Former congressman talks environmental policy at Tom Tom event

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“There’s a new energy surrounding this issue in our country,” former U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo told an audience at the Tom Tom Festival’s Renewable Energy Conference on Wednesday.

“Some of that is the result of the Green New Deal. Some of it is a result of the media really starting to cover the story as opposed to the debate over whether or not this is even the case,” he said.

In a segment of the conference titled “Politics of Carbon,” the Republican (who was unseated in the 2018 midterms) engaged in a conversation with Apex CEO and President Mark Goodwin. While some of the conversation focused on a carbon tax bill that Curbelo sponsored, the congressman expressed progress on the topic of climate change within his party.

Curbelo is among a minority of Republicans to view climate change as a critical issue. He created the Climate Solutions Caucus with fellow Floridian and Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch.

“We are light years away from where we were at the end of the last Congress or even the beginning of this year when I left the Congress,” Curbelo said. “Back then, for most Republicans, the default was to kind of ignore this issue. We had built up a number of Republicans that were willing to step out and lead on the issue. Today, the debate in Washington is about the solutions.”

The festival event came as Charlottesville and Albemarle County are rebranding their waste authority and have learned that some types of recyclable materials are still ending up in landfills.

Curbelo noted that while more Republicans are joining Democrats in acknowledging climate change, there isn’t always agreement on how to address it.

As for solutions, Curbelo said future legislation addressing climate change could intersect with other topics. His own carbon tax bill would have invested the revenue into infrastructure. He said infrastructure is a bipartisan topic that presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton agreed on during their campaigns.

“I know that was a major priority for this White House,” Curbelo said. “I believe that if they want to deliver anything close to a trillion-dollar infrastructure program for our country, the only way to fund it is with a tax on carbon.”

He said he hopes Congress can rebuild a “healthy bipartisan consensus,” though he said he isn’t certain that environmental legislation will pass anytime soon.

“I think this Congress is a chance to set something up for 2021 perhaps,” he said.

Curbelo and Goodwin noted that there are also senators from states such as Alaska, Maine and Colorado, where environmental issues are becoming more “front and center,” who could have an impact on legislation going forward.

While he was critical of aspects of the Green New Deal, proposed by Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., he praised the legislation as a contribution to the growing dialogue on environmental policy and climate change.

“It’s not a plan; it’s an idea about how to implement a fairly liberal economic vision in the country. All sorts of guarantees, minimum income, housing and all of that,” Curbelo said. “Climate policy is kind of an accessory in this concept of the Green New Deal. Most people hear the word ‘green’ and they think this is an environmental project, even though it’s not. It’s more of an economic project.”

Some components of the deal call for repairing and upgrading infrastructure nationwide to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible, achieving 100 percent of power using zero-emission energy sources, enhancing power grids and transforming transportation through investment in zero-emission vehicles. Other aspects of the deal focus on ensuring fair wages and benefits for workers.

Critics of the deal have questioned its funding possibility, or broadness in scope.

Curbelo said the Green New Deal creates an opportunity for his party to think constructively, not only critically.

“Of course, Republicans get asked, ‘What do you think of the Green New Deal?’ They attack it, they say it’s socialist or communist. Republicans, like any conservative part throughout the world, need something to oppose, and this certainly checks the box,” he said. “But, the next question from the reporters is, ‘what’s your solution?’ That’s where we have a huge opportunity where Republicans can show what they can support.”

Curbelo talked about Rep. Matt Geatz, R-Fla., whom he referred to as “the president’s paladin,” for introducing a resolution on climate change urging Republicans to acknowledge it and support government investment in solutions.

“We are seeing the emergence of a bipartisan consensus on addressing climate change,” he said.

In an interview, Curbelo said he sees early common ground between parties with investment in new technologies, along with research and development on programs such as carbon capture.

As for Virginia specifically, he said, “It’s a challenge that local leaders are dealing with. I think it’s incumbent on the congressional delegation here to work in a bipartisan manner to try to deliver solutions both on the adaptation side — so that communities like Norfolk can have the resources to prepare for higher sea levels — and then also on the mitigation side. On reducing carbon emissions so that we can hopefully at some point start reversing the effects of anthropogenic climate change.”

*This article was originally published in Charlottesville Tomorrow.

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