The Climate in Emergency

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


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VOTE!

This article is a re-worked version of two articles I posted in the run-up to our last mid-term election. Voting is of critical importance for climate action, but I’m sure I’m not the only person who has ever been unsure how to get basic information about the electoral process.

How do I learn about candidates?

Do I need to bring my registration card or ID to vote?

What exactly does the judge of the Orphan’s Court (or any number of other, less-publicized positions) do?

I’m not talking about people totally unfamiliar with politics, either (though if that’s been you until now, welcome aboard!). I’ve always been fairly politically aware and involved, but there was still information I didn’t know how to get and tended, therefore, to discount–and it’s embarrassing to admit, but for way too long I regard local elections as unimportant.

There are no unimportant elected offices. Not only might a local official be in charge of creating and implementing a lot of environmental policy (District Attorneys come to mind), but local offices can be springboards to national office. For example, I once met a candidate for a county-level position I hadn’t heard of before. That was Chris Coons, who now regularly appears on the national news because he’s a powerful member of the US Senate..

So, let’s do this. I’ll go through the research process for my own district, with a special focus on climate issues, and then we’ll both maybe find the whole civic-duty thing less intimidating.

The Voting Process

I’m in Maryland, and Maryland has a handy-dandy website where I can type in my name and zip code and get my registration record, polling place, whether I’ll need to show ID (I will not), and even a sample ballot. If I weren’t registered already, I could get registered through this site. Every other state I’ve tried has some version of this site, though they are not all equally useful and not all feature exactly the same information, but generally if you do an Internet search on “how to vote in [my state]” you’ll get your choice of websites at your service. You’re looking for the following information:

  • What day is the election?
  • Where is your polling place?
  • Can you vote early? How?
  • Are you properly registered?
  • Do you need to bring identification or your registration card to vote?
  • Who is running for what office in your district?
  • If there is a problem with your registration when you go to vote, what should you do?

If getting to the polling place is difficult, look into absentee voting or see if a volunteer group can help with transportation.

The general election is Tuesday, November 6th, by the way. That is 21 days from today.

The Races

I looked up a sample ballot for my voting district using the website mentioned above. It lists the following races:

  • Governor/Lt. Governor (they run together, on one ticket, in Maryland)
  • US Senator
  • Congressional Representative
  • both houses of the State Legislature
  • Comptroller
  • State Attorney General
  • County Commissioner
  • Sheriff
  • Judge, Court of County Appeals At Large (two of them, each up for a vote of confidence, rather than running against competitors)
  • State’s Attorney
  • Judge of the Circuit Court
  • Clerk of the Circuit Court
  • Register of Wills
  • Judge of the Orphan’s Court

The Candidates

The sample ballot also lists all the candidates running.

The simplest way to check on the climate credentials of anyone who has ever been in Congress is to check out their score with the League of Conservation Voters. Each score reflects the number of pro-environmental votes (as defined by a large panel of environmental experts), plus the number of co-sponsored bills that didn’t reach the floor. The League divides “environmental votes” into several categories–“climate” is one of those categories, but so are “clean energy,” “dirty energy,” “drilling,” “air pollution,” and “transportation,” all of which are obviously part of the climate issue as well. If there is any way to subdivide an individual’s score by category, I have not yet found it, but it is clear that climate-related issues contribute significantly to the overall score and that an individual’s climate score cannot be larger than his or her overall environmental score.

The LCV is a great source of information both on incumbents running for Congressional seats and for candidates for other positions who used to be in Congress. For example, Hilary Clinton’s score (quite good, by the way) was very useful information when she ran for President.

But what about people who haven’t been in Congress?

Then we have to fall back on media coverage of their prior elected positions (if any), in some cases their non-political professional or volunteer work, and information supplied by their campaigns. It sounds difficult, but really all it takes is a couple of minutes poking around online. It’s true that campaign promises are easily and often broken, but someone who doesn’t bother to make environmental campaign promises is unlikely to prioritize those issues when in office.

It’s important to understand environmental issues, especially local environmental issues, so you know what positions actually are pro-environment (and which might have genuine environmentalists on both sides) and can sort out real positions from green-washing or political spin.

