The Climate in Emergency

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


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Candidates for President on Climate, Part V: Independents, Third-Partiers, and Republicans

I spent some weeks discussing the many hopefuls for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States–the review took up five separate posts (click here and here and here and here and here). But there are more people running than just Democrats, and we need to think about them, too.

I should reiterate that I’m talking only about climate, here. There are many other important issues that bear on the election, but climate change is the focus of this blog and the one issue we have to get right or none of the other issues can possibly turn out well.

The Field of (Candidate) Dreams

The remaining field of candidates includes Republicans, third-party candidates, and independents (except no independents have declared, yet)–and even a few more Democrats.

Republicans

There are currently two candidates seeking the Republican nomination for president. A third is seriously considering it. It’s interesting to note that while neither potential challenger to President Trump is a climate hawk, both are on record as believing climate change is real and should be dealt with. They are where Democrats were just a cycle or two ago. This is progress.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump is running again, but since we already know he’s terrible from a climate perspective, and climate is the whole perspective of this blog, he can be safely eliminated from consideration; even if you liked everything else about him, his policies, and his performance as President, if you care about the climate and everything that goes with it, you can’t let Donald Trump win a second term.

Bill Weld

Bill Weld is making a serious attempt to challenge President Trump for the Republican nomination. He is currently practicing law, but has political experience (he was governor of Massachusetts in the 1990’s) and has run for national office (vice-president, on the Libertarian ticket, in 2016). He is, in general, a small-government fiscal conservative who favors liberal-to-progressive social policies. Despite his Libertarian connections, he not only calls for climate action, he supports rejoining Paris.

His record on climate is both minimal and a little mixed. As a Libertarian candidate in the previous election, Mr. Weld said humans were “probably” changing the climate and expressed concern about “needlessly costing American jobs and freedom,” but did support “regulation that protects us from future harm,” and he did have a good environmental record as governor. But there are signs his views continue to evolve. The primary thrust of his campaign appears to be a specific rebuttal of Donald Trump, and he has strongly criticized Mr. Trump’s anti-environment policies in terms suggesting that Mr. Weld understands climate change fairly well and accepts its seriousness–and he has invoked Teddy Roosevelt as an example of what he wants his party to be.

Is Bill Weld the Republican environmental leader the country needs? I have argued before that the US does need such a leader, since something as important as climate action should not be left to a single political philosophy. I have not been able to track down any specific policy proposals on his part relating to climate, besides rejoining Paris, but he does appear to be at least a semi-viable option.

Putting my political commentator hat on for a moment, I don’t like Mr. Weld’s chances. Aside from the fact that primary challenges to incumbents are extreme long-shots at best, Mr. Weld’s mix of policy positions puts him in a bad position. He is pro-choice, meaning he essentially cannot compete for the votes of the religious right–precisely those Republicans who might most object to Mr. Trump on moral grounds. Voters who do want a pro-choice, pro-LGBT rights, pro-climate action president are likely to find a stronger candidate on the other side of the aisle, in, say Elizabeth Warren.

But I wish him luck.

Mark Sanford

Mark Sanford is not yet in the race, but he is seriously considering it. He is more conservative, more simply Republican, than Mr. Weld, and thus may have a somewhat larger impact on the primary process, if he jumps in. He has more recent political experience, having been governor of South Carolina just a few years ago. And he wrote an op-ed calling for Republican climate action back in 2007.

Unfortunately, I haven’t heard of him saying anything at all about climate since.

Democrats

Yes, of course we’ve already covered Democrats. In fact, one of them, Eric Swalwell, has already dropped out. But Joe Sestak hopped in while I was writing the posts, and somehow Mike Gravel escaped mention though he’s been in the race since April and is now making noises about dropping out. Tom Stayer has also recently jumped in.

Mr. Sestak has some modest but real climate credentials and favors a carbon-fee-and-dividend system, plus rejoining Paris. Mr. Gavel has several strong environmentalist positions, but has a history of sometimes breaking with environmentalists. He has supported a carbon tax, and can discuss the economics of fossil fuel thoughtfully. But he doesn’t seem to have said anything about climate in some years. Mr. Stayer is a billionaire who has made a name for himself in climate advocacy, although as a candidate his major focus has been not on climate but on getting corporate money out of politics.

