Jim Brainard may be an unlikely hero for environmental advocates in the fight against climate change. The six-term Republican mayor leads a Republican suburb in a Republican state: Carmel, Ind., sits just north of Indianapolis in Hamilton County, which President Trump carried by 19 points in 2016.
But that’s precisely why Brainard’s environmentalism—from emphasizing walkability to making city vehicles energy efficient to switching to LED streetlights—has attracted national media attention over the past half-decade. His conservative case for climate action has been the subject of stories in outlets such as NPR, HuffPost and the liberal news site ThinkProgress. This week, he brought that argument to Washington, D.C., for his first-ever congressional testimony.
“I’m often asked by younger Republicans and students why, as a Republican, I’m strongly advocating for conservation and environmental initiatives,” Brainard told the Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday. “I remind them the root of the word ‘conservative’ is ‘conserve.’” He said Congress should fund more Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants, which gave $3.2 billion to cities, communities, states, territories and tribes as part of President Obama’s economic stimulus in 2009.
To hear Brainard tell it, Republicanism and climate advocacy ought to go hand-in-hand. As he says, “What's conservative about recklessly disregarding what the vast majority of the world's scientists are saying?”
But the mayor remains an outlier in his party. Scarcely more than half—52 percent—of GOP respondents in a January Associated Press poll said they believe climate change is real. Trump called the phenomenon a “hoax” until very recently, and he still does not believe the crisis is man-made. Some Republicans in Congress do believe the threat is real, and that it is caused by human activity. But the party has no comprehensive plans to address the issue.
One challenge, the mayor told Congress, is slanted media coverage. Brainard said his party is too often intimidated by right-wing pundits and talk show hosts who “are sometimes out to make money and get listenership and not always focused on finding solutions.”
“Republicans continue, unfortunately, to look for excuses for inaction,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democratic presidential hopeful, told reporters after testifying ahead of Brainard at Tuesday’s hearing. “I think we’ve seen more signs of life from local people in the Republican Party—small minorities, but still in existence. [...] But I want to reemphasize: It’s not enough to say rhetorically that you want to defeat climate change. You gotta have a plan.”
One proposal supported by some progressive Democrats is a Green New Deal that would reorient the American economy around more environmentally friendly policies and jobs. The framework includes a host of liberal ideals including “high-quality healthcare” and guaranteed jobs with “family-sustaining” wages, paid leave, vacation and retirement.
But Brainard cautioned that the Green New Deal doesn't represent a viable way forward. "I haven't read it in detail,” he told Governing on Monday, “but it seems a lot like more political rhetoric than a serious discussion about how the two sides can get together and make some progress.”
The key, in Brainard's view, is building consensus."There's a lot of partisanship,” he said after the hearing ended. “I think [Inslee] wants to go farther and do a lot more faster than the Republicans on the subcommittee, and their concern is that it will hurt the economy. I think we have find that middle ground where we can do things that encourage green jobs—do things that help the economy and reduce carbon at the same time."
Brainard’s climate change advocacy dates back decades. In 2006, he was appointed co-chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Task Force. In 2013, Obama appointed him as one of just four Republicans on a 26-member State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience. Mike Boots, then the acting director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, told E&E News in 2014 that "Mayor Brainard has led the way in Carmel by putting forth an executive order for the city to purchase hybrid and bio-fuel vehicles and installing roundabouts, which conserve electricity and gasoline while reducing air pollution.”
Brainard acknowledges that the community he represents allows him a unique perspective among his Republican colleagues. Carmel is an affluent, highly educated suburb that the mayor compares to Bethesda, Md. He says 70 percent of the adult population has a college degree and 40 percent has a graduate degree. "It's fiscally conservative people,” he said Monday, “but in terms of education and thoughtfulness and analytical abilities, it's up there…. It's probably easier for me to make the case [on climate] because we're fortunate enough to have people that have had the good fortune of higher education. They have been trained to analyze and look at data and maybe not react emotionally.”
Even so, Brainard argues there are many reasons Republicans should get behind climate action. He reminded Congress of the GOP's own environmental history, from Teddy Roosevelt preserving wilderness areas and establishing national parks to George H.W. Bush signing the Global Change Research Act. "I often tell our young Republicans that improving the environment does not have to take the form of regulations that hurt businesses or our economy," he said. "We need to search for answers that help our environment while presenting opportunities to encourage thousands of new green jobs."