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With infrastructure bill vote, some Republicans acknowledge climate change dangers. Will they act to stop them?

Children played basketball near the John E. Amos coal-fired power plant in Poca, W.Va.Erin Schaff/NYT

WASHINGTON — Moments after voting in support of President Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill on Tuesday, Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina was quick to talk up the billions of dollars it allocates to help shorelines adapt to worsening flooding.

“I think it’s helpful that we’ve got that in there to make states like mine — hurricane-prone states, flood-prone states — to be better prepared for the next storm,” Tillis said. “It’s recognizing the reality.”

Tillis, who flatly denied climate change even existed when he ran for office in 2014, was one of 19 Republicans who backed the sprawling infrastructure bill on Tuesday. In addition to pouring money into aging roads and bridges, the measure allocates billions of dollars for renewable energy infrastructure and climate resilience to help prepare communities for worsening natural disasters, making it the most significant congressional action on climate change to date.


That such a bill gained the support of Republicans like Tillis speaks to the growing recognition of the perils of climate change after years of Republican denialism. Those dangers were underscored by an alarming report released this week by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change describing a “code red for humanity” due to a rapidly warming world.

But as Democrats and outside climate activists push for far more sweeping action, there appears to be scant willingness among Republicans on Capitol Hill to go much further in addressing the root causes of climate change — carbon emissions — even as they acknowledge and show new willingness to pay for its effects.

“I think more and more there are Republicans that are willing to admit climate change is impacting their communities,” said Matthew Davis, the senior director of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters. “They are less willing to take the action needed to reduce the risks.”


While the infrastructure bill next goes to the House of Representatives, Democrats plan to add the more aggressive climate provisions to separate legislation, a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill they hope to pass on a party-line vote in the fall. A clean-electricity standard, which would mandate the use of more green energy sources, and a new Civilian Climate Corps are among those.

“We’re going to do the vast bulk of the climate work in the reconciliation bill,” said Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts.

But outside experts say the bipartisan infrastructure bill deserves recognition for the array of climate provisions it contains, and were heartened by the unusual amount of Republican support for it. It puts billions of dollars toward the Army Corps of Engineers’ and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s programs to mitigate floods and safeguard communities from other kinds of disasters.

It also allocates $21 billion toward pollution remediation, more than $50 billion toward infrastructure for clean drinking water, and more than $70 billion to update the country’s electrical grid, which will foster the transmission of more clean energy.

“This is the most significant piece of climate change legislation that has ever been adopted by a branch of the US Congress,” said Daniel Esty, a professor of Environmental Law and Policy at Yale’s School of the Environment.

“You see in this package a real commitment to making sure we’re ready for more tough hurricanes in the Southeast, more wildfires across the West, more floods, and all of the elements of what we know climate change is likely to bring upon us in the years ahead,” he said. “I think it’s an extraordinary signal of changing politics around climate change, particularly within the Republican Party.”


The bill comes as scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warn of rapid, intensifying consequences of climate change that affect every region of the planet. One of the report’s authors told the Associated Press the rapidly warming planet leaves “nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.”

Former president Donald Trump, who remains his party’s de facto leader, denied the existence of climate change, pulled the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord, and rolled back a slew of environmental regulations. His attempts to derail the bipartisan bill with a flurry of angry public statements were rebuffed by Tillis and the 18 other Republicans who backed it, including Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.

On Tuesday, several Republicans were quick to celebrate their progress. Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana could be heard on the phone on his way to the floor talking up the bill’s provisions to mitigate floods, which he also highlighted on his Senate website. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said in an interview that her constituents were living with the effects of climate change and the provisions in the infrastructure bill “really do go a long way to address many of the climate concerns that we have.”

But even those who backed the bill were unwilling to commit to further action to curb emissions, which the UN panel said is the most important step needed to limit the effects of climate change.


“Depends on how you did it and the overall impact it would have on the economy,” Senator Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri, said in a brief interview.

“If we get rid of every automobile in America, suddenly they all disappeared, CO2 emissions around the world keep going up,” said Senator Mitt Romney of Utah. “So what we do here is far less important than the technologies we develop that are adopted here and around the world.”

Some Republicans appear to be embracing a new strategy on climate: Admit to its impacts after years of denial, but sidestep any questions about their power to stop it at the root.

“We know that climate change is happening,” said Senator Rick Scott of Florida, whose constituents are facing climate-change-related problems such as strengthening hurricanes, sunny-day flooding, and rising sea levels. But he did not support the bill and rebuffed questions about what measures he would support to reverse global warming, talking instead about the federal budget deficit .

“Running these big deficits means long term, we will not have the money to be able to invest,” he said.

Senator John Cornyn of Texas, whose constituents endured a crippling winter storm that paralyzed the state’s power grid earlier this year, and catastrophic flooding during Hurricane Harvey, sought to cast the climate spending in the bipartisan bill as wasteful and expressed doubt about the UN panel’s report.


“I trust the science,” he said, after voting against the bill. “I don’t trust all the scientists.”

Jess Bidgood can be reached at Follow her @jessbidgood.