Politics and climate change in America

Many people I’ve talked with recently have raised concerns about the climate negotiations in Paris. The concern is that the Obama Administration may agree to an ambitious target but will Congress endorse it.   Eduardo Porter writes a thoughtful article in the New York Times about the political party that we all worry about – the Republicans. This is important for all of you.

 

Bringing Republicans to the Climate Change Table

The climate has been changing forever. It will continue to change. Some scientists believe that humans have a direct impact on it. But trying to curb carbon emissions to slow the change could destroy the economy, eliminate millions of jobs and cast Americans into poverty.

This is what’s known today as the moderate Republican position on climate change, held by presidential hopefuls like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie.

Then there are Republicans like James Inhofe, the chairman of the Senate committee responsible for the environment, who calls global warming “the greatest hoax,” and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, another presidential contender, who argues that the scientific case for seeking to curb climate change is nothing more than a liberal plot aimed at “massive government control of the economy, the energy sector and every aspect of our lives.”

It wasn’t always so. These views, in fact, stand in sharp contrast to the mainstream position of the Republican Party less than a decade ago.

“We stand warned by serious and credible scientists across the world that time is short and the dangers are great,” John McCain, the Republican candidate for president, said in the spring of 2008. “Instead of idly debating the precise extent of global warming, or the precise timeline of global warming, we need to deal with the central facts of rising temperatures, rising waters and all the endless troubles that global warming will bring.”

What accounts for this remarkable collective turnaround, unique among political parties around the world, even as climate scientists have accumulated greater evidence of how humanity is dangerously altering the planet?

As it turned out, a well-financed push by fossil fuel interests to deny climate science dovetailed smoothly with the burst of anti-government anger that gave rise to the Tea Party from the depths of the Great Recession.

“The Republican Party was much less unified around climate before,” said David Goldston, who runs the government affairs program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It has gotten more and more right-wing and become more and more single-minded on the issue.”

President George W. Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, may have been closely tied to Big Oil and done nothing to reduce the emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases warming the atmosphere. Still, added Mr. Goldston, “it was never ever the position of the Bush administration that climate change was not a real and man-made phenomenon.”

Yet even Senator McCain has now walked away from his previous self, mocking President Obama for “saying that the biggest problem we have is climate change.”

“McCain was a champ,” said Gene Karpinski, head of the League of Conservation Voters, which tracks Congress members’ stance on environmental issues. “He would go around the country and talk about climate change. Even when he was the nominee, he didn’t walk away. But when a member of the Tea Party ran against him in the 2010 primary, he went south and never came back.”

This shift has made it impossible to pass any legislation in Congress to help deal with the problem. That has forced President Obama to adopt a different approach.

After the 2010 defeat in the Senate of the so-called cap-and-trade strategy, which was originally a Republican idea, Mr. Obama has taken to using the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory powers under the Clean Air Act, circumventing Congress entirely.

This solution is more expensive, however, and makes it more difficult to achieve necessary goals. A more efficient strategy will require bipartisan support. “We can’t win on the federal legislative policy unless we regain Republican support,” Mr. Karpinski said.

Is it possible to turn the Republican Party around?

It won’t be easy. Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell of Kentucky are wedded to defending a declining coal industry and advancing the interests of oil companies, most clearly in their support for the Keystone pipeline. Many of the party’s lawmakers and presidential candidates get a lot of money from people like the Koch brothers, who have multimillion-dollar contributions for anybody who will stand against efforts to curb the use of fossil fuels.

But there is more than money to the story. For many Republicans, climate change poses an existential quagmire. “To them it sounds like, ‘Everything we’ve been doing since the Industrial Revolution is going to kill us; the response must be a big government response and, by the way, it has to be international,’ ” said Mr. Goldston.

For the angry supporters of the Tea Party, opposed to government spending in almost any form, the prescription is anathema. “If you decide climate change is real, there must be a role for government to combat it. So the only way out is to deny it exists,” Mr. Karpinski said.

For all these obstacles, though, it may be possible to thread a solution through the tangle of ideology and money.

For one thing, climate change denial has never been particularly strong among street-level Republicans. Recent polls find that even conservative Republicans believe the climate is changing and humans are, to some extent, to blame.

Last month, 11 Republicans in the House introduced a resolution that — tortuously worded though it may have been — acknowledged the need to “address the causes and effects” of a changing climate.

“I can count eight, 10, maybe 12 Republicans in the Senate who are waiting for the jailbreak,” said Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island. “When the moment comes, they could all jump together.”

Straight denial is getting tougher as the scientific consensus strengthens. And China’s efforts to cut emissions have defanged the argument that it is pointless for the United States to act alone.

In this context, the Obama administration’s strategy of using the Clean Air Act to force emissions cuts could help change the politics.

“Some Republican governors will start taking action because the alternative is for the federal government to impose something,” Mr. Goldston said. “This will change the politics. Maybe in the next Congress or the one after that, people will think they need to work something out legislatively.”

The critical thing to understand is that a Republican-compatible strategy to slow the changing climate does exist.

N. Gregory Mankiw of Harvard University, George W. Bush’s former top economic adviser, argues that putting a price on carbon emissions — the preferred prescription of economists across the political spectrum— could fit well within the Republican canon.

“People are afraid this is an excuse to raise taxes and expand government generally,” Professor Mankiw said. “We need to convince them this not a tax increase but a tax shift,” using revenue from a carbon tax to reduce, say, the Social Security payroll tax, while keeping the overall tax burden roughly the same.

This is a message not just for climate deniers on the right but also for environmental activists on the left.

Eli Lehrer, who runs the R Street Institute, a fairly conventional conservative research firm except that it supports a carbon tax to combat climate change, argued that the Republicans’ stance was “a direct reaction to the Democrats’ efforts to use scientific facts to try to dictate public policy.”

Sure, climate change is real, Mr. Lehrer acknowledged. Yet “the science doesn’t — and can’t — demand any particular public policy and certainly doesn’t dictate that we do what the left wants.”

To break the logjam, not to mention overcome the Koch brothers’ money, liberal advocates might have to temper their ambitions. Pushing for a maximalist strategy could be a prescription for ensuring that no environmental agenda is enacted at all.

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