The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

Our Best Hope

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A few days ago, I came across an article stating that Republicans offered our best hope of dealing with climate change. I now cannot find that article anywhere, which is itself interesting, but its arguments were thought-provoking, both for what they got right and what they got wrong. I am therefore responding to the piece from memory–please, if anyone who reads this recognizes the article, leave a link in the comments.

The author said that much of the Republican resistance to Democrat-championed climate measures is really an objection to the Democrats’ approach and not to the idea of climate sanity itself. Democrats, apparently, want expensive, big-government solutions and anyway they are far too alarmist and depressing in the way they talk about the issue. An optimistic, solution-focused, Republican approach, the author contends, could work much better. The message was similar to the position Republican climate advocate Bob Inglis has taken and indeed he could have been the author of the missing article. Whoever wrote the piece, he went on to list several Republicans who could become climate champions, either because they had actually said that climate change exists or because working on the issue is consistent with their other interests and concerns.

Specifically, the author said that our best hope for the climate was a Republican in the White House in 2016, a timeline that makes the claim more interesting and more bizarre. But we’ll get to that.

First, I agree that many people on the right don’t so much object to climate sanity as to Democrats. For many climate skeptics (not the same as deniers), the science on global warming is irrelevant in the face of the cultural and political bad blood that currently exists between different subsets of the American populace. Either they distrust the messenger and therefore don’t believe the message, or their distaste for proposed big-government solutions leads them to discount the problem in the first place. A leader who embraced both the seriousness of climate change and conservative values might well be exactly the thing we need.

It’s also true that doing something about global warming does fit in perfectly with the other concerns and policies of some Republican leaders–and some acknowledge that fact. The Mother Nature Network (MNN) has called out seven Republicans who actually have strong, impressive records on the issue. Actually, MNN called out five–the seventh was a deliberate joke (Sarah Palin) and the sixth, Tim Pawlenty, has, as the text of the list noted, since backpedaled for political reasons and become a climate denier. But the other five give us a sense of what the Republican Party could do if it got serious on the issue:

  • Arnold Schwarzenegger championed cap-and-trade legislation as Governor of California and committed the state to an ambitious emissions-reduction program
  • Jon Huntsman, as governor of Utah, enrolled the state in the Western Climate Initiative, a regional cap-and-trade program
  • Olympia Snowe earned an impressive 91% score from the League of Conservation Voters as a Senator. She has been a vocal opponent of climate-denial fear-mongering by Exxon-Mobile and she co-sponsored a bill that would have given the entire country a cap-and-trade program to raise money for the transition to clean energy
  • Susan Collins actually earned a 100% score from the League of Conservation Voters for her work in the Senate. She has voted for, or even championed, many important bills and has advocated making the head of the EPA a cabinet-level position
  • Chris Smith actually sponsored his first bill on global warming in the late 1980’s and has not stopped working on the issue.

Unfortunately, none of these people have declared an intention to run for President in this cycle (and of course Mr. Swarzenegger is not eligible). There is buzz about some of those who are running, notably Jeb Bush and Lindsey Graham, but that buzz is questionable. Mr. Graham does accept the reality of climate change and has called for the Republican Party to develop a genuine environmental platform, but he has also made denialist statements and his score with the League of Conservation Voters is just 11%. He’s an environmentalist in much the same way that an 8-pound chihuahua is a large dog (most chihuahuas are smaller). Mr. Bush acknowledges that climate change is real, though he isn’t sure humans are causing it. He has made vague calls to lower emissions, but has offered no plan for how to do so, and he regularly attacks the EPA. He appears to be attempting to avoid alienating environmentalist voters without taking any real political risk by doing anything.

The fact of the matter is that just because a politician should accept and care about climate change is no guarantee that he or she will–witness Florida Governor Rick Scott’s unofficial ban on the use of the word “climate change.”  While Mr. Scott has denied issuing the ban, and could be telling the truth in a technical sense, his administration does seem to discourage discussion of the issue, both internally and publicly. Florida, of course, has every reason in the world to fight climate change, being a low-lying coastal state vulnerable to hurricanes and dependent on tourism, but it is also the recipient of massive political intervention on the part of the Koch brothers.

In a similar way, a candidate’s flirtation with the idea of accepting climate change is no indication whatever that he’s going to commit. Although people do sometimes change, and I’ll applaud any denier who does, most potential Presidential contenders are at a point in their careers where if they were going to come out for climate sanity they would have done it by now. After all, the issue is hardly new. So why did this one author write as if we could expect a climate-sane Republican President this cycle?

