Host Bill Loveless speaks with Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo, the U.S. Representative for Florida’s 26th congressional district and a co-founder of the House Climate Solutions Caucus, a bipartisan group with the mission to explore policy options that address the impacts, causes, and challenges of the changing climate.
Bill and Congressman Curbelo discuss: what makes climate change an urgent issue to address; the grassroots effort to enlist; Republicans as well as Democrats in climate actions; the role of market-based innovation to address climate change; and prospects for future debate about a nation-wide carbon tax.
View the transcript
Bill Loveless: Hello and welcome to the Columbia Energy Exchange, a weekly podcast from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University from Washington I’m Bill Loveless. Our guest today is Carlos Curbelo, a Republican Congressman from the southern tip of Florida who aims to become a Republican leader on the topic of climate change. Now, this seems as though it’s an awfully difficult task giving the acrimony over this topic in Washington, especially on Capitol Hill where many Republicans still deny that the phenomenon of climate change is even taking place. But not Congressman Curbelo and he’s taken action on it along with other members of the host, some 70 now who are part of the Climate Solutions Caucus.
He and Congressman Ted Deutch of Florida Democrat formed the Caucus a couple of years ago and they feel as though they’re making some progress. And so we sort down at this office – Congressman Curbelo’s office to talk about this. Now, this podcast is a little shorter than usual, about 20 minutes into our conversation as often happens on Capitol Hill, the bell went off, a vote was taking place on the host floor and Congressman Curbelo had to hustle of to participate in it. But we covered a lot of ground in the time we had touching on the goals and challenges facing this Caucus the progress he feels it’s already made and topics like a carbon tax, should it be part of the discussion on Capitol Hill. I think you would be surprised by what he had to say. Here’s our conversation.
Congressman Curbelo, welcome to the Columbia Energy Exchange.
Carlos Curbelo: Bill, thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to spend some time with you.
Bill Loveless: Well, let’s start just by learning for our listeners, they could learn a little bit more about yourself. I know you’re the son of Cuban exiles in a district in South Florida that represents Miami Dade in the Florida Keys, the Everglades and all, but tell me a bit about yourself and how you got to be here in the congress?
Carlos Curbelo: So I was born in Miami, 1980 and the only child of older parents, so I kind of always grew up around adults. And not probably explains why I got interested in government and politics at an early age. I ended up doing an internship at the Congressman’s office when I was 15, really enjoyed that. The next year, the next summer I paged in the U.S. House of Representatives, a program that regrettably does not exist anymore, because it really made a big impact on my life. And then I kind of stayed active throughout the years and never knew that I would run for office, but when I was 30 and my wife and I had our first daughter, we have two daughters.
The School Board seat that represented my area opened up and I was encouraged to run and I figured out I would give it a try and that was a wonderful experience and then a few years later the opportunity run for a Congress arose and I decided to take it. And now I’m in my fourth year here and we have some good days here, some tough days, but I’m happy to have the opportunity to do this work.
Bill Loveless: Oh these busy days here on Capitol Hill right now and known as a moderate on issues such as women’s health, immigration and of course climate change. I mean is that a fear description?
Carlos Curbelo: I guess so, I mean that’s relative to every person, but I like to think of myself as a consensus builder as someone who understands that our founders designed a system that requires compromise and I’m always looking for those opportunities to reach across the aisle without compromising my principles but in an effort to advance the policy agenda that can make at least most American’s proud.
Bill Loveless: Well, let’s get right to the issue of climate change. It’s not necessarily a topic that’s easy to discuss here on Capitol Hill.
Carlos Curbelo: It should be.
Bill Loveless: But it’s not and why isn’t it?
Carlos Curbelo: Well, I think the reason we’re in the position we’re in today, where this issue is so politicized and polarized goes back to after the 2000 election which obviously divided the country Al Gore to his credit, because I think his attentions were wonderful, decided to adopt the environment and climate change as a personal cause and I think the country was so divided that a lot of Republicans reflexively thought that if AL Gore was for this then they must naturally be against it and that maybe he must be lying in that’s a shame, I don’t think of the things in that way. But I think that’s what happened and then those feelings that dynamic has been reinforced over the years.
So what Ted Deutch and I set out to do, Ted Deutch is a democratic colleague from up the road in state of Florida also South Florida but little further north –
Bill Loveless: And a cofounder of the Caucus.
