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Climate Change and US Politics - Quotable
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The Sunniest Climate-Change Story You've Ever Read
-- This is the year humans finally got serious about saving themselves from themselves
by Jonathan Chait / Sept 7, 2015
... If there is a single vantage point from which the new global consensus on climate change is least evident, other than perhaps Saudi Arabia, it is the U.S. In a survey last year of 20 countries, the U.S. had the highest proportion of citizens who disagree that climate change is the result of human activity. And that is not because the U.S. is especially abundant in fossil fuels, or unusually removed from the effects of a changing climate, but because one of our two major parties is completely sui generis. From 2001 to 2010, a period when the scientific community grew more certain that heat-trapping gases were warming the atmosphere, the proportion of Republicans who believe the effects of climate change had already set in actually declined from 50 percent to 30 percent.
The unique quality of the Republican Party’s climate doctrine can be found not in its Donald Trumps and its Ted Cruzes but in their putatively sane competitors in the 2016 presidential primary. “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it,” said Marco Rubio last year. A spokesman for Scott Walker asserted recently that the governor “believes facts have shown that there has not been any measurable warming in the last 15 or 20 years.” Even John Kasich, who has carved a niche on the far-left wing of his party’s presidential field for refusing to boycott the Medicaid expansion in Obamacare, has dismissed the scientific consensus as “some theory that’s not proven.” Jeb Bush has tried to dodge. “I’m a skeptic. I’m not a scientist. I think the science has been politicized,” he scoffed in 2009. His view has since hardened. “For the people to say the science is decided on this is really arrogant,” he asserted earlier this year.
And the tenor of Republican thinking below the level of presidential candidates is cruder still. Dana Rohrabacher, a member of the House Committee on Science and Technology, has claimed “global warming is a total fraud.” Lamar Smith, the chairman of that committee, has mocked the “malfunctioning climate models” designed by “climate alarmists.” James Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, is the author of a 2012 book titled The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. Conservative states have refused to entertain plans for the inevitable disappearance of their coastlines; some have even banned the use of the term “climate change.” Prestigious intellectuals in the conservative movement, like George Will, preach conspiratorial pseudoscientific theories.
The U.S. is the only democracy in which such a consensus can be found. (Even the conservative ruling party in coal-rich Australia is submitting proposals to reduce its carbon emissions.) Eileen Claussen, former president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, told National Journal that, while some individuals in other countries question climate science, there is “no party-wide view like this anywhere in the world that I am aware of.” The Republican Party’s complete refusal to accept any limits on greenhouse-gas emissions whatsoever is an unspoken force shaping the Paris negotiations. The outcome cannot be written as a formal treaty, since treaties require approval by the Senate, and Senate approval requires Republicans. Instead, the agreement will take the form of legally nonbinding pledges, which the U.N. is calling “intended nationally determined contributions,” enforced by international diplomatic pressure. The entire world is, in essence, tiptoeing gingerly around the unhinged second-largest political party in the world’s second-largest greenhouse-gas emitter, in hopes of saving the world behind its back.
Of course, it is unfortunate for the future of mankind that climate-change denialism has surfaced as a regional quirk in the most powerful country on Earth. The fossil-fuel industry has invested heavily in U.S. politics and can surely take some credit for the Republican Party’s positions, but conservative resentment of climate science is more deeply rooted and pathological than economic influence can fully explain. Conservative distrust of the scientific community has steadily increased over the last four decades. Even as the coal industry has collapsed, and American solar firms now employ twice as many people, the Republican affiliation with coal as a cherished way of life has deepened. Conservatives’ association of science with the liberal agenda has hardened Republican resolve to do nothing to limit climate change, which has, in turn, deepened the association of science with the liberal agenda. Increasing evidence of climate change does not halt this vicious cycle. It may actually accelerate it by fomenting resentment. An alarming social study from June found that climate skeptics who read reports about natural disasters were less likely to favor helping the victims if the story connected the disaster to climate change.
The Republican view that climate change is uncertain, overblown, or nonexistent has run alongside a long-standing skepticism about international diplomacy. Conservatives treat the prospect of a global agreement to limit emissions as not merely a challenge (which it is) but a conceptual impossibility. The presumed impossibility of getting other countries in general, and China in particular, to cut back on greenhouse gases featured heavily in Republican denunciations of cap and trade during Obama’s first two years. They have greeted China’s agreement to do this very thing with scorn. When Obama negotiated his bilateral pledge with China last year, conservatives howled, predicting disaster. But they were unable to thwart the deal, and now they dismiss China’s emissions pledges as too easy to fulfill. (Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell scoffed that last November’s deal “requires the Chinese to do nothing at all for 16 years.”) Or else, too difficult. (“China’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions is unattainable and unrealistic,” wrote Inhofe.) Or they have simply carried on as if China had made no changes to its behavior at all. (Marco Rubio, this summer: “As far as I can see, China and India and other developing countries are going to continue to burn anything they can get their hands on.”)
Republicans have set out to induce the result they predict, warning foreign leaders that Obama will not be able to carry out his promises. After Obama formally submitted the U.S.’s proposed emission reductions to the United Nations, McConnell drafted a letter urging the world not to believe him. “Considering that two-thirds of the U.S. federal government hasn’t even signed off on the Clean Power Plan and 13 states have already pledged to fight it,” he wrote, “our international partners should proceed with caution before entering into a binding, unattainable deal.” This was an American official warning other countries to “proceed with caution” before negotiating with the U.S.
The Republican plan to destroy the global climate accord involves domestic sabotage as well. The congressional wing will attach to budget bills to fund the government new rules forbidding the EPA from carrying out its regulations. (Obama will veto any such bills, making them a futile symbolic gesture.) Conservatives have also filed suit to block the EPA’s regulations, a somewhat more dangerous possibility, but — given that the Supreme Court has already ordered the White House to regulate carbon — not likely to inflict fatal damage.
By far the most effective weapon at the GOP’s disposal is its prospect of winning the 2016 election. Jeffrey Holmstead, formerly the chief air regulator at the EPA under the Bush administration and now an energy lobbyist, boasts, “Any Republican candidate that I can imagine would very quickly just rescind the Clean Power Plan.” Jeb Bush has called it “irresponsible” and “overreaching”; Rubio called it “catastrophic.” They are the relative moderates on the issue — Scott Walker has not only rejected the plan but also promised to eliminate all federal regulation of the environment, except for a small handful of intrastate disputes.
And so the world is racing to decarbonize before the Republican Party — as constituted in its current, delirious form — can regain power over the U.S. With the GOP as unpopular as ever, the rest of the planet has a tenuous upper hand. At some point, perhaps only a few years from now, decarbonization will have gained irreversible momentum, strengthening the economic power of the green-energy lobby and weakening the power of the fossil-fuel lobby. And maybe, eventually, the Republican Party will give up its affinity for unlimited carbon emissions, just as it is surrendering on gay marriage. In the meantime, the 2016 election threatens to ruin the new global consensus on climate change. The concentration of American climate policy in the Executive branch, the GOP’s descent into madness, and the sudden attainability of international cooperation have all raised the planetary stakes of the presidential election beyond anything in previous experience.