Clearly, that party is starting to feel some political pressure on the issue. Candidates and other party leaders are starting to think they need the votes of people who care about climate change. On the face of it, that is excellent news. But we need to distinguish between genuine calls for the party to get with the program and political plays meant largely to attack Democrats without offering any real alternatives. Obviously, a savvy politician could attempt to court diametrically opposed voters by offering the right rhetoric, and it is very important we do not allow any green-washed climate-deniers to succeed. We must have a president who not only believes climate change is real but is also politically courageous in addressing it.

The complaint that Democrats are “too negative” is one indication that our mystery-writer is green-washing. I’ve discussed this principle here before; those who do not want to move on an issue, whether the issue is racism, sexism, gay rights, or climate justice, often attack activists for being too extreme.

If only you black people weren’t so demanding, we’d give you civil rights eventually. If only gay people weren’t so in-your-face about it we’d have no problem with them. If only environmentalists weren’t so negative all the time, we could create some real solutions!

It all comes down to the same neat little rhetorical trick; “I want to help you out, but your stridency forces me to oppose you. Therefor your lack of progress is your own fault.”And we all know what happens if that neat little trick works; nothing. As Dr. King wrote, “this ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.'” That the mystery-article came out specifically in favor of a pro-climate Republican Presidential candidate for 2016 (when there is no such thing) is another good indication that the rest of us were being given the old bait-and-switch.

Rather than calling for public support for a candidate who does not currently exist, the author (who may have been Bob Inglis) should concentrate on calling such a candidate into existence. We need a climate-sane President now, and that means voting Democrat in 2016. It just does. And I’m not even a Democrat (registered Green Party, thank you very much). But I would love to see a Democrat incumbent challenged from the right by a genuinely climate-sane Republican in 2020. We need more than one voice suggesting solutions, here.

I’ve explored the possibility of such a climate-sane Republican before, using the image of Theodore Roosevelt as a model. But other than seeking the reincarnation of Teddy where should we look for such a person? What would tell us that a Republican hopeful was the real thing?

First of all, we’re looking for someone with a track-record on the issue, not a climate-denier who has a change of heart fifteen minutes before entering the race. Most serious presidential candidates have prior political experience, usually either in the Senate or in a Governor’s mansion. In such a case we’re looking for a good voting record, probably a 90% score with the League of Conservation Voters or better, plus a history of fighting for powerful pro-climate programs even when doing so involved real political risk.

Occasionally political outsiders become front-runners on the basis of their experience in other fields, generally business or the military. These days, the Republican businessman is the most likely scenario, but business leaders have even more scope to demonstrate concern for the environment than politicians do, because businesses aren’t democracies. So, we can look at the company’s policies–what is its total carbon footprint? Are its buildings LEED certified? What is its supply chain like? How does it handle the transportation of goods and personnel? What kinds of other companies does it invest in? Where do its facilities get their electricity and what do they do with trash? If it owns a private vehicle fleet, what kind of fuel do those vehicles use? A Republican who has already made a genuinely green business financially successful actually would make an excellent Presidential candidate.

If this theoretical 2020 candidate exists, he or she is probably already out there, working towards climate sanity in whatever capacity he or she can. We’ve probably already heard the name. Come out, come out, wherever you are!

Already, the Republican electorate is rather more interested in climate action than their leaders are. Almost half (44%) believe climate change is real and support limiting CO2 emissions from existing power plants. Over half favor regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant (56%) and rebates for people who buy solar panels or energy-efficient cars (64%). And while a majority (55%) of Republicans are currently against government action on climate, according to some polls, but there is a significant age gap among Republican-leaning voters, such that the younger generation is significantly more climate-friendly. That means that voter-receptiveness to our 2020 candidate should be much greater.

It’s worth noting that the disparity between the Republican electorate and its leadership is not a result of changing demographics or anything else so benign. Climate denial is largely created and maintained through calculated (and HUGE) donations from people in fossil fuel-dependent industries, notably but not exclusively the Koch brothers. Arguably, their appeal to conservative concerns (by deliberately evoking worry about government overreach) counts as a sort of cultural parasitism–the business interests of a single ultra-rich family have nothing to do with the populist bent of the Republican base. Nevertheless, Republican candidates who might wish to stand up for climate must be careful not to offend denialist donors because otherwise they risk not having the funds to run their campaigns.

Republicans who dislike being used in this way might want to vote Democrat this one time. That might be the only path to having a real choice, and a real debate about how to deal with climate, in future elections.

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Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

3 thoughts on “Our Best Hope

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