The Impending GOP Retreat on Climate: From Denial to Do-Nothing-ism


    Cross-posted at Daily Kos

    Changes in the political climate can sometimes sneak up on you — just like changes in the terrestrial climate. Case in point: A recent opinion piece in the right-wing Human Events, “A Conservative’s Case for Global Warming”, provides a hint that the GOP may be about to start tiptoeing away from climate change denial.

    While still repeating a number of easily disprovable climate denial whoppers (e.g., that the earth hasn’t warmed in the last 18 years, even though it has, and the usual cheap attempts to downplay the overwhelming scientific consensus), the author seemed to be striving to reposition conservative opinion to accept the reality of climate change — this, even though he is a member of the Heartland Institute, notorious for (among other travesties) its repugnant Unabomber billboard campaign.    

    Others have noted the curious phrase that is now ubiquitous among Republican politicians – “I’m not a scientist” — and like Jonathan Chait, have speculated on whether this phrase represents a kind of tactical retreat:

    “I am not a scientist” makes sense as a way to resolve a tension within Republican politics. It may be a political liability for Republicans to openly associate themselves with the kook conspiracy theories popular among conservative ideologues. One solution might be for Republicans to concede that anthropogenic global warming is indeed real, but that any solution is simply too costly. That might allow Republicans to minimize their kook exposure while still hewing to the bottom line party doctrine that individuals and firms ought to be able to dump carbon into the atmosphere for free.

    Climate change denial remains rife in Republican ranks, of course – CAP Action counts 56% of Congressional Republicans in the “climate denier caucus”.  But look closely and the signs are of the first troops starting to back away, hopefully heralding the very beginnings of a full-scale retreat.

    Republican pols have many good reasons for such a retreat.  One, as Chait notes, is simple credibility – with forces from Forecast the Facts and Media Matters to Bill Nye and the superb denier debunker website Skeptical Science increasingly pushing the media to report science accurately, climate deniers have become increasingly isolated as the tinfoil hat loons that they are.  A party seeking to consolidate its control of Congress and regain the White House would be wise to appear not to be in the grip of conspiracy theory nuts.  

    Another reason is that President Obama (thank Heaven) has finally learned the lesson of the sports cliché that the best defense is a good offense.  With actions like the US EPA’s proposed climate change rule, he is forcing his opponents to play defense.  To do so, they need to retreat to ground that they think they’re more likely to hold.

    What does this turn of events mean for those of us who are determined to spur US action on climate?  Let’s be clear: retreat does not mean surrender.  By no means is the climate change battle close to being won. The enemy troops will keep firing their weapons on us even as they inch backward.  (And some of those who have committed so much of their political capital to climate denial, like Senator Inhofe, may try to keep the “hoax” hoax up a little longer.)

    The key point to note about this retreat is simply that, if and when they change their tactics, we need to adjust ours in response.  In particular, while it’ll leave us free to spend less time defending scientific fact, we’ll need to spend more of that time promoting workable and salable solutions.  

    In retreating, our opponents hope to draw us into territory that we find harder to defend.  Indeed, defending the science should have been the easy part – it only proved hard because of the hundreds of millions of dollars that the Koch brothers and fossil fuel interests poured into groups and websites dedicated to raise doubts about climate science, and the media’s mix of cynicism and incompetence that for too long gave credibility to the claims of these “merchants of doubt”.

    The goal of the climate denial campaign has been to delay discussion of actual solutions for as long as possible.  If you make people wonder whether there is even a problem, then that of course dulls their urgency to resolve it.  

    But even if the foot soldiers of the fossil fuel industries grudgingly begin to agree that climate change represents a problem, make no mistake, they will make the debate over solutions an even tougher one.  That debate is ultimately about societal actions with economic, political, social, and/or cultural impacts on regular people’s lives and industrial interests.  This is where it gets truly ugly, and challenging.

    This may sound like déjà vu all over again for those who fought the ultimately unsuccessful fight to pass the Waxman-Markey bill to regulate greenhouse gases through a cap-and-trade system.  Needless to say, we need to learn the political lessons of that failure, so as to not repeat it.  Most importantly, we need to win the hearts and minds of members of the public and media so that politicians who choose to support Big Oil, Gas and Coal over our children’s future face increasing pressure to change that decision.

    The shifting tactical environment means that even as we may have to call less on scientists to take political stands, we will increasingly need to call on economists, the insurance industry, religious leaders, local, ethnic and cultural interests and other constituencies to make the case and carry the battle to new fronts.  

    There is no question that Republicans will continue to claim that we can’t afford to fight climate change.  In this context, groups like the coalition of former Treasury Secretaries behind the Risky Business report, explaining why it will be more costly to NOT act on climate change than to address the problem, become more critical to victory.  

    We must employ every arrow in our quiver to defend President Obama’s actions on climate change, both nationally and internationally.  At the same time, while the new Congress does not represent the best prospects for climate legislation in the near term, we need to lay the groundwork for future legislation so that it is well crafted and its constituents and sponsors are all lined up for quick action once prospects for passage improve.  

    Keep your eyes on those who will continue to try to block action on climate change – their shifts in emphasis will often be subtle, so that they don’t upset the wacko fringe of their party, but these shifts will represent differences in how we need to respond to their salvos.  We are making progress, but the enemy’s retreat only signifies that now is the time to press this battle to ultimate victory.


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