Voter Suppression and Misinformation

Two years ago, we saw the use of misinformation and social media memes to sway the electorate –that’s a little outside the focus of this blog, but please rely on substantive, verifiable information to make your decisions, not emotionally loaded memes and rumors.

Also outside of our scope here is voter suppression, but it does seem to be happening, especially to people of color. Please double and triple check your access to your polling place, your registration, and anything else that could possibly go wrong. Know your rights. If anyone does try to interfere with your vote, speak up. Do not let suppression go unchallenged or unnoticed.

 

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What to Do Next

As readers know, Donald Trump is an outspoken climate denier. He’s also going to be the Next President of the United States, which is a very serious problem because President Obama’s climate legacy is almost entirely the result of executive action, and what one President can do with a pen and a telephone, another can undo the same way.

Or, almost.

Legally, the US can’t pull out of Paris for four years (and I really hope we’ll have a different President by then!), but Mr. Trump can simply decline to act on the terms of the agreement.

But we can hope that if enough pressure is brought to bear, Mr. Trump will realize that not honoring the agreement is stupid. In bringing that pressure, we may have help from abroad. Already, leaders attending climate talks this week are working to strengthen the world climate response, to hopefully compensate for the possibility that the US might pull out.

International readers! If you’re a citizen of somewhere other than the USA, please ask your leaders to pledge to hold the US accountable on climate! We need you!

From within the US, there also things we can do. Here is a list of concrete actions to take, about Paris and about other issues. Please note that where I say to contact your elected officials, that means to call, instead of or in addition to emailing. Emailing is super-easy and they know it. Here is an article on how to get the most impact for talking to your Congresspeople. You can look up your Members’ names and the correct phone numbers online easily, if you don’t happen to know them.

  1. Ask world leaders to keep the pressure on the US about climate–here is a petition.
  2. Contact your Congresspeople and tell them you support continued climate action (do this AFTER the new Congress is seated, too).
  3. Call your Senators (and other people’s Senators) and ask them to block Trump’s pick for EPA head, the climate-denier, Myron Ebell. Block any and all climate deniers he might try to put in that position.
  4. Donate money to major environmental groups: the Environmental Defense Fund is currently matching donations two-to-one AND is focusing particularly on protecting President Obama’s climate legacy against Mr. Trump.  Other highly relevant organizations include the Sierra Club Foundation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice, the League of Conservation Voters, and the Union of Concerned Scientists. Note that some of the above are also involved in the various anti-pipeline fights, which not only are environmental issues but also are human rights struggles through the potential impacts of those projects on various Native American nations.
  5. Donate money to the ACLU–Ok, this is not directly about climate change, it’s just plain important. These are the people who can fight many of the abuses that Mr. Trump has more or less promised.
  6. Support local, state, and non-profit environmental programs and campaigns. I hope to be able to provide specific recommendations here, but remember that some states and even regions have their own anti-climate change policies that need support–especially if the Federal government turns hostile, and it seems determined to do.

When you donate, consider donating as a group–get people from your workplace, your community group, or anything else you belong to, to all donate to the same place together. This not only encourages other group members to donate, but also lets the recipient know that your group exists and that your agenda is important (if you’re a big enough group). Your group does not need its own bank account for this to work–just ask each member to donate in the name of your group.

A variation on this idea is to donate in the name of a public figure, so that he or she receives a thank-you notice from the group. This way, not only do you raise money for a good cause, you also demonstrate your support of the cause to the public person. This is not necessarily a friendly thing to do. It’s closely related to the idea of donating to the League of Conservation Voters in the name of your climate-denier relative. It’s a bit of a screw-you. Only you can decide if this is really a good idea.

 


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The Climate of Congress

Some weeks ago, I wrote about the necessity of a nation-wide push to put climate-sane people in Congress and in state and local government, not just the White House (though the White House is critical, too). At the time, I did not know whether such a push was in progress. I simply hadn’t looked into it, yet. Now, I’m happy to report that the League of Conservation Voters has things well in hand. They could use donations, though. For more information, read their Plan of Action, here.

