In Cleveland, pro-environment Republicans warn of political bloodbath over environment

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At quadrennial major party political conventions, there are always going to be fringe groups spouting crazy ideas outside the big tent.

On Wednesday, Day Three of the event, panelists taking part in the Policy Forum on Conservative Thought and Sustainability in a lecture hall at Cleveland State University trumpeted what is, to their colleagues, likely a very radical idea: maybe Republicans, too, should start caring about the environment. AND, they'd like to have a discussion with the left about how to best tackle the looming threat of climate change.

So radical.

Experts in both environmental policy and GOP campaign messaging weighed in on the why and the how of the (seemingly bold, at this point) suggestion that the Republican platform recognize the need to address climate change as well as the impacts of pollution — from a standpoint that embraces efficiency as well as incentives for corporate polluters to stop polluting over punishment so they stop, well, polluting.

It's not the first time Republicans have pushed environmental conservation in recent years. In Florida, some Tea Party activists have joined with environmentalists to promote cheaper, easier access to solar power — an uphill climb in a climate where electricity utilities that don't want to see their profits drop have heavy influence on the regulatory body, the Public Service Commission, that's supposed to govern them.

Their argument?

Leveling the playing field so that consumers can have easier and cheaper access to solar power seems right in line with free-market principles.

It only makes sense, the panelists said.

Mark Pischea, a GOP political strategist, said from an electability standpoint, especially when it comes to younger voters, incorporating conservation into the party platform is a matter of survival for a party that, despite a near-100 percent consensus among scientists that climate change exists, counts "I'm not a scientist" among its most recited lines.

“I want to win elections," he said of his reasons for pushing the envelope on climate change within the GOP. “If we're going to get there we've got to have a narrative on clean energy.”

To Jerry Taylor, president of he Niskanen Center, a Libertarian think tank, ignoring and in some cases ridiculing the environment as Republicans like presidential nominee Donald Trump have — not to mention laughing off concerns about the serious impacts of excessive CO2 in the atmosphere — is going to have brutal implications for Republicans from this election forward.

“This party has been taken by the throat by political extremists on this and many other issues who represent about a third of them," Taylor said. "If the party bows to climate deniers and others with extreme views," he said, “it will face political armageddon in November, and it will continue to.”

Alex Bozmoski is the director of strategy and operations with the energy and enterprise initiative. He distributed paper Teddy Roosevelt masks, one of which he held up to his face as he introduced himself as the popular president, a Republican who was an avid champion of the environmentalist.

He said the masks were to remind Republicans of their conservationist roots, and that they need to debate with Democrats not that weather pollution and climate change are a problem, but how to go about addressing them.

Buy-in from Republicans, he said, can oft be inhibited by extreme pundits.

They can change the dialogue, though, with messaging that focuses on economic benefits to those affected.

Take Cap and Trade, a proposal to reduce carbon emissions by incentivizing companies to curb their output.

“Sean Hannity turned that into 'cap and tax' in one second," Bozmoski. "One second.

Catrina Rorke, energy policy director for R Street Institute, another Libertarian think tank, said conservatives ought to have the political will to present good environmental policies that compete with those Democrats propose.

One example, she said, was the Environmental Protection Agency's enforcement of the Clean Air Act, which she said ought to have evolved at the same rate as our technology and the scientific community's understanding of the intricacies of climate science.

But it hasn't.

“The last time we updated the Clean Air Act was 1990," she said. "Most people didn't know about or care about climate change in 1990.”

With Trump, a known climate denier, as the GOP standard bearer at the national level and Florida Governor Rick Scott barring the mere utterance of "climate change" among officials at the state level, it's unclear whether such a dramatic shift in party rhetoric will happen anytime soon.

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