Climate & Energy

Conservatives seek alternatives to climate denialism, come up short


You know how old people start to tell the same stories over and over again? Well, old bloggers start quoting themselves. In October 2011, I wrote this about Republican intransigence on climate change:

The climate change situation in U.S. politics is not stable. There’s only so long a political party can wall itself off from reality when Americans in business, state and local government, and the military are acknowledging it. It’s evident even now that Republicans are vulnerable on the issue. When pressed, they grope around for some position that’s short of crazypants denialism, since they know that doesn’t look good and perhaps have some vestigial sense of shame. They are stung by charges of being “anti-science,” or they wouldn’t spend so much time trying to rebut them. But they also want a position that doesn’t obligate them to do anything. Right now they’re dancing around with various versions of “there’s warming but we don’t know if humans are causing it.” Their stumbling incoherence gives them away.

All of that remains true. The Republican position on climate change has always been internally incoherent and confused, but it has stumbled along because nobody, including the media, pushes them on it. It can’t last. And indeed, it is showing new signs of stress. That’s got “reasonable Republicans” casting about for a new approach. Their efforts so far are … uninspiring.

On climate change, the GOP faces the same situation it faces on many other issues (gay marriage, immigration, guns): The right-wing base holds extreme positions that embarrass more reasonable Republicans. But the party leadership remains terrified of the base, especially after the primary massacres of the last few cycles. So Republican politicians have to be extremely careful not to publicly cross the crazies. At the same time, they are trying to “rebrand” the party to appeal to new demographics (young people, minorities, women). It’s a difficult — perhaps impossible — tightrope to walk.

Witness their strategy on climate change. GOP insiders have talked to enough consultants and pollsters to realize that outright denialism sounds backward and crazy to everyone outside their core demographic of older white men. Nonetheless, the right-wing base is still very much denialist. More so than ever.

Their brilliant solution? Just don’t talk about it: “GOP climate tack: Talk jobs, not science.”

I expect they can get away with this for a while longer — the media is criminally unwilling to press them on it, though Organizing for America is trying — but it’s not a stable long-term position. One cannot discuss the relative merits of various solutions to a problem one refuses to name, at least not without surreal incoherence.

So it is left to various reasonable conservatives — retired pols, pundits, think tankers, never anyone in office — to grope around for a new path.

It’s a tough nut to crack. They need to acknowledge the existence of the problem, so they don’t look crazy. But they also need some way of downplaying the severity of the problem, so it doesn’t require any (gasp) big-government solutions. They don’t want to reject it, but they want to tame it, so it’s a matter of normal politics, not an overriding priority.

Those reformist efforts have found a lifeline in the recent news that surface temperatures have paused briefly (over the last 16 years or so) in their upward march. The Economist ran a widely cited piece that combined this factoid with some confused thoughts on climate sensitivity and was immediately misinterpreted and celebrated across the right. Even the normally level-headed Will Wilkinson, one of my favorite libertarian-leaning writers, was led to claim that the climate consensus is “falling apart,” which … no. (Ryan Cooper corrects him at some length here.) Ross Douthat, a Republican “reformer” much celebrated despite his lack of any discernible influence on any other Republican, used to at least grapple with climate change, but now he’s heard about the supposed “pause” and has decided climate is a “pet cause” of the “political class.” James Pethokoukis, another favorite of the Reasonables, argues that the “pause” justifies a stance of “watchful waiting” on climate change, perhaps with some research on geoengineering. He concludes, “Better taxpayer dough spent on [geoengineering research] than Solyndra,” which is in the running for the stupidest thing I’ve ever read in my life.

Eli Lehrer, former VP at the Heartland Institute and now head of free-market think tank R Street, recently wrote a splashy piece in The Weekly Standard arguing that conservatives should acknowledge the reality of anthropogenic climate change, but only in order to use it to secure conservative policies: “replacing some or all taxes on capital gains, corporate income, or personal income with a carbon tax.” Making an already regressive new tax even more regressive: now there’s something we can all agree on!

The problem with all this is that the “pause,” at least as it’s been interpreted by conservatives, is horseshit. Temperature, as it has risen over the last 50 years, has “paused” many times:

Skeptical ScienceClick to embiggen

We are still within the range of temperatures forecast by mainstream models:

Real ClimateClick to embiggen.

What accounts for the temporary slowdown in the rate of increase in surface temperature (which itself reflects only a fraction of total warming of global biophysical systems)? Most likely, more heat energy is being stored in the ocean:

Skeptical ScienceClick to embiggen.

As for climate sensitivity — how much temperature will rise in response to a doubling of atmospheric CO2 — however that debate turns out (and it’s much more complicated than The Economist suggests), the fact remains that we are not merely going to double carbon in the atmosphere. We are on track to far more than double it, from the current 400 parts per million up to possibly 1000 ppm.

As Skeptical Science sums up in a recent post:

Long story short, nothing about the “pause” changes the basic nature of the climate problem. We are still on a course for up to 6 degrees Celsius warming, which will lead to multiple simultaneous humanitarian disasters. Climate scientists, unlike conservative pundits, are still extremely worried. Agencies like the International Energy Agency and the World Bank are panicking, running around waving their arms with their hair on fire. It’s all as dire as ever.

And here we come to one of the principal reasons conservatives have fought for so long against acknowledging climate science: The reality of the situation carries radical implications. Once you accept the scientific consensus, you are on a slippery slope. You have to explain, not just how your proposed policies would reduce emissions, but how they would reduce emissions enough to forestall catastrophe.

That’s the thin ice these conservatives reformers are edging out on to. None of them can explain how their desultory climate proposals — geoengineering research, a small, revenue-neutral carbon tax, more nuclear subsidies — would produce the extraordinary emission reductions necessary to secure a reasonable chance of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. They don’t explain it because they can’t.

For reformist conservatives, at least so far, moving past denialism has largely been a symbolic affair. Their primary goal seems to be to reassure the right that conservatives can be scientifically literate while still focusing obsessively on shrinking government, reducing taxes on the wealthy, and fighting everything Democrats do. The ideological priors come first; climate change comes second, at best.

That is preferable, I guess, to denying reality altogether. But I’m not sure it’s any more stable, politically and intellectually, than denialism. This “pause” hullabaloo, like all the skeptic mini-frenzies of the past few decades, will fade, and the brutal logic of climate change will remain. Sooner or later, conservatives, like the rest of the political world, will have to decide whether they want to solve the problem or cling to conventional politics.