed the House on a mostly party-line vote in March, would spur American energy production, especially oil, gas and coal.
Democrats like President Joe Biden rejected the bill as a "thinly veiled license to pollute," but Republicans argued it would reduce carbon emissions because U.S.-produced fossil fuels are usually cleaner than those produced overseas.
"What we’ve been able to demonstrate to the Republican conference is that the strategies that actually work are those that are actually increasing U.S. resources," said Louisiana Rep. Garret Graves, one of McCarthy’s top lieutenants on energy and environmental issues. "It lowers energy prices, it lowers emissions, and it makes us more energy independent."
The energy legislation also would increase production of critical minerals such as lithium that are used in batteries for electric vehicles, computers and cellphones — a priority Biden shares. House Republicans and many Democrats have also advanced proposals to speed permitting for energy projects of all types, including those for "clean energy" such as wind, solar and geothermal power.
"I keep reminding Republicans that H.R. 1 made energy affordable, reliable, and clean," said Utah Rep. John Curtis, who has become a leading Republican voice on environmental issues. "We’re very quick to point out that it made it affordable and reliable. Sometimes we forget to remind people: yes, and clean. That’s an important part."
But not all Republicans agree that there's a need to address climate change. Rep. Scott Perry, who leads the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, in a hearing Thursday alleged that the Biden administration's climate agenda was tackling "a problem that doesn't exist."
Perry went on to declare — without evidence — that global leaders pushing to reduce carbon dioxide emissions are "grifting."
Nearly across the board, House Republicans have tried to undo parts of Biden's climate agenda, deriding them as expensive and burdensome. They have targeted government incentives for clean energy projects and denounced investment strategies that account for environmental impact. Last week, they moved to restrict the Department of Defense from using funds to implement the president's executive orders on climate.
"You are seeing a recognition in the Republican Party that climate change is something they are going to have to at least acknowledge because their constituents are dealing with it on a daily basis and it's having an increasing economic toll," said Lena Moffit, executive director of Evergreen Action, an environmental group that promotes urgent action. "But you cannot say you are committed to putting out the house fire while you pour more gasoline on it."
Still, Curtis said he has seen an eagerness among Republicans to engage on the issue since he started the Conservative Climate Caucus two years ago. The group has grown to 84 Republicans, representing over one-third of the GOP conference.
Curtis said he decided to launch the caucus after he struggled to respond when asked about climate change by constituents in Utah, where he represents a district marked by ski resorts and national parks.
"I would get a lot of these young people who would come to town hall meetings and I would see the disappointment in their eyes when I didn’t have a good answer for them," Curtis said. "I felt like, in many ways, we were losing a generation of Republicans on this issue."