The top five things voters need to know about conservatives and climate change
I’ve seen a recent surge of stories about conservatives and climate change. None of them, oddly, tell voters what they most need to know on the subject. In fact, one of them does the opposite. (Grrrr …)
I respond in accordance with internet tradition: a listicle!
5. Conservatives have a long history of advancing environmental progress. In a column directed to Mitt Romney, Thomas Friedman reels off (one suspects from memory) “the G.O.P.’s long tradition of environmental stewardship that some Republicans are still proud of: Teddy Roosevelt bequeathed us national parks, Richard Nixon the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency, Ronald Reagan the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer and George H. W. Bush cap-and-trade that reduced acid rain.” This familiar litany is slightly misleading, attributing to presidents what is mostly the work of Congresses, but the basic point is valid enough: In the 20th century, Republicans have frequently played a constructive role on the environment.
4. There is a conservative approach to addressing climate change. Law professor Jonathan Adler has laid it out in the past and does so again in a much-discussed post over at The Atlantic. He suggests prizes for innovation, reduced regulatory barriers to alternative energy, a revenue-neutral carbon tax, and some measure of adaptation.
It’ll be no surprise to Adler or anyone else that I believe the problem is more severe than he does; solving it — as opposed to just “doing something” — will involve a far more vigorous government role than he envisions. But he makes an eloquent, principled case for the simple notion that “embrace of limited government principles need not entail the denial of environmental claims.” Conservatives could, if they wanted, spend their time arguing for their preferred solutions rather than denying scientific results.
3. There are conservatives who believe in taking action on climate change. Even those dismal polls we’re always talking about find 30 or 40 percent of Republicans acknowledging the threat of climate change. And support for clean air and clean energy policies remains high across the board. Heck, some — OK, a tiny handful of — conservatives are even brave enough to say so in public! It’s really only the hard nut of the GOP, anywhere from 15 to 30 percent, depending on how you measure, that is intensely and ideologically opposed to climate science and solutions alike. Oh, and almost all Republicans in Congress.
2. Mitt Romney used to say and do moderate things on green issues when he was governor of Massachusetts. He spoke in favor of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade system for Northeastern states, and introduced the Massachusetts Climate Protection Plan. He wasn’t afraid to crack down on coal plants — I never get tired of this remarkable video:
1. The Republican establishment has gone nuts on climate change and the environment.
This, more than anything, is what American voters need to know about the Republican Party — not what Republicans used to do, or what one or two outliers say, but what the party as an extant political force is devoted to today. The actually existing GOP wants to dismantle the EPA, open more public land to coal mining and oil drilling, remove what regulatory constraints remain on fossil-fuel companies, slash the budget for clean-energy research and deployment, scrap CAFE and efficiency standards, protect inefficient light bulbs, withdraw from all international negotiations or efforts on climate, and stop the military from using less oil.
Which brings me to the piece that drives me crazy, from National Journal‘s customarily excellent Amy Harder: “Campaign Energy Messages Differ; Policies Not So Much.”
No … seriously?
I know journalists don’t headline their own pieces. But the piece itself isn’t much better. Take this bit:
Whether the data is inflated or not, the message that may be coming across most to voters is that there really isn’t much difference between Obama’s policies and those likely to be pursued in a Romney administration.
Ah, so the problem is not that Obama and Romney would have similar energy policies. That’s just the message “coming across to most voters.”
Now, if you’re a journalist, and you determine that voters are receiving a wildly incorrect message, what do you do? Do you write a story about their receipt of the incorrect message? Or do you correct the message?
The fact is, Romney would not pursue the same energy policies that Obama is pursuing. At all. Not even a little bit. It’s interesting, I suppose, that Romney used to run a state (and a state party) where moderate energy policy was demanded by voters. But what matters now is that Mitt Romney serves the present-day Republican Party, which has gone crazy.
The notion that Mitt Romney will rediscover some hidden internal moderate and buck the party on this stuff is just a VSP fantasy. Ever since he started running for president (this time around, anyway), he’s been frantically trying to please the right-wing base. Friedman says Romney’s “biggest challenge in attracting independent swing voters will be overcoming a well-earned reputation for saying whatever the Republican base wants to hear.” But self-styled centrists like Friedman have been saying this kind of thing forever and there remains very little indication that any Republican politician faces a tangible cost for pandering to the right.
Romney will not be elected to follow his heart. He’ll be elected to ratify the GOP agenda. Grover Norquist, a man with as much claim to leadership of the GOP as anyone, made his feelings on the matter extremely clear at CPAC:
All we have to do is replace Obama. … We are not auditioning for fearless leader. We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. … We just need a president to sign this stuff. We don’t need someone to think it up or design it. The leadership now for the modern conservative movement for the next 20 years will be coming out of the House and the Senate.
Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States. This is a change for Republicans: the House and Senate doing the work with the president signing bills. His job is to be captain of the team, to sign the legislation that has already been prepared. [my emphasis]
Mitt Romney is well-aware — and if he wasn’t before, the primary taught him — that his job is to “sign the legislation that has already been prepared.” The leadership of the party is in Congress. It has declared skepticism of climate science the de facto party position. It has declared open war on clean energy, efficiency, and environmental protections. It has made clear that it will support fossil-fuel companies at every juncture.
That’s conservatives and climate for you. It’s interesting, intellectually, that there’s a history of green moderation in the party; that there’s a conceptual space where titular conservative principles overlap with climate protection; that many self-identified Republicans aren’t as crazy as their leaders; and that Romney used to pander in a different direction. But what’s relevant to voters who value climate and environmental protection is that they won’t get any under a GOP administration or a GOP Congress.