Way down on the to-do list of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry sits a bill introduced in 2021 called the Trillion Trees Act.

The bill has made little legislative progress, but recently House Speaker Kevin McCarthy gave it a big plug when he was asked what the Republican Party is doing about climate change.

“If we planted a trillion trees, we would take two-thirds of all the emissions created from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution till today,” McCarthy said.

The authors of the 2019 study McCarthy was citing have since retracted key parts of their paper, which argued that a massive tree-planting campaign could reverse the effects of global warming. Environmentalists have charged the bill, introduced by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Bruce Western (R-Ark.), is more a sop to the timber industry than a serious proposal to combat climate change.

But at least you can say it’s something, and that makes its introduction two years ago something of a rarity in the Republican response to climate change. The bipartisan bill is at least an acknowledgment that there is a problem and puts forward a proposal, however inadequate, to do something about it.

There is also the 73-member Conservative Climate Caucus, which includes Georgia Reps. Buddy Carter and Drew Ferguson among its members.

“The climate is changing, and decades of a global industrial era that has brought prosperity to the world has also contributed to that change,” that group says on its website.

Mild as that acknowledgment may seem, it is blasphemy to some on the right. Project 2025, a blueprint for the next Republican president put together by a coalition of conservative groups, envisions a much different approach.

The blueprint calls for what amounts to a denial the climate is changing, or at least a denial that anything should be done about it. It would close the Department of Energy’s renewable energy offices, end energy efficiency standards for appliances, open federal lands for oil and gas drilling, and bar states from adopting the auto pollution standards already in place in California. That’s only a brief highlights list. The 920-page document has been described as a detailed plan affecting every federal agency or program that has anything to do with climate policy.

Environmental politics begins with Theodore Roosevelt, and over the decades Republicans have been among the environment’s staunchest defenders. A veteran lobbyist recently recalled an incident under the Golden Dome years, when a deal was reached with Johnny Isakson, then a state House member and still president of Northside Realty, in which he supported legislation establishing new efficiency standards for toilets in exchange for a delay allowing builders to reduce their inventory.

The bill passed the House with no problems, but when it got to the other chamber, Sen. Mike Egan, another Republican, stopped it because of the delay. This led to a heated discussion the in hallway between the senator and an exasperated lobbyist working for the bill.

“You’re just an environmental extremist,” the lobbyist said to the Buckhead lawmaker half-jokingly.

To say things have changed is an understatement.

In 2018, 59 percent of Republicans surveyed in an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll said the economy should take priority over addressing climate change. When the same question was asked recently, the percentage rose to 72 percent. Overall, 53 percent of Americans surveyed said addressing climate change should be given priority, even at the risk of slowing the economy.

The five-year span between those polls includes most of the hottest days and weeks and months on record. Some Republicans deny climate change for economic reasons, but it can also be a social issue, as the flap over gas stoves illustrates. For some, its just an us-them issue because the other side talks about it so much.

The problem for the GOP is that while climate change denial has taken deeper root in its base, climate change is showing greater signs of accelerating. A trillion trees may not be enough to bridge that contradiction.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern...

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