GOP mayor fights warming in Ind., takes spotlight in D.C.

Mark K. Matthews

April 2, 2019

Jim Brainard is a creature of Washington, D.C., even though the six-term mayor of Carmel, Ind., lives more than 500 miles from Capitol Hill and has no plans this year to run for Congress.

His connection to the city is more circumstantial.

Brainard is the rare Republican with a resume that includes both political success in the Midwest and a firm commitment to fight climate change.

As such, Brainard was one of four Republicans tapped in 2013 by then-President Obama to serve on a White House task force that studied climate change. He’s frequently quoted in the media — thanks in part to robust press outreach — and today he’ll share his story as a witness before a House subcommittee studying global warming.

“There’s no Democratic or Republican way to fill potholes. The same applies to climate,” said Brainard, who visits Washington about once every six weeks (Climatewire, July 28, 2014).

The spotlight on Brainard is a function of two separate realities. The first is that climate-conscious Republicans still can be hard to find. The second is that Congress needs witnesses from across the ideological spectrum to speak at its hearings — and Brainard is a ready and willing participant.

Neither explanation, however, helps answer a more important question: Why aren’t there more Jim Brainards?

Brainard shared a few ideas over morning coffee at the Mayflower Hotel, an ornate historic hotel in downtown Washington, a day before his scheduled testimony.

He said that other Republican mayors share his concern — they’re just not the folks who often get national media attention.

“They’re out doing things,” he said. “They’re not on talk radio shows.”

But he argued that mayors deserve more attention on climate change.

“Mayors have a great ability to impact it — probably as much as the federal government, if not more,” he said.

And it’s not just former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, either, who is well-known for his climate activism. Brainard said the mayors of smaller cities have a lot more power than they realize to address the problem.

He said Carmel has done its part by upgrading its streetlights and installing roadway roundabouts, which are better than stoplights for car emissions. The city even tried out a hydrogen-powered snowplow this past winter.

“It was a test. We wanted to show that it worked,” he said. “We wanted to show the public that it worked.”

More broadly, he said he was hopeful the country soon could be nearing a tipping point on global warming. “It’s going to become obvious to almost everyone that we need to make changes,” he said.

Already there are small signs that some Republican attitudes may be shifting.

Last month, two clean energy conservative groups arranged for local Republicans to talk to GOP members of Congress and their staff about clean energy options such as wind or solar. Organizers said the event was the first of its kind on that scale.

“Republican support for a growing clean energy sector is strong from coast to coast because of the good-paying technical jobs and consumer choices it provides while also protecting clean air and water,” said Heather Reams, executive director of Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, one of the groups behind the fly-in.

Jim Tolbert, who does conservative outreach at Citizens’ Climate Lobby, another activist group, said Republican officials are hearing more from constituents whose lives and businesses are being affected by climate change. That, in turn, has spurred more internal debate.

“We are seeing more Republicans in elected positions being willing to have conversations with other Republicans,” he said.

As an example of the new attention, he pointed to Rotary International. The long-running service organization is hardly a bastion for radicalism, but the latest edition of the club’s monthly magazine has climate change on its cover. “They are a trusted messenger,” Tolbert said.

Still, climate change remains a touchy subject for some. Mark Fleming, president and CEO of Conservatives for Clean Energy, said his group doesn’t incorporate the threat of global warming into its messaging.

“We are not climate change deniers by any stretch of the imagination, but we choose to emphasize all the benefits of clean energy,” he said.

The Republican divide on climate change has been on display since Democrats took charge of the House in January. More members are speaking out on the issue, such as GOP Reps. Greg Walden of Oregon, Fred Upton of Michigan and John Shimkus of Illinois.

The three recently co-wrote an op-ed that called for more action. “America’s approach for tackling climate change should be built upon the principles of innovation, conservation, and adaptation,” they wrote.

Others are less enthused. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) has made a cottage industry out of attacking the Green New Deal, a liberal plan to fight climate change with a government-led jobs program (Greenwire, March 14).

Brainard, for his part, said the federal government should do more to help local governments fight climate change.

As an example, he pointed to one initiative — the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program — that can provide federal funds to support local efforts.

“Local people in our local communities know what’s most important,” Brainard said. “Washington doesn’t always know better.”

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