There are still a few others about whom buzz has developed and who have not yet ruled out a run.

Greens

The Greens have not yet entered their candidate-selection process, and do not have any high-profile hopefuls. It’s almost certain that the Green Party candidate for president will have excellent climate credentials; the question will be what his or her other credentials are and how the campaign influences the rest of the race.

Libertarians

There is a large field of Libertarians vying for their party’s nomination. Since even the eventual nominee will be an extreme long-shot, I’m not going to discuss them individually here. It’s also worth noting that Libertarian values are at odds with a President exercising much leadership in climate action anyway–when the US pulled out of Paris, the Libertarian Party Chair said that the content of the Paris Accord was less important than the principle by which such decisions are made–and that the President should not have the power to make the Paris Accord to begin with.

The political philosophy here, according to Chairman Sarwark, is that once the government is out of the way and no longer distorting the market, market forces will prevail and individuals will do the right thing (switch to renewables).

The problem here is three-fold.

  • First, market forces are inherently amoral. Even assuming the relevant body of economic theory is correct, the “invisible hand” of the free market serves only to ensure economic efficiency in the face of consumer demand–and what consumers demand is not always the same as what citizens want for their country, even when the “consumers” and the “citizens” are the same people.
  • Second, we all know that many individuals do not do the right thing in many different life contexts. Climate action is not necessarily an exception.
  • Third, government power is not the only form of concentrated and potentially despotic power that exists. Removing government power will not result in a free society unless there is also some mechanism to prevent the concentration of power through either money or physical force. Such a mechanism could be developed, on that subject this blog remains neutral, but one does not exist yet–and moneyed would-be despots with an interest in preventing the switch to renewables already exist. Removing government from the equation will only result in their operating directly rather than through government proxies.

A Libertarian President who refrained from exercising leadership on climate would be little different, in practice, from a President who actively opposed climate action.

Independents

Somewhat surprisingly, I have not found any confirmation that anyone is actually running for the U.S. Presidency as an independent yet. Most of the likely contenders have either announced they won’t run or declared as either Democrats or Libertarians. Even Vermin Supreme is running as a Libertarian this cycle, according to his Facebook page (although his Mandatory Tooth-brushing Policy would seem to be antithetical to Libertarian principles). Of course, with the election still more than a year away, there is plenty of time for someone to declare.

The Big Picture

The big picture is that for the first time, climate is being placed at or near the center of the agenda by the candidates of one major party, and at least some candidates from the other major party also have climate messages. It’s where we should have been a decade ago, but at least we’re here now.

From a climate perspective (remember, this blog is neutral on all else), I’d be comfortable with any of the Democratic front-runners, and not too uncomfortable with several others in the race. But if you’re looking for an endorsement, Elizabeth Warren has it. She combines serious, thoughtful dedication to the issue with true political grit and real electability.

Now we just have to get some climate sane person in.

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TR, Where Are You Now?

I said earlier this week that there is no point in my doing a profile of any Republican candidate for President, because our interest here lies in identifying (and supporting) those candidates who are serious on climate and at present no Republican candidate is. I also said that I very much hope that will change.

I do not say that just because I want all political leaders to do something about climate change, nor even because I want environmentalists to become a voting block impossible to ignore. Both of those are true, but more important is the fact that although I personally lean towards the political left, I know not everyone does–and not everyone should. There are important things that liberal political philosophies do not do very well. There are people whose needs liberal political leaders do not serve. If the Republican party could develop its own version of environmentalism, a competing vision of climate sanity, it might bring something to the table that has so far been missing.

It might seem strange to talk about Republican environmentalism, but there is nothing inherently anti-environmental about the core principles of that party. Climate change will be financially disastrous, so shouldn’t fiscal conservatism mean climate sanity? The Republicans have long favored a strong national defense, so shouldn’t that mean paying attention to the Pentagon’s concerns about the destabilizing effects of climate? The Republican umbrella shelters the religious right, the socially conservative and largely rural culture of the American heartland–so exactly how are they supposed to stick up for the needs of farmers and ranchers without doing something about this increasingly extreme weather?

