Teszler: Beware the GOP’s Climate Ambivalence

Republicans are finally recognizing the existence of climate change, but are thwarting any attempts to solve it.

by Max Teszler | 10/19/20 2:00am

Amid the general turmoil of the first presidential debate, it was easy to miss that Donald Trump made a truly extraordinary statement for a Republican president — when asked if human pollution contributes to climate change, he said “I think a lot of things do, but I think to an extent, yes.” Eight days later, Vice President Mike Pence said that the Trump administration will “always follow the science” on climate change. 

Have Republicans finally come around on climate? In actuality, there’s little change when it comes to real policy — Trump’s campaign has released no comprehensive plan to address climate change and proudly touts the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord as a “promise kept.” But the rhetorical shift, whether intentional or not, represents a new type of climate ambivalence from the GOP — not outright denial of human-caused climate change, but opposition to any needed solutions.

Politically, this new language on climate change makes sense. Despite Trump’s concerted attempts to downplay the issue — he has called climate change a “hoax” and said in 2018 that he didn’t believe a landmark national climate report commissioned by his own government — the public’s concern regarding climate has steadily grown over recent years. In June, a Pew Poll found 60% of Americans rated climate change as a major threat to the wellbeing of the U.S., compared to 44% in 2009. Another June Pew study showed that 65% of Americans believe that the government does too little to combat climate change.

Strikingly, that same survey showed that close to two-thirds of Republicans believed human activity contributes at least somewhat to climate change. This is the party whose most recent “moderate” nominee, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, declared “we don’t know what’s causing climate change,” in 2012, a time when 97% of publishing climate scientists believed that anthropogenic climate change was occurring. In 2015, Sen. Jim Inhofe, the Republican chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, held up a snowball on the Senate floor as proof it was cold out, intended as “evidence” that global warming wasn’t real. Those days may be gone — but the new Republican position is dangerous all the same.

The past half-decade or so has revealed the increasingly stark prognosis for climate change. A 2018 UN report revealed that even with just 1.5 C of warming, disastrous consequences could still occur — the report estimated a total of $54 trillion in economic damages. As the scientists issue dire warnings, we’re living through the consequences of already-existing warming. Some of the largest wildfires in California’s history burned across the state this autumn, covering much of the country in smoke. The fight to reverse these trends will be hard, with carbon generation intertwined so closely in the matrix of modern human society. The same 2018 report which spelled out the consequences of increased warming advised reducing emissions 45 percent by 2030, and to net-zero by 2050 — a herculean task which will require steps like virtually eliminating coal generation of electricity.

Conservatives’ climate ambivalence has no answer for this pressing reality, instead relying on untruths and even outright lies. Pence claimed the Trump administration would follow science — yet that administration has for years suppressed government scientists and stifled climate reports. Trump called himself the “number one environmental president,” but he has presided over a comprehensive agenda of environmental deregulation. The GOP platform acknowledges climate change, but warns that treating it as a legitimate national security issue would represent “the triumph of extremism over common sense.”

And that forms the second critical backbone of Republicans trying to gloss over their record — accusing Democrats of being the real extremists. Trump and Pence desperately accuse former Vice President Joe Biden of supporting the “crazy” Green New Deal and wanting to ban fracking. The president has gone further, saying the Democrats “want to kill our cows'' as part of their climate plan. Romney, for his part, now acknowledges that humans cause climate change, but dismissed the Green New Deal as “silliness.”

To confront this climate ambivalence, Democrats need to take the issue head on. A majority of voters support bold action on climate change. While Biden denies he wants to ban fracking, even in Pennsylvania (a state with a significant natural gas industry) a narrow majority are in opposition to the drilling practice. And there’s already a natural advantage to press on — according to a poll by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling Group, voters in eight battleground states reported 55% to 28% that they aligned more closely with Biden than with Trump in regard to climate issues.

But with a more skilled and disciplined messenger than Trump, climate ambivalence could take hold amid the GOP. Republican voters still report far less concern about climate than do independents or Democrats, and given reality that climate legislation must clear the 60-vote filibuster in the Senate, progress is unlikely to occur without bipartisan support or dramatic procedural measures. With just a decade remaining to nearly halve emissions, Republican climate ambivalence is a disastrous type of doubt.