Bipartisanship is essential for dealing with climate, say Senator Markey, former Representative Curbelo

“It’s not just something that would be nice, it’s something we need,” says former Republican congressman Carlos Curbelo. Democratic Senator Edward Markey strongly agrees.
By David L. Chandler

It may seem like a mirage in this highly polarized era in American politics, but a bipartisan pair sharing a Harvard stage made a strong case for reaching across party lines to tackle climate change. It has worked in the past and can work again, they agreed, arguing that such cooperation is essential on this crucial global issue.

Carlos Curbelo, a former GOP representative from Florida, and Edward Markey, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, discussed bipartisan action on climate change in a discussion on the first day of Harvard Climate Action Week, hosted by the Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability at Harvard University alongside eleven Harvard Schools and 22 Harvard centers.

Curbelo, speaking onstage in Sanders Theater, cited his own experience when he arrived in Washington to begin his service in Congress in 2015. “There was no dialogue, there was no conversation, there was no trust when it came to this issue,” he said. “So, we got to work, and started Bipartisan Climate Solutions, the first and only bipartisan organization in the House, dedicated to address climate change.” Formed with pairs of Representatives, one from each party, the group started with 10 members, but quickly grew to 90. Though its membership plummeted in 2018, it has now rebuilt to 70 members, he said.

“The goal here is not just for people to talk, it’s not for people to improve their reputation, it’s to address this critical issue that affects every single person on the planet,” Curbelo said. And the group was able to score some legislative successes.

Both parties have tried to advance climate related legislation on their own, he said, but these policies “for the most part have either failed, or been attacked, or been highly unstable when it comes to environment.” Putting a price on carbon one year and repealing it two years later “would actually do more harm than good,” he said. “So bipartisanship isn’t just something that we need, it’s something that on this issue has already yielded results.”

In 2019, he said, conservatives created a climate caucus, which is, “I believe, the largest Republican caucus.” Then in 2020, they passed the American Energy Act to invest in clean energy. Then, in 2022, the bipartisan infrastructure bill, led by Democrats, was passed. “So, a lot has happened in recent years” to address the climate issue, and it doesn’t have to remain so divided, he said.

“There are a lot of conservative leaning voters in our country, in our communities, who care passionately about the environment,” Curbelo said. “There are a lot of farmers concerned about what climate change means for their future reliability. There are veterans who might be conservatives, but love this country deeply, and there are religious leaders who are conservatives who view the creation as something that should be protected for future generations.”

Not that such cooperation among political leaders comes easily. “For decades, a lot of our politicians have trained us to view the other side as the enemy,” he said. “That’s not going to work on this issue.”

Senator Markey, who along with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez led the Green New Deal movement in Congress, speaking by video from Washington, said that the issue should be inherently bipartisan because “climate change knows no borders.” Voters in a red state like Florida are just as vulnerable to sea level rise as those in a blue state like Massachusetts. “We’re all faced with identical risk, and so it is imperative that we take action,” he said.

“It’s something that should be bipartisan, and we have to work very hard in order to be able to do that,” he said. He pointed out that the Inflation Reduction Act, “the biggest climate bill to ever pass,” was passed without a single Republican vote in the Senate, and yet two thirds of all the projects funded by that bill “are in red states.” As those projects get built and people see the benefits, including many new jobs in their communities, politicians representing those areas are likely to see that their constituents are not likely to favor cancellation of these policies.

Indeed, as they see the advantages, that could provide an impetus for “perhaps breaking down some of those divides, and making it easier for people to cross the aisle now,” he said.

But it is still an uphill battle, he said, because oil, gas and coal companies are expected to spend billions of dollars to try to sway the next election. He pointed out that presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has already met with fossil fuel company executives and promised them he would scrap climate related regulations. In contrast, existing climate legislation could unleash $1 trillion of incentives, which could lead to $3 to $4 trillion in private investment in the U.S. economy.

And yet, he noted, much progress has been made already. Back in 2009, he said, only 20 megawatts of solar panels had been installed in this country, yet today there are 8,000 megawatts being installed just this year. And while there were only 2,000 electric vehicles in the nation in 2009, just this year a million have been sold. And in 2023, for the first time ever, more money was spent globally on solar power than on oil.

Curbelo agreed that the local benefits provided by the IRA could help change the minds of some of his Republican colleagues and cause them to split with Trump on climate, even if he does retake the White House. “Ultimately all politics is local,” he said, echoing former congressman Tip O’Neill’s famous line.

Institutions such as Harvard can play an important role, Markey added. “The science should drive politics, there’s no question about it,” he said. “But I think the science, as it informs young people who are interested in politics, helps to create that coalition… I think young people are showing up again in numbers around these issues. It’s their future that’s in danger.”

He added that “they are going to make the difference again this year.” While fossil fuel companies will be spending billions “to destroy that future,” he said, “if young people stand up, they must organize around this issue. … They are the first generation to be affected by this issue, and the last generation that can do anything about it.”