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Conservative Climate Caucus leader previews the group's roadmap

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to spend a few minutes now thinking about what a Republican majority in the House could mean for a critical - some say existential - issue. I'm talking about climate change. It's among the issues where the GOP has had its own internal disagreements, not just about the best way to address climate change but also about whether it should be a policy priority at all. And this also comes at a time when the world is dealing with energy uncertainty because of Russia's attack on Ukraine.

One Republican who's thought a lot about this is John Curtis. He's a third-term congressman from Utah, and he is the first chair of the Conservative Climate Caucus. That's a group of Republican lawmakers who say they want to advance climate policies consistent with conservative values. The group's statement of principles asserts that climate change is real and that industrialization has, quote, unquote, "contributed to it." But Congressman Curtis also laments what he says is the demonization of the fossil fuel industry by environmentalists. And he says that he and members of his caucus believe fossil fuels have a role to play in addressing climate change.

JOHN CURTIS: You know, I represent a district that - one part of it is heavily rich in oil and gas and another is coal. And so it's not hard to see, from my perspective, what the demonization of fossil fuels has caused. And it's not pretty. And it's, I think, one of the problems - why we get so divisive in this conversation and why we have so many people kind of push back is because we attack the fossil fuels and not just the fossil fuels but the very people who, for decades, have sacrificed their health and their safety for us.

And too often, we talk about fossil fuels as if they're all in one category. And the reality of it is there's different types of fossil fuels, even different amounts of emissions that come from different types of natural gas. I'm told that U.S. - Russian gas is about 40% dirtier than U.S. natural gas. There's actually a place for fossil fuels in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And in today's world, where we're still very dependent on fossil fuels, why aren't we having a conversation about what type of fossil fuels and where these are coming from?

MARTIN: I want to pick up on something you just said - and you said this recently in a press conference - that we should stop demonizing fossil fuels. Is that tactical in the same way that we have learned that if you want to get people to stop drinking to excess, for example, calling them names is not helpful. You want to address the behavior. You don't want to demonize the people. So is your saying that tactical? Or is there, in fact, a - like, that you just - we need to use different language if we're going to get people to the table?

CURTIS: I would say both. And here again, you know, I visit these communities. I actually have a county I represent. It's called Carbon County. I don't need to tell you what they do - right? - in Carbon County. And I've seen what the demonization does to them, and all it makes them want to do is fight us and push back. We seem extreme to them in our conversation. So that's a piece of it is just the way we talk about it. But the other thing is we're demonizing some of the very people who very likely have the resources and the ability to innovate part of the solutions. So by ruling out, let's say, the fossil fuel companies, we're ruling out people who are putting billions of dollars into things like carbon sequestration and hydrogen and direct air capture and who - the very people who employ some of the brightest engineers and scientists in the world to solving this problem. I want them on our side, right? Like, we need these people to help figure this out.

MARTIN: So what is the GOP plan, and where does it get us in reducing emissions, which, as you've identified, is the goal?

CURTIS: So one of the areas where there's actually becoming far more alignment than we've had in the past is nuclear. For a long time, Republicans were kind of shouting from the housetops, we've got to be using nuclear. And I think more and more Democratic colleagues are joining us in that. We heard a lot of that at COP, by the way - lot of discussion about nuclear, and not just nuclear, but new nuclear, nuclear that's safer, nuclear that doesn't have the same waste problems. And then I think the one area you would hear from us where there is more disagreement is the role of fossil fuels in reducing emissions and the need for fossil fuels moving into the future and a discussion about cleaner fossil fuels rather than no fossil fuels.

MARTIN: I think a lot of Democrats agree with you - or just let's just say people. How about that? We don't even have to - a lot of people agree with you, particularly on the matter of energy independence of - as a national security imperative, something that has been made abundantly clear based on recent events. But then there are others who say that you - forgive me, your side of the aisle demonizes renewable energy. And what's wrong with renewable energy? I mean, nobody owns the sun. Nobody owns the wind. Is there an objection to incentivizing Americans to embrace renewables?

CURTIS: So I can't speak for all of us, but I don't know anybody on my side demonizing wind and solar. I actually think we're quite supportive of it. I think where we draw the line is this sometimes unrealistic approach that that's all we need. And so I think you'll hear Republicans say, you bet, let's use wind and solar. But it can't - you know, I spoke with Singapore this week. They told me if they put a solar panel on every house, on every business, on every square empty piece of land, that would produce about 10% of the energy they need. So we can't just say that's the only answer. And quite frankly, right now we still haven't figured out storage, and that has to be an area that's got to have vast improvements before we can totally rely on it.

MARTIN: Major focus of the U.N. climate summit is about what wealthier countries owe developing nations because, you know, poor countries argue - I think, with some credibility - that they are getting hit with devastating impacts, but they have contributed far less to causing climate change. And that was a big topic at COP. I'm certain you know that because you were there. What - do you - what is your view about compensating developing countries for these damages? How do you think about it?

CURTIS: Michel, you might be interested to know that I've heard that from almost every interview, yet I didn't hear it from a single country. Not one country brought that up. What I did hear from South Africa - and by the way, these were not official representatives but people from South Africa, energy experts from South Africa - is please let us use our resources. Can you imagine how hypocritical it is for us to say, you can't pull your natural gas out of the ground? Oh, but by the way, Germany can fire up coal-fired plants. And so what they're saying is, we'll do this. And my response is, if we want to help these countries, let's help them do it cleanly. And they were very clear as like, we don't want your charity. We want to be able to use our resources. And so let's help them use those resources in a clean way. I think that's the win-win in this, and just writing the checks never really solved anything.

MARTIN: OK. Well, before we let you go, how did this issue come to you? I mean, what's your north star? I mean, is - just tell me how this issue became a priority for you, such that you want to try to wrangle 75 people with very different views? - because your caucus, as you've pointed out at the beginning of our conversation, is quite large. I mean, there are very - obviously, there's going to be some change after the elections, but you've got a very wide range of views on - in that group. And I assume that that will continue in the next Congress. I wanted to know what's your north star here?

CURTIS: My north star is, look, if any of you have been to my district, it's in Utah. I represent Moab, Arches National Park, Bears Ears, the ski resorts. It's got to be some of the most fantastic scenery in the United States. And I grew up walking and hiking in this area. And I have an innate - and I actually believe every human being has an innate desire to leave this better than we found it. And I was frustrated by the branding that Republicans had of not caring and denying the science. And I wanted to show that Republicans do care.

We may have different ideas and different solutions. That's OK, right? It's important that those solutions be heard and they be brought to the table and debated. Here's the deal. Both parties have extremists, and they're not healthy to the conversation. On our side, they're the deniers. On the other side, they're the take your head off to fix the headache. And like any issue, there's a thoughtful middle, and we're going to make progress. But if the extremists on either side are in control, we're not in a good place.

MARTIN: That is Congressman John Curtis of Utah. He's a Republican, and he's the chair of the Conservative Climate Caucus. Congressman Curtis, thank you so much for talking to us. I do hope we'll talk again.

CURTIS: Thank you. I hope so as well. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.