I also said I’d write a series about which races are actually important for climate. I’ll start with the Senate.

The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) lists several states where they are targeting Senate races. They also, helpfully, provide environmental voting scorecards on all legislators, meaning that if someone has served in the Senate or House already, we don’t need to rely on his or her campaign promises, we can just look at a score derived from the actual voting record.

As I’ve explained before, this blog is neutral on all issues besides climate. I understand you might have additional concerns, and so do I, but we’re ignoring those for the purpose of this discussion.

US Senate

34 Senate seats are up for election this year, ten of which are currently held by Democrats. The Democrats need to hold all ten and gain five more, in order to take control of the Senate (if Clinton wins the Presidency, the Democrats can win the Senate with only four additional seats, as Vice President Tim Kaine will have the tie-breaking vote).

Fortunately, that’s doable. Only two of the ten contested Democrat seats are considered vulnerable, according to the Cook Report, and one of those races is currently considered “likely” to go Democrat. Meanwhile, eight of the Republican seats up for election are considered “toss-ups,” and two others only “lean” Republican. Three more are considered “likely” to go Republican, but are still competitive.

There are some complications. For example, Kelly Ayotte, of New Hampshire, is one of only four Republicans who voted last year to affirm that yes, humans are causing climate change (the others are Susan Collins, of Maine, Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee, and Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, none of whom are up for re-election). Her lifetime score is 35%, which is pretty dreadful, but it’s better than many of her fellow Republicans’, and her score for last year alone was much higher–56%. So she’s getting better. Party membership alone does not guarantee a person’s stance on climate, and we do need to foster a genuine Conservative environmentalism, as I have argued before. So, we can’t just say Republicans, bad, Democrats, good. We have to look at candidates individually.

LCV’s list of target states is Nevada, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. First two are the two Democrat seats that are competitive. The other six are currently Republican.

So, who are these people? What is happening in these races?

Colorado

Democratic incumbent, Michael Bennet, faces Republican Tea Party favorite, Darryl Glenn, who is currently the El Paso County Commissioner. Since Colorado in general leans slightly to the left, current thinking is that Mr. Glenn is too far to the right for the state and cannot unseat Mr. Bennet.

Mr. Bennet’s lifetime score with the League of Conservation Voters is 87%. His record is marred by several anti-environment votes (as opposed to skipped votes), including consistent support of the Keystone XL Pipeline, but many of his environmental votes are in the areas of climate change and clean energy. While he has been roundly criticized by environmentalists for supporting the pipeline, he has been endorsed by both the LCV Action Fund and the NRDC Action Fund. He seems an imperfect but able ally.

Florida

Florida’s Democratic primary isn’t until next week (August 30th), and the fight between the front-runners has been negative and nasty. The incumbent Republican is Marco Rubio, His lifetime scorecard with LCV is precisely 6%. He is well-known as a climate denier. Whoever runs against him had better win.

Illinois

Republican incumbent, Mark Kirk, is facing Democrat Tammy Duckworth. The Cook Report considers the race a “toss-up,” but Illinois leans Democrat, and some thinkers estimate the chance of an upset as very good.

Fortunately for us, Ms. Duckworth is currently a House Rep. so both candidates have LCV score cards. Ms. Duckworth’s lifetime score is 85%, while her score last year is an even better 89%. A note on her scorecard indicates that she missed votes in 2015 while she was on maternity leave but read a statement into the record saying that she would have voted pro-environment had she been there. It is unclear to me what that means about her actual voting history–would her score be even higher had she not been absent? Does her score reflect votes she didn’t actually make? In any case, she’s a climate hawk with good name recognition and a fair shot at winning.

Mr. Kirk has a lifetime score of 57% and a score last year of just 40%. In other words, despite not believing that humans cause climate change, he could be worse. Ms. Duckworth will be better.

Nevada

This is Senator Harry Reid’s seat, but the Senate Minority Leader is retiring, so the race is open. It’s also the one currently Democratic seat currently considered a toss-up by Cook.