This last is an important point, because it gets to the heart of climate change denial. Barbara Kingsolver has written that the United States does not have a divide between Liberal and Conservative so much as it does a divide between urban and rural people–and that the rural people generally come out the worse for wear in any interaction between the two. Urban-based business interests exploit rural people and their land and give little back, while urban-based media either ignores rural communities or mocks them. In recent years, at least, the Republicans have been somewhat better at advertising themselves to rural voters, which is why many states with large rural populations have gone “red” in recent elections, although the actual distribution of political beliefs on the ground is far more complicated. But the point is that “liberal” and “conservative” are often proxies for “urban” and “rural,” and that when the latter distrust the former, they actually have good reason. When Al Gore, a man thoroughly identified with the liberal, urban elite, made himself the face of climate change he accidentally framed the issue as a liberal cause.

Classic case of ignoring the message because you don’t like the messanger.

The problem is that science has gotten very very complicated and it is not humanly possible for anyone to keep up with all of it. Graduate students forgo sleep in order to read everything ever written on their own very narrow thesis topic, and otherwise everybody depends on other people to summarize and explain new developments to them–which presents the problem of deciding which explainers to trust. And if you don’t have a science background yourself, you basically have to make your decision based on personality, cultural cues, and who the explainer’s friends and allies are. This is how social conservatism became linked to climate denial.

We liberals are used to hearing about “socially conservative” in its negative form–racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. As far as it goes, that isn’t inaccurate (though liberals have their ugly biases, too). What we don’t hear about–or don’t talk about–is that socially conservative American culture also prioritizes loyalty, charity, personal responsibility, and honor.There is a reason why people want to defend this culture. There are also reasons why members of this culture sometimes feel under attack.

Here is Barbara Kingsolver, speaking through a fictional character in her book, Flight Behavior:

I’d say the teams get picked, and then the beliefs get handed around. Team camo, we get the right to bear arms and John Deere and the canning jars and tough love and taking care of our own. The other side wears I don’t know what, something expensive. They get recycling and population control and lattes and as many second chances as anybody wants. Students emailing you to tell you they deserve their A’s.

One of the beliefs she’s talking about being “handed around” is climate change. Somehow, this particular bit of science has gotten firmly associated with “team something expensive,” such that if you want to demonstrate your belief in tough love, community loyalty, and personal liberty, announcing that you don’t believe in global warming is a good way to do it.

The Republican Party does not, of course, actually speak for poor and middle-class farmers any more than the Democrats do. Both parties belong to moneyed interests–with certain exceptions. But those exceptions do exist and the cultural differences between the two parties mean that they support different kinds of exceptions, different versions of trying to do the right things. And we need a variety of approaches to sound environmental policy in order to have a real conversation about how to get out of this mess. And when an individual exception–someone who does stick up for the little guy–does arise, he or she is much more likely to be able to speak to and for rural communities as a Republican.

What might such a Republican look like?

Turns out, we’ve already had such a Republican in the White House–and he did a fantastically good job within the context of his times.

Theodore Roosevelt was not just an outdoorsman; he was an accomplished naturalist. He could just as easily have become a scientist  and once dreamed of doing so.  His environmental record as President is unparalleled:

  • federal protection for almost 230 million acres of land
  • 150 national forests
  • the first 51 federal bird reservations
  • the first 18 national monuments
  • five national parks,
  • the first four national game preserves
  • the appointment of Gifford Pinchot as first Chief of the US Forest Service, another pivotal person in the history of American conservation.

One hundred and seven years ago today, Teddy Roosevelt, speaking at the Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources, had this to say:

We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources and we have just reason to be proud of our growth. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation. These questions do not relate only to the next century or to the next generation. It is time for us now as a nation to exercise the same reasonable foresight in dealing with our great natural resources that would be shown by any prudent man in conserving and widely using the property which contains the assurance of well-being for himself and his children.

