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Republicans' complete dereliction on climate change

GOP's abandonment of the global issue means green groups are spending big on Democrats in close midterm races

October 15, 2014 2:00AM ET

Saving the planet sounds like a cause that should have universal appeal, but in the United States, it’s a partisan issue. A short political history of the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) tells the story. The environmental group endorsed 11 Republicans in House and Senate races in 2008 but only one in 2010. What happened? The election of Barack Obama, the birth of the tea party movement and the abrupt emergence of climate change as a symbol of polarization.

Eleven GOP endorsements was actually a bit low for the LCV, which as recently as 2006 backed 14 Republicans. This year it has found two acceptable GOP lawmakers. The pair — Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Rep. Frank LoBiondo of southern New Jersey — are a rare breed: moderates from Northeastern states with long coastlines. The Environmental Defense Action Fund donated to a handful of GOP lawmakers, including South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. Consider it a burst of optimism about a prodigal son. Graham was a leader in efforts to address climate change until the advent of the tea party era, when he claimed that the science had changed and was now “in question.” The Sierra Club, however, did not endorse any Republicans for federal office. And billionaire Tom Steyer, who hinted early this year that his NextGen Climate political action committee might go after people in both parties, is now focused squarely on the GOP — specifically, defeating Republican candidates for governor and senator in nine states.

One-party leadership is not what you want on an issue as profound as climate change. If it goes unchecked, we can expect severe pollution, floods, fires, drought, famine and political instability. Already in Miami Beach, “the ocean periodically starts bubbling up through local drainpipes,” New York Times columnist Gail Collins wrote recently. No one has more reason for concern than the U.S. military, which foresees potential national security threats ranging from coups and terrorism to nations that are starving or even drowning.

Yet there is an extraordinary degree of climate change denialism in the GOP. There are very few Republican presidential prospects and members of Congress who will say out loud that they agree with 97 percent of scientists that there is climate change and that it’s driven by human activity — which means that for those who prioritize action against climate change, there is no choice but to fund (and vote for) Democrats. 

An imperfect reality

Obama campaigned in 2008 on a cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions, an idea that originated with market-oriented Republicans decades ago. But it died on Capitol Hill in 2010, and Obama, trying to build credibility before 2015 talks on an international climate treaty, has resorted to executive action. In 2012 he reached what the administration described as a historic deal to raise fuel efficiency standards. Last year the Environmental Protection Agency issued rules to cut carbon dioxide emissions at new coal- and gas-fired power plants. This year the agency proposed a more significant rule to cut them at existing plants.

Obama sees the new clean energy sector as a wellspring of economic growth, and there’s evidence of that. The picture is more mixed for the Republican claim that Obama is waging a war on coal and coal-country jobs. But some Democrats in coal states, such as Senate candidates Alison Lundergan Grimes of Kentucky and Natalie Tennant of West Virginia, are using the GOP line of attack. Tennant even ran a memorable ad in which she says “hard-working West Virginia coal miners” power America and “I’ll make sure President Obama gets the message.” Then she pulls a big power switch, and the lights go out at the White House.

In an ideal world, coal-state politicians would face reality and focus on minimizing pain as their states move to new industries and jobs. Even as die-hard defenders of coal, Grimes and Tennant can’t help being an environmental improvement over their respective opponents, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (with a dismally low 7 percent lifetime LCV score) and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (21 percent).

Democrats have a monopoly on the climate change franchise.

That’s the imperfect reality for green spenders. The LCV and its affiliates are raising money for Democrats Mark Begich of Alaska, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Michelle Nunn of Georgia, though all three support the Keystone XL pipeline opposed by environmentalists. Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, a staunch ally of the oil industry, was a Democrat whom Steyer floated as a target before backing off. But her lifetime LCV score of 51 percent is nearly four times better than the 11 percent record racked up by GOP Rep. John Cassidy, her chief competition. (For 2013, senators average 57 percent and House members 43 percent.)

With the stakes high in multiple races, environmental spending appears on track to reach new highs. The LCV is sinking $25 million into state and federal races this year, “a fivefold increase from the 2010 midterms and by far the most we have ever spent,” Daniel J. Weiss, the LCV’s senior vice president for campaigns, wrote in a memo (PDF). Steyer said earlier this year that he would put up $50 million of his own money in his crusade to make climate change a national priority. So far he’s up to $40 million. The Sierra Club is pouring $3 million into New Hampshire, Colorado and North Carolina, states with key Senate races, in its largest ever get-out-the-vote program. 

Bipartisan leadership

The problem for environmentalists and their allies is that, bubbling Miami drainpipes notwithstanding, the public feels little urgency about climate change. People consider jobs and terrorism much higher priorities. In January they ranked taking action against global warming 19th out of 20 on a to-do list for the president and Congress.

That’s where leaders should come in — to look beyond immediate concerns and plan for the future. There are several variations of Republican failure on that front. They include denying there is climate change; denying that human activity is largely driving it; claiming they don’t know enough about science to make a judgment; welcoming climate change as a good thing; opposing U.S. policies designed to slow it down, such as a carbon tax, a cap-and-trade system and EPA regulation; attacking emission regulations as job killers; proposing to eliminate the EPA; and calling it pointless for the United States to act, given the massive level of carbon emissions produced by China and other nations.

Candidates who have taken many (or all) of these positions are cropping up in the statewide races most crucial to climate policy. Environmental groups are active in governors’ races in Maine, Wisconsin and Florida (where Gov. Rick Scott has been skeptical about man-made climate change and repeatedly says, “I’m not a scientist”). The top Senate races attracting green money are in Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa (where the Sierra Club and the LCV are running separate ads that highlight the GOP candidate Joni Ernst saying, “Let’s shut down the federal EPA”), Michigan, New Hampshire and North Carolina (where Republican state House Speaker Thom Tillis has called it “false science” to say humans are driving climate change and has accused liberals of using it as “a tool to put fear in people”).

That’s not to say there aren’t potentially hopeful signs for Republican voters and officials who wish their party would take climate change seriously and act accordingly. Some politicians may be more open to climate measures privately than they will say publicly before an election. Reporting suggests that in apolitical contexts, conservatives acknowledge climate change and respond in practical ways. So bipartisan leadership could emerge as the United States transitions to a new, less-carbon-based energy economy.

But for now, Democrats have a monopoly on this franchise. What’s it worth? Possibly more than you think. Clearly climate change is not a top issue for most Americans. But some of these races are so close that those who do care about it are well positioned to make a difference.

Jill Lawrence, the author of the Brookings Institution’s Profiles in Negotiation series, is a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor and a member of USA Today’s board of contributors.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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