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Democratic presidential candidates have started a climate policy arms race, with bigger and bolder policy proposals coming out each month.
This is welcome news. It signals that a new window for climate policymaking may emerge after the 2020 election.
But it’s not enough. Ambitious Democratic proposals are only one front in a two-front war. We need to pass climate reforms, but we also need those reforms to stick.
This is not a trivial concern. Across the world, climate policies have stalled or been repealed after right-wing populists seized power. In Australia, Tony Abbott won the Liberal party leadership on a platform of climate denial and then turfed Australia’s carbon price in 2014. In June 2018, Ontario’s Doug Ford swept into power and immediately killed the province’s cap and trade system. And, of course, Trump’s EPA has shredded Obama-era climate regulations like the Clean Power Plan.
The global climate cannot survive any more of these fits and starts. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the 2020s will make the difference between catastrophic climate change and manageable climate disruption. It means that, if 2020 goes their way, Democrats only have one last shot to pass — and sustain — climate reforms before irreversible damage sets in.
It also means we have to pay attention to the Republican elephant in the climate policymaking room. Is blanket Republican opposition inevitable? Is climate policy doomed to become just another tribal left-right cleavage?
The answer is more complicated than you might expect. When George H.W. Bush ran for President in 1988, he promised aggressive climate action. “Those who think we’re powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect,” he proclaimed in a Michigan campaign speech “are forgetting about the White House effect. As President, I intend to do something about it.”
In 2008, Newt Gringich starred in an ad where, sitting beside Nancy Pelosi, he argued “our country must take action to address climate change.” And Mitt Romney signed Massachusetts up for carbon pricing as governor.
Even today, Republican voters have more variable beliefs about climate change than many on the left acknowledge. The average Republican voter, for example, looks quite different from the loudest Republican climate deniers in D.C. In recent research, my colleagues and I used well-validated statistical models to estimate district-level climate beliefs among Republican voters for every congressional district in the country. (You can explore our data here as part of an interactive online tool).
Republicans support funding research on renewables in every Republican-held district. There is also strong district-level Republican support for regulating carbon pollution. Even in the most conservative corners of the country, a third or more of Republican voters still believe in human-caused climate change.
This reservoir of Republican climate concern reminds us that climate policy is not, inherently, a left-right cleavage. Across the world, there have been centrist and right-leaning parties that have proposed aggressive climate action, sometimes in the face of left-leaning opposition.
Unfortunately, the politics of climate change have become increasingly structured by ideology here in the United States.
While there have long been pro-climate Republican voices, they have systematically moderated their positions when faced with party pressure. By the end of his presidency, George H.W. Bush had doubled down on climate policy opposition. During the 1992 election, he ran a radio ad attacking an imaginary Clinton plan to impose a “punishing carbon tax” on Americans that would purportedly cost 600,000 jobs and $100 billion every year.
Gingrich later argued that “sitting on the couch with Nancy Pelosi is the dumbest single thing I’ve done in the last few years.” And Romney accepted the Republican nomination to laughter in the convention hall with his cringe-inducing line, “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet. My promise … is to help you and your family.”
Republican elites who push “conservative climate solutions” may be in step with many GOP voters, but they are getting squeezed out of the conversation.
Why? A big reason is a familiar culprit: the fossil fuel industry. Fossil fuel interests have spent the last three decades pushing climate policy conflict into the public domain. Portraying themselves as the defenders of the American way of life, they’ve sown confusion about climate science and distorted how our political elites understand the people they represent. They’ve made Republican officials think that the politically advantageous position is to deny climate change. For instance, my research shows that staffers in congressional offices that interact more with the fossil fuel industry wrongly believe their constituents don’t support climate reforms.
The result has been a gradual sorting across parties. Even in the mid-2000s, there was a reservoir of pro-climate legislators within the Republican ranks (and anti-climate legislators within the Democratic caucus). That’s changed rapidly over the past decade. Pro-climate voices like Representative Bob Inglis were primaried for supporting conservative climate policy solutions.
It didn’t have to be this way. Imagine a John McCain or Mitt Romney presidency. Both men came from party’s pro-climate factions. President McCain or President Romney may have been able to signal to the average Republican voter that supporting climate science was consistent with a Republican identity. Instead, we’ve been saddled with the current Republican president, who has deepened and reinforced the power of climate denial and confusion.
Climate advocates must fight back against efforts to keep climate denial a part of the Republican party’s identity. They can’t let the fossil fuel companies define what it means to be a climate advocate. Watch cable news, and you’ll already hear insidious narratives that supporting climate policy is an extreme and left-wing position.
Nothing could be more wrong. Climate reforms will protect Americans in blue American and red America. They will keep Republican children safe and Democratic children safe. They will provide immediate economic benefits for communities in every corner of this country.
When the Affordable Care Act was under attack, three Republicans — John McCain, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins — were critical in torpedoing their party’s efforts to repeal Obamacare.
Eliminate the filibuster, and a robust climate package may well pass the Senate with only Democratic votes.
But we’ll also need courageous pro-climate voices to later reemerge from the Republican wilderness to make sure these reforms stick throughout the 2020s. Only then can our leaders protect Americans from the civilizational threat of climate change.
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
Matto Mildenberger is an assistant professor of political science at the University of California Santa Barbara. His book on the politics of climate change, Carbon Captured: How Business and Labor Control Climate Politics, is coming out in January from MIT Press.