Politics: Will Bipartisanship Ever Be Possible on Climate and Energy?

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I spent the first couple of days this week at the Governors Global Climate Summit at the University of California in Davis, where outgoing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger presided over his third gathering of regional and local leaders interested in action on global warming. (Full disclosure: I moderated two panels at the summit.) I wrote about it for here—while there were a few modest successes, including an agreement for California to potentially open its coming carbon market to forestry credits from states in Brazil and Mexico, on the whole there was a poor ratio of hot air to actual accomplishment. In fact in retrospect, the experience was a little depressing, as Margot Roosevelt of the Los Angeles Times points out in a post on the summit.

A number of the more prominent speakers that had been advertised for the summit—like Schwarzenegger’s chum James Cameron, certainly a convinced enviro—dropped out and sent video messages. There was a lot of time given over to promotional videos from sponsors like BMW and the Aga Khan Development Network, less to substantiative discussions about the real future of climate policy. At one point a video ran on Schwarzenegger’s first climate summit two years ago, which featured a message from then President-elect Barack Obama, promising that his Administration would “mark a new chapter in America’s leadership on climate change that will strengthen our security and create millions of new jobs.” All that did was remind us of how far we’d gone—in the wrong direction. (The fact that the video included a glimpse of disgraced former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who attended the 2008 summit in full pompadour, only served to remind the audience of how dated it all was.)

Still, spending time at the summit was worthwhile because it allowed me to catch up with a truly endangered species: Republicans who believe in climate change. Schwarzenegger still does, and so does George Schultz, Ronald Reagan’s former Secretary of State, who helped lead the battle against California’s Prop 23 and who appeared on stage at the summit. As Schwarzenegger said, Prop 23—which would have all but repealed California’s climate change law—was defeated with bipartisan support. “You don’t win by 22 points just with Democratic votes,” Schwarzenegger told me.

But Schwarzenegger is increasingly an anomaly. The midterm elections returned a raft of new Republicans—many of them with tea party backing—who are not only skeptical of how to deal with climate change, they doubt man-made global warming exists at all. The impact of the Tea Party is forcing even somewhat moderate Republicans to scramble to the right on energy and climate. In the intraparty battle over who will chair the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, the leading candidate Fred Upton of Michigan has come under attack from far right voices for his support in 2007 of a bill that would phase out incandescent lightbulbs, which Glenn Beck has called “all socialist.” (I think he needs to reset his “creeping socialism” meter—this barely registers.) In response, Upton has promised to revisit the Lightbulbgate should be become chairman, keeping America safe from the threat of efficient bulbs.

Schwarzenegger and his California cohort aren’t the only Republicans with a tinge of green. At a hearing of the House Science and Technology Committee on global warming, South Carolina Republican Bob Inglis took some of his fellow conservatives to task for their knee-jerk skepticism (h/t Kate Sheppard):

There are people who make a lot of money on talk radio and talk TV saying a lot of things. They slept at a Holiday Inn Express last night, and they’re experts on climate change. They substitute their judgment for people who have Ph.D.s and work tirelessly.

Of course, Inglis won’t be a member of Congress next year—he was defeated in the primaries by a Tea Party challenger.

Polls reflect a growing partisan divide on climate change as well. A new released a few days ago by the Pew Research Center found that only 16% of Republicans believe there is solid evidence that the Earth is warming because of human activity, compared to 32% of Independents and 53% of Democrats. That number falls to 8% for self-identified Tea Party Republicans. And it’s not just climate change—there’s also a widening partisan gap on alternative energy policies with a declining percentage of Republicans over the past three years support higher fuel efficiency standards, greater spending on energy research, or more funds for public transit. (It should be noted, however, that in each case more than 50% of Republicans polled support those policies. Although considering that a another Pew poll found that a majority of Americans don’t even know who won the midterms, I’m not sure how much it matters.)

All of this makes the possibility of bipartisan action on climate or energy seem very slim indeed. I’ve been writing about the efforts of groups like the Breakthrough Institute to find “post-partisan” solutions to the climate conundrum, most of which focus on backing away from a carbon price while heavily increasing funds for basic energy research and development. If Republicans are dead set against a “job-killing energy tax,” as the carbon cap-and-trade was caricatured, then take out the tax and focus on research and energy infrastructure, things the government has done very well in the past. (The wonks suggesting this route are usually also skeptical that a carbon cap would work even if it could be passed.)

I like that approach on both its merits and its politics and its realism. I don’t think you can use science to convince wavering Americans that climate change is the dire threat it really is. (Certainly the stack of TIME cover stories warning about the extreme dangers of climate change haven’t done much to move the needle, and we’re supposed to be mainstream.) But given the political landscape, will even these changes make a dent in conservative opposition? I’m not so sure. Given the current landscape—and the apparent refusal of hardcore conservatives to compromise as a matter of principle—nothing seems a lot more likely than something.

But we can’t just give up. Grist‘s David Roberts—who coined the term “climate hawk“—believes this will come down to a struggle over political power, not competing ideas. In his view, environmentalists lost the last round not because of flaws in their policies, but because they lacked soldiers on the ground, as he wrote in Slate:

It is now painfully clear that, given the manifold dysfunctions of American politics (filibuster abuse, unrestricted corporate money), the energy status quo is too powerful to take down in direct conflict. It would be a mistake to cluster together under a new banner and provide another fat target. It’s time to heed the lesson America’s revolutionary militias learned after they took a few drubbings at the hands of the British Redcoats: disperse. Take to the hills. Run and gun.

Roberts argues that conservatives have been successful in getting and consolidating power thanks to their superior discipline—and he points to the rightward pressure on Fred Upton as an example. Unless those who believe in climate change and energy action—mostly Democrats in this view—fight with the same tactics, they’ll lose, no matter how many brilliant white papers they write.

I find the idea of our energy policy being decided by endless partisan guerilla warfare a little depressing, but then, I’m a writer, not a fighter. (Though recent events—like the sudden refusal of Republicans to support the START treaty with Russia, for reasons that seem to have nothing to do with policy and everything to do with partisanship—might make a soldier out of me yet.) I guess I have more hope that some element of compromise can work—that the right ideas and compromises can peel off the most wavering skeptics and conservatives, enough to build and sustain a coalition. That’s what Schwarzenegger counsels:

This is not limited to climate change. Let’s assume someone says I don’t believe in this climate change…but the important thing is, we have people dying from air pollution, so let’s cut the pollution any way. Let’s reduce hospital visits [with climate legislation] because Republicans are so into reducing costs. That’s meat on the chicken right there. Let’s be energy independent and not be dependent for oil on the people who want to blow us up. Republicans hate that. That’s meat on the chicken right now….There’s a lot of issues where the result is reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but we don’t have to do it because of that.

Of course, appeals to energy independence and national security and public health have been made to support climate change legislation before, without much success. Maybe it will be different now, without changing the power structure. But as even an optimist like Schwarzenegger knows, things can’t continue like this, a nation so divided:

My concern is not just about the environment. My concern is about the wall in this country… I think if we don’t do something very quickly, this country could be frozen. We’ve got to get our act together if we really want to be an international player and be number one.

From the mouths of Terminators. Let’s hope someone listens.