Carlos Curbelo: Cofounder of the Caucus – we decided we need to reverse this dynamic, if we don’t extract some of the politics get rid of the polarization on this issue then it’s going to be very difficult to make progress because we have half the people saying that this is happening. In this case climate change and sea level rise and everything associated with the changing climate and the other half saying it’s not true, it’s very difficult to agree to anything. So, what we set out to do initially was let’s establish this forum where Republicans and democrats can get together, have candid conversations, bring in expert witnesses. People not just from an environmental organizations, but also from energy companies and have them talk about what they see happening.
And potential solutions and that was the beginning of the Climate Solutions Caucus and I will say that compared to where we were when we started, I’ve heard of much stronger place here in Congress.
Bill Loveless: You have about 70 members?
Carlos Curbelo: That’s right.
Bill Loveless: Last time I checked that’s about 16% of the 435 members in the house, so it’s –
Carlos Curbelo: And it means that we have 35 Republicans on the record recognizing number one that climate changes are real phenomenon, let’s take in place and number two that it requires solutions from the government, in this case specifically the congress. When I arrived here my service started in January of 2015. There were maybe two or three Republicans myself included who were willing to even talk about this. So we’ve seen great growth and now what we need to figure out and we’re in the process of doing that is how do we convert this into action, into legislation that can actually help mitigate what we’re observing.
Bill Loveless: To be clear, what is your view on climate change?
Carlos Curbelo: I believe that the earth’s climate is changing that a lot of that has to do with human activities specifically carbon emissions and that if we’re going to handoff a clean healthy planet to future generations we need to take action to reduce carbon emissions and to make sure human beings stop influencing the climate in a negative way. And for me this is also a local issue. I represent the Florida Keys. Most people in my district live at about sea level and near the sea, so this is not something that we take lightly. And also there is a great legacy of Floridians having an environmental conscience just because the Everglades that beautiful dynamic unique ecosystem. We all kind of live around it.
So, this is important to my constituents and I think that’s why I say for me it’s not just a moral issue, it’s also a local issue.
Bill Loveless: How do you – what sort of discussions you have with your Republican colleagues here, when you talk about your district, because you’re very much at odds with the positions of a number of Republicans and even with the Trump administration, I mean you as I recall said the administration should stay in the Paris Climate Agreement, I think you’ve had reservations about some of the things that dismantlement that securing many regulations at the Environmental Protection Agency. You seem to be very much at odds with the administration for example and with many other Republicans here in congress.
Carlos Curbelo: So we often times live in a very tense environment here on the hill and humor can be a very powerful tool, so what I’ll tell colleagues sometimes is hey if you don’t pay attention to this and if you don’t help me when my districts are under water, I’m going to go run against you and your district. And I guess some – and well, it at least breaks the ice a little bit something we don’t like to do when it comes to climate change. But I have a lot of one-on-one conversations and we have our Republican conference meetings. We’re all Republicans get together and they’re some colleagues who like to speak at all of those meetings.
I’m not one of those. I tend to be more reserved in those meetings, but one time that I did stand up and speak before the entire conference was when we were considering the last National Defense Authorization Act and this was a key moment, seminal moment for our Caucus, because it was the first time that we organized against legislation in this case. And we’re successful. So the NDAA included language and does that requires the Pentagon to issue a report detailing which of its facilities are most exposed to climate change related risks, usually sea level rise, because a lot of our facilities are obviously on the water.
And some colleagues got up and said well I don’t understand why we have this ideologically driven language in the NDAA and I sat up and said this is not ideologically driven. I represent Naval Air Station Key West and NAS Key West is more exposed to sea level rise then most of our facilities and if we care about our military and we want to make sure that they’re ready to fight we need to make sure that they’re protected from risks associated with climate change. And –
Bill Loveless: And you prevailed in that?
Carlos Curbelo: And a lot of people I could tell were nodding their heads and then we organized because he – my colleague from Pennsylvania, Scott Perry went ahead and filed an amendment anyway to try to strike that language from the legislation and we organized and at that time we had 50 members in the Caucus, now we have more, we have 70. But at that time all, but one member of the Caucus who were present voted to defeat that amendment and we kind of looked around and said we’re relevant here. We’re making a difference. I think it was the first time that a Republican amendment on climate was defeated in the house by Republican. So —
Bill Loveless: So that’s a start you feel for the Caucus.
Carlos Curbelo: That’s progress right. Yes. And it’s a small step but if this Caucus ends up being the major factor that I hope it will be in environmental policy we will look back at that moment and say that was the first step we took where we show that we could make a difference influence the process and put our country on a better path.
