Climate, Environment Raised in GOP Town Halls; Will It Matter?

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By Rachel Leven

Republican members of Congress have been booed within and outside of district town hall meetings for questioning whether the climate is changing, for supporting proposed cuts to the EPA and for other related issues over their two-week congressional recess.

It isn’t a coincidence. Groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and MoveOn.org are coordinating efforts to force lawmakers to move the U.S. toward a clean energy economy, hoping their constituents’ words will affect members’ actions. At least two lawmakers indicated to Bloomberg BNA that their constituents’ statements generally do impact their votes in the House, although whether many of them consider opinions expressed at these town halls as representative of their districts’ beliefs is unclear.

Polls have shown that while many voters believe the climate is changing and that protecting the environment is important, those issues rank well behind other priorities such as the economy, health care, national security and immigration. However, an April 4 Quinnipiac University poll found 61 percent of voters disapprove of how President Donald Trump (R) is handling environmental issues.

Still, the efforts are indicative of how serious a threat the environmental and broader progressive community see from this version of Washington. Congress is expected to reconvene the week of April 24.

These instances are not exclusively occurring at House Republican town halls. For example, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) received environmental questions at his own town hall held in Parkersburg, W.Va. on April 12. Nor are these outreach efforts entirely adversarial. Some members may hear support in town halls for their actions that progressive groups agree with, Adrianna Quintero, NRDC’s director of partner engagement, told Bloomberg BNA.

‘You Are Not Einstein’

So far, several Republican members have heard environmental concerns at town halls in their districts. Among them was Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), a chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology’s Subcommittee on the Environment and a member of the House Freedom Caucus.

At his April 11 town hall in Mesa, Ariz., one constituent asked whether Biggs believes in climate change and, if not, why his beliefs are correct over those of scientists. The question was met with cheers from around the room.

Climate scientists have “manipulated data,” Biggs said, with people in the room booing as he continued to speak. “Oddly enough, the attitude you take is the same attitude [Albert] Einstein faced over physics,” he added. One person in the crowd yelled back, “You are not Einstein.”

Biggs isn’t the only one. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) heard boos April 12 in Byron Center, Mich., MLive reported, although for him it came when he said the amount of data that would help determine what to do about the changing climate is quite small. When asked what his voters could do to change his mind, he replied: “It’s easy to say, well, all the people around me have the same views, but I deal with a large district. People have different views on many things and I have to take that into consideration.”

Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), was also reportedly booed on April 12 in Aurora, Colo., when he said “environmental policy ought to be integrated with trade policy,” Denver’s Fox 31 reported, and environmentalists booed at a joint town hall held by Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.) and Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) in Reno, Nev. April 17 over their comments on whether to preserve certain national monuments.

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), chairman of the House Natural Resources’ Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans, and Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, were questioned on their support for renewable energy or on climate change, reportsshow.

Some protests are occurring outside of town halls when members choose not to hold those meetings over this recess period. For example, Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), whose majority of her district also voted for Clinton for president, isn’t holding a town hall. So, individuals protested outside of her Sterling, Va. office on April 11, specifically expressing disappointment in her early environmental vote to repeal a major coal mining regulation and her general support for offshore drilling.

Will Protests Matter?

But whether such protests matter is an open question.

Groups who are urging individuals through phone calls, emails and other outreach to come out to town halls this year hope so, given the slew of environmental rollbacks and potential funding cuts to the EPA, among other recent administration actions. While it won’t be clear whether this translates into votes more in line with these progressive groups until members return to Washington, Quintero said the fact that voters are showing up and speaking up shows the effort has already been “pretty successful.”

The goal is “to remind those in government that they work for us and not for themselves or for industries that may or may not even be in their districts,” Quintero, who is also the founder and director of the Latino environmental advocacy group Voces Verdes, said of the outreach effort with other progressive groups in and out of the environmental arena. “The energy that we see in the town halls from the public is amazing. It’s democracy in action.”

Coffman (R-Colo.), one of 23 House Republicans who won his election even as a majority of his district voted for Hillary Clinton for president, didn’t say how these statements specifically would affect his policy choices, but said he recently joined the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, a bipartisan group of lawmakers that aims to better understand and address the impacts of climate change.

“Certainly, hearing from constituents and their concerns allows me to be a better representative and engage in finding solutions to issues raised,” Coffman said in an emailed statement.

Still, other members say their votes are already widely representative of their districts, even as they are willing to listen to the other side. Jarred Rego, communications director for Lamborn, summed up this viewpoint in an emailed statement to Bloomberg BNA.

“Congressman Lamborn has a strong conservative voting record that he has established during his time in Congress,” Rego said, in response to a question of whether the congressman would change any stances on climate or environment issues raised during his town hall. “The majority of the voters in the Fifth Congressional District appreciate this consistent approach and representation.”

The offices of the other lawmakers and FreedomWorks, a grassroots conservative group, didn’t respond to messages from Bloomberg BNA.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rachel Leven in Washington at rleven@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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