The Duck of Minerva

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Climate Change: The Elephant in the Room

July 1, 2011

This is my inaugural post on this site, and I thought I would start with a topic I’ve been puzzling over for a while. It may take me a couple of posts to get it all out, but here goes: What happened to Republican elites on climate change?

Republicans have long been more reluctant than Democrats to address the problem. However, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and Al Gore’s slide show and mov(i)ement, moderate Republican governors – Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee – lined up to support schemes to cap and trade emissions of greenhouse gases. In the Senate, John McCain throughout several Congresses, as recently as 2008, sponsored cap-and-trade legislation which was seen as a market-oriented (read: Republican) alternative to more command and control regulatory approaches. In 2008, Newt Gingrich eagerly appeared in one of Gore’s post-partisan promo shots alongside Nancy Pelosi in support of the We Can Solve It campaign.

Flash forward to 2011. In post financial crisis America, climate change, if it is possible, has become even more politicized. As they seek the Republican party nomination for president, Pawlenty and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman have had to apologize and backtrack for their prior support for cap-and-trade. It has become almost an article of faith among Republican activists that presumptive candidates not only have to disavow former support for cap-and-trade but they have to deny the science itself and reject climate change as a problem (Though he has assailed cap-and-trade, Mitt Romney admirably stuck to his guns and said the problem is real). Pawlenty, by contrast, just this week told Fox News, “So there is climate change, but the reality is the science of it indicates that most of it, if not all of it, is caused by natural causes.” What gives?

Al Gore, in a recently released broadside in Rolling Stone, would have us believe that this is nothing more than business as usual efforts by “Polluters” and “Ideologues,” with a handful of climate change deniers, bankrolled by dirty industries, able to twist public opinion and challenge the credibility of climate scientists (Ross Gelbspan made a similar argument in his 1997 book The Heat Is On – my have times changed!).

A slightly different view sees opposition rooted in the regional politics of the United States. David Wheeler of the Center for Global Development suggests the reluctance to address climate change is a function of the relatively high adjustment costs that some Red States particularly in the South, the Ohio Valley, and Mountain West face compared to other states. This dynamic too has long been used to explain why some Democrats like Senators Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia oppose more vigorous action on climate change (see my 2008 piece along these lines for the Center for a New American Security).

Something different and more profound seems to be going on here than just run of the mill special interest politics. Climate change has joined the list of symbolic partisan signifiers like abortion that party activists and aligned biased media (like Rush Limbaugh) are using to identify members of their team.

This is unfortunate and more than an American problem. As the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases (next to China), the U.S. is a necessary part of the solution. In the lead up to this year’s climate negotiations in Durban, the fraying of purpose internationally is partially a consequence of dismay at the lack of U.S. action.

While the Obama Administration still is seeking to push through some of its climate agenda through regulation, many of its international commitments, particularly on climate finance, ultimately hinge on having a national carbon cap that generates public but more importantly private sector resources to support climate mitigation efforts around the world.

Where does that leave us? For all of his righteous fury, I fear that Al Gore is now part of the problem. Democrats own the environment and climate change as an issue. As Glen Sussman has documented, during the Carter era, the gap between Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. House on the League of Conservation Voters environmental scorecard was 27 points. During the Reagan era, the gap in both chambers increased to 32 points and then 35 under George H.W. Bush. By the Clinton era, the gap extended to 52 points and in the first year of the George W. Bush administration stood at 65 points.

By 2010, the gap between Democrats and Republicans was a chasm. Among the leadership of the top five environmental committees, the partisan gap was 60 points in the Senate (with Democrats receiving an average score of 60 and Republicans 0) and 76 points in the House (with Democratic committee leaders receiving an average score of 88). As I’ll write about more in my next post on public and elite opinion, these dynamics are as if not more pronounced on climate change, which has come to dominate the environmental agenda.

For supporters of action on environmental causes in general and climate change in particular, this degree of partisanship is poisonous. Gore is surely right that there has been a deliberate effort to mislead the public and discredit climate scientists, but that may not matter. In this din of information, I don’t know if anybody is listening to him any more other than people who already agree with him. While advocates have been struggling with the right message (is climate change a security problem?) to get Republicans on board, it may need a new messenger too.

It is unclear when the country will again have another shot at passing national climate legislation. In the last Congress, the Democrats possessed sufficient voting strength and discipline to get a cap-and-trade bill through the House. President Obama inherited an economy in distress and two ongoing wars, and he had to choose what single ambitious agenda item – health care or energy – he could get through the Senate and as we know he chose health care.

The Democrats do not and likely never will possess the votes or party discipline to get national climate legislation without some support by Republicans in one chamber. The Obama Administration conducted some efforts to enlist South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham to identify potential Republican Senate support in the last Congress. They probably needed 8-12 votes, and the usual suspects were senators like Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine. (As an aside, while Ryan Lizza documented how ham-handed these efforts were in the New Yorker, I have trouble believing that better political gamesmanship would have delivered the necessary votes).

Going forward, there has to be a renewed effort to enlist Republicans and those trusted by Republicans to make the case that this is a problem worth caring about. Gore’s ad campaign of 2008, which featured both Gingrich and Pat Robertson, recognized this, but as long as Gore is the main face of the climate change movement rather than governors, CEOs, military leaders, and pastors, I fear Republican defenders of vigorous action on climate change like Michael Stafford and D.R. Tucker will be few and far between.

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Joshua Busby is an Associate Professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin. He is the author of Moral Movements and Foreign Policy (Cambridge, 2010) and the co-author, with Ethan Kapstein, of AIDS Drugs for All: Social Movements and Market Transformations (Cambridge, 2013). His main research interests include transnational advocacy and social movements, international security and climate change, global public health and HIV/ AIDS, energy and environmental policy, and U.S. foreign policy. He also tends to blog about global wildlife conservation.