Bill Loveless: You talk about innovative solutions, market based innovative solutions to address climate change, what do you mean by that?
Carlos Curbelo: Well, we need a comprehensive solution. We can do a lot around the edges and we have, we just had a major victory in the Bipartisan Budget Act which included some tax legislation where we extended and gave favorable tax treatment to renewable technologies that did not enjoy it in the past. It’s always been wind, solar and nuclear which is all though it was not necessarily clean. It is zero carbon energy. But there’s small wind. There is fuel cell technologies, all of those had been left out. And we got those included, so again that’s and important success that’s something to celebrate that’s going to help move the needle. Is it going to solve the challenge no. For that we need a broader solution that really empowers every American to have an influence, a positive influence on accelerating the movement towards a clean energy future. And that’s what we’re trying to figure out as a Caucus.
Can we build consensus around that type of broad solution. I’m not ready to come out yet and endorse any specific ideas, because ideally this would happen organically and members would together think it through and build something by consensus, but we are approaching the time hen Republicans, any conjunction with our democratic colleagues have to do more than simply oppose bad policy, we have to proffer good policy and that’s what we’re trying to build to.
Bill Loveless: What about, I mean some – in your point, some Republicans and some conservative thinkers like George Shultz and Henry Paulson and James Baker has suggested that more than suggested proposed a price on carbon, a carbon tax.
Carlos Curbelo: It’s an idea that certainly should be considered and debated and by the way this White House when we began our tax reform exercise mentioned carbon pricing as a potential element of tax reform, now they quickly took that off the table, because I think some Republicans here on the hill were alarmed by that, but the Trump White House did proffer that as a potential element of tax reform now. Comprehensive tax reform is behind us but the environmental challenges still remain and I certainly think that the idea of recognizing the price of carbon, because there is a price associated with it is a worthwhile discussion.
It is an idea that should be debated and should be considered and it should be on the menu so to speak as we work towards building a market based approach and it would certainly be market base, because people would have a choice if they do want to consume energy that emits carbon. Well, they’ll have that option but probably –
Bill Loveless: But a long way probably four to find an environment where proposal like that would be given budgetary.
Carlos Curbelo: I don’t know it’s hard to tell so much has changed here on the hill and just in the country in terms of partly orthodoxy. The Republican party use to be a fairly pure free trade party and now there’s a Republican President calling for some protection as policy, so who knows it could be very far but it could be very clause and by the way we also as a country and this is starting to creep up as a major issue, especially among conservatives is that we need to take care of our physical situation where – now we’re going to have apparently trillion dollar deficits again. And which by the way I’ll tell you I use this issue of our national debt to make a connection with the environment. A lot of conservatives myself included are very worried about our debt and what we’re passing on to future generations and what I tell my conservative colleagues is here if you’re worried about the national debt you should also be worried about the environmental debt that we’re passing along as well which is just as dangerous. So there is a connection between the two and it may be stronger then we —
Bill Loveless: I know you need to run for vote and let me ask you this, somewhat arguing again from the conservative side it wouldn’t be better for to say have a carbon tax where in fact your – the government is bringing in revenue which it could use to send back to tax payers or do whatever you want rather than to subsidize things like carbon capture and sequestration and nuclear energy as congress just did in the budget package. Wouldn’t that be – might that be a better way to go?
Carlos Curbelo: It would certainly be more efficient. It would be fair across the board. Right now you look at taxes like the gas tax for example, it discriminates against people who drive traditional vehicles, gasoline powered vehicles and it gives a free pass to those driving electric vehicles who maybe plugging into a coal power plant. So obviously there are lot of inequities in the current system and I think that if conservatives gave a hard look to this idea of carbon pricing they would probably like it or appreciate it a lot more than they do and again I’m not endorsing any specific policy solution for now because I would like to give my colleagues and their Caucus the opportunity to really think this through and to build an idea by consensus, but again I think that specifically Republicans, the time is coming where we have to take some risks and put some proposals out there.
Bill Loveless: Well Congressman I know you need to run over the Capitol to vote and I appreciate you have taken some time out for us on the Columbia Energy Exchange this afternoon.
Carlos Curbelo: Any time, thank you for allowing me the opportunity to have this important discussion with you.
Bill Loveless: Look forward to staying in touch. Then it’s always thanks to our listeners too for tuning in and for more insights on today’s energy issues. Visit us online at energy.columbia.edu or follow us on Twitter and Facebook at Columbia U Energy. For the Columbia Energy Exchange I’m Bill Loveless. We’ll be back next week with another conversation.