Teddy Roosevelt was a Republican. It would be easy to say that the Republican Party has changed and that the Parties have switched places somehow–the Party of Lincoln and TR becoming the Party of racists and climate-deniers. As always, the truth is more complicated. The truth is that each party has held to a few core principles, with occasional exceptions, consistently, and that almost any issue of the moment can be championed in light of either set of principles. Sometimes one party’s approach eclipses the other for a while on a given issue, which then becomes identified with that party for a while.

Consider the Republican Party Platform of 1908, when Teddy Roosevelt was head of the Party and sitting in the White House. Although some planks do sound a little odd, given where the Party went later in the twentieth Century (the passage and enforcement of the Sherman Antitrust Law, the total denouncement of any and all racial discrimination), it is basically a recognizably modern conservative document in somewhat antiquated language. There is a recurrent focus on the protection and enhancement of private property, the equality of opportunity to succeed (not a social safety net for those who fail), and expansion of American influence abroad. There is a call to more carefully define the powers of Federal courts, which is reminiscent of the modern call for limited government. There are various pot-shots at Democrats. There is a self-congratulatory note about an insurrection in another country having been suppressed and how American involvement would soon prepare the people there to reclaim a measure of home-rule–the country was the Philippines, but the line is eerily familiar given that another Republican President was saying almost exactly the same thing about a different country exactly a hundred years later.

Towards the end, the document describes the two Parties in contrast to each other. One may assume a heavy dose of political spin, of course, but we do get a sense of how the Republicans thought of themselves:

The present tendencies of the two parties are even more marked by inherent differences. The trend of Democracy is toward socialism, while the Republican party stands for a wise and regulated individualism. Socialism would destroy wealth, Republicanism would prevent its abuse. Socialism would give to each an equal right to take; Republicanism would give to each an equal right to earn. Socialism would offer an equality of possession which would soon leave no one anything to possess, Republicanism would give equality of opportunity which would assure to each his share of a constantly increasing sum of possessions. In line with this tendency the Democratic party of to-day believes in Government ownership, while the Republican party believes in Government regulation. Ultimately Democracy would have the nation own the people, while Republicanism would have the people own the nation.

I suspect that this was before “socialism” became a political boogeyman and that the Democrats probably were somewhat socialist at the time. It’s worth noting that the Republican call for government regulation, which looks strange to modern eyes, is here placed in contrast with the specter of even greater government involvement.

The bottom line here is that Teddy Roosevelt was an environmentalist, the best and greatest environmentalist President we’ve ever had. But he was an environmentalist in a particularly Republican way. He wanted to use the Federal government to protect the land from industrialists, yes, but only to free the people to do their individualistic best with those resources. He saw environmental conservation not just in terms of his personal fondness for the outdoors, but as a critically important part of the path to prosperity and fairness. His carefully cultivated wild west persona was, yes, his personal version of macho, but also his version of being a man of the people–he was doing his best to give himself the cultural markers that would make him trustworthy to rural people. Nor was he simply posturing–he championed major irrigation projects, free rural mail service, and improved rural roads.

If TR were alive and politically active today, there is no way he’d be a climate change denier. He’d probably take anyone who was over his knee. But his approach to the issue would be different than what we see from Democrats today–he’d be a progressive, but not a liberal. He might, of course, be a Democrat, for the same reasons his protege, Franklyn Delano Roosevelt, became one–a judgment that the parties had shifted in such a way as to make the left a better home for progressive policy. But I’d like to suggest a different fantasy.

Imagine, for a moment, Teddy Roosevelt as a kind of Bernie Sanders on the right–perhaps an independent or a member of a third party for most of his political career, but shifting to a major party for a final run at the White House. Remember, he still has a second term he could serve. He has strong cultural ties to rural America–he’s the kind of guy you could see yourself having a beer with. He takes economic and social positions that make liberals (including me) twitch, but he goes after moneyed interests and corruption without fear. He’s charismatic and energetic and he cannot be bought. He steps up to the microphone at a press conference to introduce his ambitious new climate change plan.

What does he say?