On Earth Day, an environment-minded Republican turns to birds

NEW HOPE, Pa. (Reuters) - In his white dress shirt and black pin-striped pants, U.S. Representative Brian Fitzpatrick stood out from the other birdwatchers gathered near a grove of bud-studded trees in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, on Saturday morning.

U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), with Greg Goldman (L), executive director of Audubon Pennsylvania, tries to spot a red-winged blackbird while on a birdwatching tour hosted by the Audubon Pennsylvania in New Hope, Pennsylvania, U.S., April 22, 2017. REUTERS/Emily Flitter

The National Audubon Society had invited the Republican congressman to the affluent town of New Hope on Earth Day for a glimpse at a few of the hundreds of millions of birds that travel to their breeding grounds during the spring migration.

The society’s aim was to explain to Fitzpatrick the effects that global warming was having on the bright little jewels of spring and the habitats they pass through on their way north.

“So many members of Congress are not with it on climate change, what we thought is, let’s take our local members of Congress birding and get them interested,” said Jim Greenwood, a trustee on National Audubon’s board, himself a former congressman.

For Fitzpatrick, who was elected to represent Pennsylvania’s 8th Congressional District last November, it was a chance to do something visible on Earth Day, far away from the March for Science events planned in cities across the United States.

His bird-watching appearance in the picturesque heart of his eastern Pennsylvania district was a way to counter the perception by some Americans that Republicans are indifferent or even hostile to protecting the environment.

As President Donald Trump moves to undo regulations put in place by his predecessor Barack Obama to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slash the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget, a small group of congressional Republicans have begun to express alarm over global warming.

Seventeen of them have signed a House of Representatives resolution vowing to combat climate change, while more than a dozen have joined a voting bloc dedicated to supporting legislation friendly to the environment.

Fitzpatrick, who was elected after his brother Mike decided against seeking reelection, has done both.

But Earth Day still poses a political problem for Republicans. Members of the party, which controls both houses of Congress, have been branded as the bad guys, according to Alex Bozmoski, director of strategy at RepublicEn, a conservative green advocacy group in Washington.

“Earth Day isn’t our thing -- it’s a good day for people watching and calibrating just how far the Environmental Left has departed from climate priorities,” he said.

“Good things are happening,” he added, citing Earth Day Texas, a Dallas conference hosted by a prominent Republican donor, “but it’s hard to escape two generations of political branding.”

After his brief birding experience behind the Bucks County Audubon Society’s headquarters, Fitzpatrick drew applause when he told a crowd of 50 or so at a town hall-style appearance that he opposed cutting the EPA’s budget.

He listened as a volunteer for the non-partisan Citizens Climate Lobby explained a plan the group promotes for levying a carbon fee on fossil fuel producers and distributing the proceeds to consumers.

In a Reuters interview, Fitzpatrick said he thought developing renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power was the best way to reduce greenhouse emissions.

“We’ve got to get away from fossil fuels -- it’s 2017,” he said.

Editing by Frank McGurty