A leading Republican presidential candidate once said:
“Instead of idly debating the precise extent of global warming or the precise timeline of global warming, we need to deal with the central facts of rising temperatures, rising waters and all the endless troubles that global warming will bring.”
Speaking at a wind power plant in Oregon, the lifelong conservative promised to, if elected, “not shirk the mantle of leadership that the United States bears” to act on climate.
The candidate’s rationale was simple: “We stand warned by serious and credible scientists across the world that time is short and the dangers are great.”
That was back in 2008, and the candidate was, you guessed it, Senator John McCain. In typical maverick fashion, McCain’s practical views on climate change diverged greatly from many of his GOP peers. He was the only serious Republican presidential candidate to call for mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions. While his plan was to cut emissions only 60 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, when the leading Democratic candidates’ proposal was to cut them by 80 percent over the same period, it still was a plan to address climate change.
I began writing this blog post several weeks ago — without knowing McCain was in his final days. That’s because it’s tough to talk about the politicization of climate change in the United States without reflecting on what might have been had he been successful in his 2008 bid for the presidency.
Was President Barack Obama’s victory over McCain a blessing for fossil fuel forces bent on turning the country away from climate action? What would have happened if McCain had won in 2008? Would he have followed through on his climate pledges? Would the GOP have gone along with it, or would the party still have been swayed by fossil fuel money to oppose the scientific consensus?
These are questions we’ll never know the answers to. But we do know that now, a decade later, the political culture around climate change in the U.S. has devolved from how much carbon we ought to cut to whether or not the planet is even warming. GOP views on climate change have regressed even as the scientific consensus has advanced.
And, if we look back even further, we can see that in the early days of climate awareness in this country, many Republicans were on board with treating climate change as a serious threat. As Nathaniel Rich recently wrote in his epic piece in The New York Times, “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change”:
“Today, only 42 percent of Republicans know that ‘most scientists believe global warming is occurring,’ and that percentage is falling. But during the 1980s, many prominent Republicans joined Democrats in judging the climate problem to be a rare political winner: nonpartisan and of the highest possible stakes… The issue was unimpeachable, like support for veterans or small business. Except the climate had an even broader constituency, composed of every human being on Earth.”
So, what happened? How does an issue go from being unimpeachable to, well, the opposite of that? What changed the climate narrative?
Coral Davenport and Eric Lipton of The New York Times argue that “...the Republican Party’s fast journey from debating how to combat human-caused climate change to arguing that it does not exist is a story of big political money, Democratic hubris in the Obama years and a partisan chasm that grew over nine years like a crack in the Antarctic shelf, favoring extreme positions and uncompromising rhetoric over cooperation and conciliation.”
All of these are fair points. Between 2007 and 2017, the oil and gas industry spent $1.4 billion on federal lobbying, according to OpenSecrets.org. Some of the biggest hitters included Exxon, Koch Industries, Chevron and Shell, among others. If there’s one constant in American politics, it’s that money talks.
Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades, according to Pew Research Center. And these divisions are greatest among those who are the most engaged and active in the political process.
Granted, even McCain wasn’t perfect when it came to climate policy. Indeed, he did eventually sour on President Obama’s attempt to use the Environmental Protection Agency and other regulatory agencies to address emissions. He voted in 2010 to overturn EPA’s endangerment finding that greenhouse gases threaten health and human welfare. But the Maverick returned in May 2017, when he voted “no” to a GOP-led effort to repeal limits of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, using the Congressional Review Act. I myself had been on Capitol Hill the day before the vote with EDF Action lobbying against the legislation.
In order for us to win the climate fight, we’ll need all hands on deck — and that means Republicans too. We need more ‘John McCain Republicans’ who are willing to stand up to the likes of Trump and other elected Republicans who have fallen to the influence of easy fossil fuel money. And with many red Southern states the most at risk from a warming world, elected leaders would do well to, if anything, look out for health and well-being of constituents by supporting strong climate policies.
I, for one, remain hopeful. Republican Representative Carlos Curbelo’s proposed carbon tax to, erm, curb climate change is a good start despite its flaws. Earlier this summer, he said:
“I remind my conservative colleagues who often decry our nation’s growing debt; saddling young Americans with a crushing environmental debt – meaning an unhealthy planet where life is less viable – is at least as immoral as leaving behind an unsustainable fiscal debt.”
To successfully communicate climate change, we need to find the right frames to make our messages as salient to the audiences we’re trying to reach. Curbelo’s choice of framing climate change as an economic issue, while not innovative, might be the only way to break through to many elected Republicans.
Climate change doesn’t care if you’re Democrat or Republican – it will impact everyone. De-politicizing a highly politicized issue isn’t easy, but it has been done before, and we can and must do it again.