Frank Rich on the National Circus: Why the GOP Still Denies Climate Change

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Snowmobiling in the arctic alps in the Arctic Circle near Holt in the region of Tromso, Northern Norway Photo: Tim Graham/Getty Images

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: the GOP continues to deny climate change, White House report be damned; and Monica Lewinsky writes about her infamous affair with Bill Clinton.

The White House released an exhaustive and ominous report on climate change this week that attributed a host of destructive weather patterns to rising temperatures and stated “climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present." Meanwhile, House Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith dubbed the report "a political document intended to frighten Americans.” What do you make of the report? And what would it take for most in the Republican Party to accept the reality and urgency of climate change?

The report confirms in no uncertain terms what sentient Americans already knew, but that doesn’t mean it will break the political gridlock that has doomed any serious national mobilization to address the crisis. Of all the crazy things in our politics, few are more self-immolating than the persistence of climate change as a partisan issue. A founding father of modern environmental activism was a Republican, Teddy Roosevelt, but his legacy is no more honored in today’s GOP than Lincoln’s. You’d think that the speed and perils of global warming would be settled fact, given all the catastrophic signs that Americans can see with their own eyes. But on the right, climate-change denial has become a proxy for a whole smorgasbord of powerful ideological imperatives: opposition to governmental regulation; resistance to taxation (especially of such Republican sugar daddies as the coal, oil, and gas industries); class resentment of intellectual elites in academia and Prius-driving Hollywood; and, in some quarters, rejection of any kind of science that dares undermine the supremacy of God as the primary actor in all Earthly activity. 

It’s a pipe dream to think the Republican Party is going to shift on this any time soon. This week there has been a lot of talk about how the establishment candidate in the GOP senatorial primary in North Carolina beat back more radical tea party opponents — but all four candidates in that race, including the more “moderate” victor, were climate-change deniers. As the Times reported today, few areas are more immediately endangered by coastal flooding than Florida, yet the state’s three most prominent Republicans, Senator Marco Rubio, Governor Rick Scott, and Jeb Bush — two of them possible 2016 presidential candidates — are too fearful of their party’s base to acknowledge the peril or call for action. Even the high end of conservative thought leaders are in denial. George Will thinks global warming is merely “weather” and that any alarms have been manufactured by conformist tenure-track professors and writers in The New Yorker. His own personal scientific research, based on observations from the home he owns on an island in South Carolina, tells him that hurricane activity is down post-Katrina, so what’s the problem? Charles Krauthammer has declared that “any scientific theory that explains everything explains nothing” — just the kind of argument that was made to resist the theories of Galileo, Newton, and Darwin. So what will change their thinking? A realization that the younger voters the GOP needs for survival feel as strongly about climate change as they do about gay marriage. Or perhaps further environmental catastrophe that hits red states across the southern half of the country.

Vanity Fair has published a first-person essay by Monica Lewinsky about her affair with Bill Clinton, inciting a predictable media firestorm. Lynne Cheney wondered on Fox News "if this isn’t an effort on the Clintons’ part to get that story out of the way, the New York Post's Andrea Peyser called the piece "exasperatingly tone-deaf," and the always-dependable Rush Limbaugh used it as an opportunity to declare that it was the left not the right who had long waged the War on Women. Does the Lewinsky piece — and the response to it — tell us anything we didn't know? And is Cheney right that this piece will help get the biggest of the old Clinton scandals out of the way before an expected Hillary Clinton presidential run?

If nothing else, we’ve learned the lengths to which Lynne Cheney will go to hawk her newly published book about James Madison. Unlike Cheney’s now sadly out-of-print lesbian novel of 1981, Sisters, her Madison biography lacks the commercial frisson of sex. Much of the rest of the reaction confirms what I wrote in my last piece in New York: The GOP will not be able to resist talking about the Bill Clinton sex scandals of the 1990s even though almost everyone (including some Republican strategists) believes it will backfire politically, just as it did the first time around. The more the likes of a Limbaugh spews about Lewinsky (and the other women sure to resurface if Hillary Clinton runs for president), the more misogynistic the talk inevitably becomes. It’s in their nature. As the Daily Beast has reported, even the announcement of Chelsea Clinton’s pregnancy provoked tasteless innuendos about the mother-to-be’s motives at Fox News and MSNBC’s Morning Joe. These people could turn Mother’s Day into another battle in the War on Women.