Column: Sweating out a close race, GOP Rep. Mimi Walters ties wildfires to climate change

Suddenly a heroine of the climate change movement? Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Irvine) speaks at a 2017 GOP conference.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The adage “All politics is local” often attributed to the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill appears to be working its magic in the once-solidly Republican Orange County district of Rep. Mimi Walters.

Walters is facing a stiff challenge in November from Democrat Katie Porter, a UC Irvine law professor. So it may be no surprise that she’s trimming her political sails to catch the prevailing winds. Most recently, Walters signed on to an Aug. 22 letter from the congressional climate solutions caucus observing that the western wildfires are being “fueled by climate change” and inviting Gov. Jerry Brown to a meeting to discuss policy options.

The assertion places Walters at odds with President Trump, who has called climate change a “hoax” and blamed the fires on “bad environmental laws,” and with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who has pointed the finger at “environmental terrorist groups” who interfere with government forest management programs.


Climate change is a significant contributing factor to the increased severity and frequency of California wildfires.

— Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Irvine)

It also places Walters at odds with her own record on environmental issues, which is one of the worst in Congress. As my colleague Evan Halper observed this week, the League of Conservation Voters gives her a lifetime score of 4% on legislative votes, and a 3% score for 2017.

That record probably won’t help Walters in November. Election forecasters have moved her district from Republican-leaning to a toss-up. Although GOP voters outnumber Democrats by nearly 8 percentage points, the district went for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. We’ve asked Walters’ Washington office to comment but haven’t heard back.

District voters tend to be well-educated, which suggests that they don’t hold much truck with climate change denialism. They also have close to firsthand experience with wildfires. The Holy fire has been burning for more than two weeks in remote parts of Orange and Riverside counties; although authorities say the fire was triggered by arson, climate change may play a role in its severity, as it has with other blazes during this ferocious fire season in California.

In the past, Walters has spoken out about wildfires, but largely to call for more resources for firefighters. The Aug. 19 letter, on which she affixed her signature along with five other caucus members’ — three other California members of Congress (all Democrats) and two from Florida — appears to be her most direct statement connecting the fires with climate change.

“The caucus members would be very interested in hearing from you on the impacts of climate change that have contributed to the wildfires, drought, and extremely high temperatures that your state has been experiencing,” the members told Brown. In a tweet about the letter, Walters wrote: “Climate change is a significant contributing factor to the increased severity and frequency of California wildfires.”

Although Walters is a member of the bipartisan climate solutions caucus in Congress, she’s something of a latecomer — the caucus was established in 2016 and she didn’t join until last fall. Other than that, Walters’ legislative record on climate change is abysmal. According to the League of Conservation Voters’ scorecard, in 2017, she voted to block an Obama-era rule requiring that the social cost of carbon be factored into reviews of major projects and in favor of delaying an ozone clean-air standard. She has advocated expanding oil drilling offshore and in Alaska, and has voted to cut funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and hamstring its scientific reviews.

Last year, she was a co-sponsor of the “Stopping EPA Overreach Act,” which stated that nothing in five major federal environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and the Endangered Species Act, “authorizes or requires the regulation of climate change or global warming.”

Among her fellow co-sponsors were four other environmentally benighted California GOP members of Congress. All had lifetime ratings from the league as bad or worse than hers — Tom McClintock of Elk Grove (4%), David Valadao of Hanford (4%), Devin Nunes of Tulare (3%), and Doug LaMalfa of Richvale (1%). If Walters is really trying to distinguish herself from the Republican Party’s appalling record on climate change, she has a steep hill to climb.

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