Republican Joe Heck is now a member of the House of Representatives. He is also a member of LCV’s current Dirty Dozen, a list of the 12 elected officials the organization really, really wants to defeat–and thinks it can. LCV doesn’t list people it thinks are hopeless. Not surprisingly, his lifetime score is 6%. Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto is currently Nevada’s Attorney General and therefore doesn’t have a voting record LCV can score, but she does have their endorsement.

North Carolina

Republican incumbent, Richard Burr faces two challengers, Democrat Deborah Ross, and Libertarian Sean Haugh. The race is considered a toss-up by the Cook Report. Mr. Burr’s LCV score is a ridiculous 4%–one wonders if perhaps his few pro-environment votes were accidental–so while I haven’t found any figures for Mr. Haugh, he would probably be at least marginally better from our perspective.

Ms. Ross would definitely be better–she won LCV’s endorsement even before winning her state’s primary, and as a member of her state’s legislature, she earned an amazing 95% pro-environment score.

Ohio

Republican Rob Portman is running for re-election against Democratic challenger, Ted Strickland. This is one of the races the Cook Report considers a toss-up, and while the LCV seems to be getting involved, so have the Koch brothers, through a group called Americans for Prosperity Ohio.

Mr. Portman has a record with the League of Conservation Voters going back to 1993. That means there are Ohioans in their 40’s who have never voted without him being on the ballot. And in all that time he’s racked up a lifetime score of just 20%. His score last year was only 8%, which could mean he’s actively getting worse. But Mr. Strickland also has an LCV score, for while he isn’t in office currently, he has been in the past–he earned 77%. So, while isn’t the world’s fiercest climate hawk, he’s certainly got Mr. Portman beat.

Let’s see if he can win on Election Day, too.

Pennsylvania

Republican incumbent, Pat Toomey also faces two challengers, Democrat Katie McGinty and Independent, Everett Stern. The race is another toss-up, according to Cook.

Mr. Toomey has a lifetime LCV score of just 7% and his score for 2015 is actually 0%. Not surprisingly, he is another member of the Dirty Dozen–which means LCV considers him beatable.Mr. Stern has no LCV score, not having held previous elected office (his background is in business and advocacy), but he is running on a platform that includes expanded fossil fuel exploitation in Pennsylvania and he is against President Obama’s “constraint” of the industry.

Ms. McGinty doesn’t have an LCV score, either (this apparently would be her first elected office, although she has held appointed positions at both the state and national level for decades), but she did earn its endorsement even before winning her primary.

Winsconsin

Republican incumbent, Ron Johnson faces Democratic challenger, Russ Feingold. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the race is a re-match. Mr. Johnson defeated Senator Feingold in 2010. Mr. Johnson is not exactly a climate hawk–his lifetime LCV score is 4%, and his score in 2015 is 0%. He’s another of the Dirty Dozen. Mr. Feingold, meanwhile, earned an incredible 95% back when he was in office. Hopefully, he can get back there, soon.

Bottom Line?

The bottom line is that if all eight of the above-mentioned pro-climate candidates win, the Senate will once again be Democrat-controlled and will have exchanged six climate deniers for six climate hawks. If not all of them win?

The most vulnerable seat is Harry Reid’s since there is no incumbent running. If Joe Heck wins that one and the Democrats win all the others, the Democratic majority holds. If Michael Bennet in Colorado loses as well, Democrats will only retain control of the Senate if their party also wins the White House (which they must, but that’s another issue). There are a few other Republicans who could lose and give the Democrats a larger margin of victory, but it’s unlikely, and anyway I don’t yet know how strong those Democrats are on climate. So, these eight races are the important ones, the ones that need national support in order to get climate-sane people into office.

The winner of the Florida primary, plus Michael Bennet, of Colorado, Tammy Duckworth, of Illinois, Catherine Cortez Masto, of Nevada,  Deborah Ross, of North Carolina, Ted Strickland, of Ohio, Katie McGinty, of Pennsylvania, and Russ Feingold, of Wisconsin–these are the people to watch and support.

 

 

 

 


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Our Best Hope

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.