The American people believe climate change is real, and they want their government to do something about it.
A record 72 percent of voters said global warming was an “important” issue for them personally in a Yale/George Mason University poll released earlier this year. That same poll found a majority of Republican voters favored government action to combat warming, with 56 percent endorsing “strict carbon-dioxide emission limits on existing coal-fired power plants to reduce global warming and improve public health, even if the cost of electricity to consumers and companies would likely increase.” This finding is broadly consistent with other recent surveys. Last year Gallup found that 62 percent of voters believed the government was “doing too little” to protect the environment — the highest that figure has been in more than a decade. Meanwhile, some 57 percent told the pollster that environmental protection should take priority over economic growth. Concern for the climate is (unsurprisingly) acute among younger voters, which is likely one reason that the rising generation is the least Republican in modern memory.
And yet, when the rubber meets the road — and concrete climate policies make the ballot — voters tend to get cold feet. Last November, amid a “blue wave” midterm election, in overwhelmingly Democratic Washington State, 56 percent of voters rejected a plan for establishing a carbon tax and investing its revenues into a variety of environmental improvements. That same night, Colorado awarded the Democratic Party full control of its state government — while voting down an initiative that would have placed hard limits on fracking in the Centennial State. Meanwhile, even as Arizona sent Democrat Kyrsten Sinema to the Senate, 70 percent of its voters opposed a proposition that would have required all of the state’s utility companies to derive 50 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2030.
All of which is to say: The median voter has no tolerance for climate denialism but a great deal of openness to industry-funded messaging about why any given climate policy isn’t actually worth doing.
Republican operatives can read these tea leaves. They understand their party can simultaneously accept the science of climate change and privilege Big Oil’s short-term interests over humanity’s long-term survival. After all, that’s what just about every other center-right party on earth is already doing. So in recent months, Republicans have begun flirting with the “talk loudly, but don’t carry a big stick” approach to climate policy that so many voters ostensibly want. As the New York Times reported in April:
“Denying the basic existence of climate change is no longer a credible position,” said Whit Ayers, a Republican political consultant, pointing out the growing climate concern among millennials as well as centrist voters — two groups the G.O.P. will need in the future …
In recent weeks, Senator John Cornyn of Texas — an oil state where climate denial runs deep — said he is helping write legislation to reduce emissions through “energy innovation.” Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said he wants to create a “Manhattan Project” for clean energy funding. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is exploring bipartisan plans to curb emissions from her position as chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. And Representative Matthew Gaetz of Florida, who once called to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency, introduced legislation to tackle climate change by encouraging nuclear energy and hydropower, as well as “carbon capture” technology, which aims to pull planet-warming carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
Some of these proposals would be better than nothing. None are commensurate with the scale of the climate crisis. Most important, the GOP’s congressional leadership has evinced no serious interest in passing any of them.
But all of the proposals do help Republicans shift the terms of debate over climate change in a more favorable direction. Instead of having an argument over whether the public should believe coal barons — or their own lying thermometers — on the subject of global warming, the GOP’s performative acceptance of climate science allows it to a pick a fight over whether the solution to the crisis should involve raising taxes or gas prices.
But Donald Trump refuses to transition to cleaner, more sustainable talking points. Rather, on climate, the president insists on putting his party’s dumbest face forward.
Not content to merely accelerate warming through its policies, the Trump administration is adding insult to ecological injury. At a meeting of the Arctic Council this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to sign on to a joint statement affirming the necessity of protecting the Arctic region from the threat of rapidly melting ice — unless all mentions of climate change were stripped from the document. Pompeo further horrified his fellow diplomats by suggesting that climate change is actually good for the Arctic, since melting ice caps are “opening up new shipping routes” and thus making it more economically viable to expand oil drilling in the region.
Pompeo’s “climate change isn’t a big deal, but if it was, that would be awesome” position is shared by William Happer, the 79-year-old physicist who serves on Trump’s National Security Council. Happer has said repeatedly, in public, that “the demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler.” He further argues that humanity has actually been suffering through a “CO2 famine,” which the fossil-fuel industry has been heroically combating.
Now Trump is preparing to appoint Happer to chair a “climate review panel” that would formally challenge the assessments of the federal government’s climate scientists (or, as Trump calls them, the “deep state”), the New York Times reports. Notably, even the president’s most unethical and demagogic advisers think this is a bad idea:
[S]everal White House officials — including Larry Kudlow, the president’s chief economic adviser — have urged Mr. Trump not to adopt Mr. Happer’s proposal, on the grounds that it would be perceived as a White House attack on science.
Even Stephen K. Bannon … is apprehensive about what Mr. Happer is trying to do.
“The very idea will start a holy war on cable before 2020,” he said. “Better to win now and introduce the study in the second inaugural address.”
Nevertheless, Trump is reportedly intent on moving forward with the panel.
Meanwhile, his appointed director of the United States Geological Survey recently prohibited that office from estimating climate change’s impacts beyond the year 2040. This amounts to a prohibition on acknowledging that any deregulatory policy could significantly impact the climate, since there is a decades-long lag between the time when emissions are produced and the moment when their biggest impact on warming is felt. What’s more, the White House also reportedly plans to prevent the government’s next National Climate Assessment report from including any discussion of worst-case scenarios.
Unlike Trump’s apparent decision to let William “the climate scientists are the real Nazis” Happer lead a climate-denial panel, his administration’s interference with the National Climate Assessment has some practical justification. The last such assessment, released over Thanksgiving weekend in 2018, projected dire economic and humanitarian consequences if carbon emissions aren’t rapidly reduced. The Trump administration largely succeeded in keeping that report out of the media spotlight. But the various groups challenging the White House’s deregulatory agenda in court took notice and are now using the administration’s own official research against it.
Still, as Bannon suggests, there’s no real reason for Trump to wage total war on climate science right now. The next National Climate Assessment won’t be released until 2021 or 2022. So there would be plenty of time for the president to sabotage the science after securing reelection.
But Trump is just as allergic to subtlety when he’s abetting climate catastrophe as he is when interior decorating. And that’s probably for the best. Elected Republicans are nigh-unanimous in their opposition to climate policies that would hurt the oil industry’s bottom line. And as long as that’s the case, it’s probably more dangerous for the GOP to do Harold Hamm’s bidding while crying crocodile tears for the climate than to do so while raving about how carbon-dioxide molecules are the Holocaust victims of 2019.