On the front page of The New York Times Sunday Review, Elisabeth Rosenthal has a nice bit of analysis that asks, “Where Did Global Warming Go?” It is, by the standards of mainstream U.S. media, an unusually direct and plainspoken description of America’s current isolation when it comes to climate change.
The United States is the “one significant outlier” on responding to climate change, according to a recent global research report produced by HSBC, the London-based bank. John Ashton, Britain’s special representative for climate change, said in an interview that “in the U.K., in Europe, in most places I travel to” — but not in the United States — “the starting point for conversation is that this is real, there are clear and present dangers, so let’s get a move on and respond.” After watching the Republican candidates express skepticism about global warming in early September, former President Bill Clinton put it more bluntly, “I mean, it makes us — we look like a joke, right?”
I think it’s great that Rosenthal has done this. My beef, insofar as I have one, is that she doesn’t push far enough in uncovering the causes of this state of affairs. She tiptoes up to identifying the main culprit, but never quite takes the leap.
She acknowledges the power of the fossil-fuel industry, the recession, and the mild winter, but notes that all those conditions obtained in Europe as well. Her first go at identifying uniquely American causes indulges in an unfortunate sort of national psychoanalysis:
Americans — who produce twice the emissions per capita that Europeans do — are in many ways wired to be holdouts. We prefer bigger cars and bigger homes. We value personal freedom, are suspicious of scientists, and tend to distrust the kind of sweeping government intervention required to confront rising greenhouse gas emissions.
Meh. Broad generalizations about the national psyche never strike me as all that convincing. There are too many counter-strains and cross-currents to reduce things this way. Insofar as those national preferences exist on a statistical level, we’re better off looking to accidents of history and market distortions than inherent characterological traits.
Way down in paragraph No. 17, she gets closer:
In the United States, the right wing of the Republican Party has managed to turn skepticism about man-made global warming into a requirement for electability, forming an unlikely triad with antiabortion and gun-rights beliefs. In findings from a Pew poll this spring, 75 percent of staunch conservatives, 63 percent of libertarians and 55 percent of Main Street Republicans said there was no solid evidence of global warming.
“This has become a partisan political issue here in a way it has not elsewhere,” said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. “We are seeing doubts in the U.S. largely because the issue has become a partisan one, with Democrats” — 75 percent of whom say they believe there is strong evidence of climate change — “seeing one thing and Republicans another.”
This is kind of burying the lead, isn’t it? Turns out it’s not “America” that has lost its belief in climate change and its will to take action. It’s not “America” that’s the global outlier. It’s the Republican Party. Ronald Brownstein has been one of the very few national pundits to say this clearly: “The GOP is stampeding toward an absolutist rejection of climate science that appears unmatched among major political parties around the globe, even conservative ones.” (See also my piece: “How do you solve a problem like conservative white men?“)
What’s unique about the U.S. is: a) it has a political system structured to give the minority party effective veto power over public policy (Brad Plumer emphasizes this), and b) it has a major political party fully in the grip of obscurantism and oppositionalism. There’s your explanation of where global warming went.
Any time someone points this out, they are faced with dreary charges of “partisanship,” which is why so few pundits do it. That’s why Kohut, in the excerpt above, says climate change has “become” a partisan issue rather than saying more accurately that the U.S. conservative movement intentionally made it a partisan issue.
This isn’t just semantics. There’s an odd tendency in U.S. political discussions to treat Republican intransigence as an objective feature of the landscape. It’s as though the right’s theological opposition to taxes or their rejection of climate science are just things that happen, like weather, and it’s other people’s responsibility to deal with it. Republican policymakers are not treated as autonomous moral agents with the capacity to make different decisions.
But they should be. They’re grown-ups who have made a series of decisions and deserve to be held accountable for them. We shouldn’t ask, “How can the U.S. reduce climate pollution given the fact that climate change is political poison?” We should ask, “Why do Republicans insist on poisoning the climate issue?” If they’re not called to account they have no reason to change.
And they will change, sooner or later. 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 vestigal 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.
They’ve been able to stay in this awkward position because they don’t get pushed. Too few people in U.S. politics care enough about climate change to call them out like Brownstein did. Almost no one in the media consistently presses them on it, takes their answers seriously, and holds them accountable. So they skate by.
Republicans aren’t the only problem, though. Nothing is forcing journalists or Democrats to stay quiet. Climate change may be off the political radar in the U.S., but the only way to put it back on is for people to speak up. Somebody’s got to stop waiting for somebody else to do it.
And on that note, I give you Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), raising the roof:
Climate change isn’t popular in the U.S. right now, but Whitehouse spoke up anyway. It’s an example anyone from any party or profession is free to follow, any time.