ARTICLE BY JACOB AUSUBEL
Climate change is one of the most serious issues confronting humanity. If the international community fails to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the consequences will be terrifying. According to the Nature Conservancy, average surface temperatures will increase from anywhere from 3 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. Sea levels will rise somewhere between 4 and 36 inches over the next 100 years. Suppose that sea levels did indeed rise by 3 feet. A 36-inch increase in sea levels would “swamp every city on the East Coast of the United States.” In addition, the lives of approximately 100 million people would be put at risk worldwide. Numerous species would be at risk of extinction. In fact, one-fourth of Earth’s species could be “headed for extinction by 2050.” The economic consequences of inaction are terrifying. Climate change could cost between 5 and 20 percent of the annual global gross domestic product.
As disconcerting as they might sound, these projections are likely conservative. Over the past 20 years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has “consistently underestimated the pace and impacts of global warming.” In a 2001 report, the IPCC projected an annual sea-level rise of less than 2 millimeters per year. This prediction was significantly flawed. From 1993 to 2006, there was a sea level increase of 3.3 millimeters per year, more than 50 percent above the IPCC’s projection. In a 2007 report, the IPCC concluded that the Arctic would not lose its summer ice before 2070 at the earliest. In fact, climate scientists now believe that the region will have ice-free summers within 20 years. As these errors suggest, the worst-case climate scenario could be even more nightmarish than scientists currently anticipate it to be.
Despite these terrifying projections, not everyone is on the same page when it comes to climate science. In the United States, one major political body, the Republican Party, stubbornly continues to deny the severity of anthropogenic, or human-caused, climate change. Some politicians even label climate change “a liberal conspiracy.” Only 5 of the 54 Senate Republicans voted for a budget amendment in March that stated that anthropogenic climate change was real. Just to put this in context, 97 percent of climate scientists agree that human activity is a very likely cause of climate change. In other words, the Republican position clashes with a broad scientific consensus.
In fact, the Republican Party wants to deliberately sabotage the upcoming Paris Climate Talks. Earlier this month, 51 of 54 Republican senators voted to stop the regulation of coal-fired power plants. In addition, the Senate voted to allow for the construction of future coal-fired power plants. These two votes were largely symbolic but were designed to undermine President Obama’s negotiating authority in Paris. The Republican Party’s position on the Paris Climate Talks is despicable. Politicians are blatantly disrespecting President Obama and are undermining the interests of their own constituents.
The Republican Party’s position on climate change is not just troubling but also unique. All across the world, other conservative parties have crafted their own proposals for dealing with climate change. In the United Kingdom, the Conservative Party has committed to working across party lines to curb carbon emissions. Climate change is also mentioned in the platforms of other conservative parties in Norway, Sweden, Spain, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Germany. In fact, the Republican Party is literally the only major conservative party that rejects the need to tackle climate change.
In the past, the Republican Party has had far better stances on scientific issues. Perhaps most notably, the Nixon administration created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. However, more conservative presidents than Nixon have also advocated for environmentally friendly policies. During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan signed an international agreement to “curb pollution that was causing a hole in the ozone layer.” The next administration, headed by George H.W. Bush, invented cap and trade as a free market alternative to government regulation of pollutants.
As recently as 2008, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) made climate change a big part of his presidential platform. In a speech delivered at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, he said:
I have proposed a bipartisan plan to address the problem of climate change and stimulate the development and use of advanced technologies. It is a market-based approach that would set reasonable caps on carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions, and provide industries with tradable credits.
In contrast, only three Senate Republicans voted in favor of the Clean Power Plan this month. Three. The Clean Power Plan is not a radical proposal. Under the Clean Power Plan, 30 percent of the country’s power would still come from coal in 2030. As Politico writer Michael Grunwald puts it, “that would be a disaster for the climate.” The Clean Power Act gives states flexibility about how to curb carbon emissions. In fact, states will currently not be required to begin implementation until 2020. In summary, the plan does not anywhere near as far as many environmentalists would hope.
The Republicans’ current stance is not simply a matter of pandering to voters. As poll after poll has shown, large numbers of Republicans accept climate science. 68 percent of Conservative Republicans support taking action to accelerate the development and use of clean energy. A majority of Republicans support regulating carbon as a pollutant and a plurality support the Clean Power Act. Admittedly, some polls suggest that a smaller number of Republicans actually believe in anthropogenic climate change. However, that does not negate the fact that the climate positions of Republican voters and politicians often clash.
Granted, a lot of pandering is going on. As a member of the Florida Legislature, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) was a big proponent of cap and trade in Florida. He now claims that efforts to address climate change would “destroy the economy.” Other candidates, such as Jeb Bush and Rand Paul, have walked a thin line, acknowledging climate change to a limited degree while also downplaying its effects and opposing the Clean Power Plan. Only two, Lindsey Graham and George Pataki, have reasonable positions on climate change. Guess what? Both candidates both poll so badly that they were excluded from the recent “undercard debate.”
More is going on that just pandering, though. The fossil fuel industry has made a deliberate effort to fund climate-denying lawmakers. In particular, ExxonMobil has invested a significant amount of money toward politics (the same company that probably knew about climate change all the way back in the 1970s and slandered climate scientists for decades). In 2007, the oil company pledged to stop funding politicians, in response to pressure from shareholder activists. This promise was broken very quickly. Since 2007, the oil company has given $1.87 million to Republicans in Congress. This is on top of the $30 million that the company gave to researchers and activist groups “promoting disinformation about global warming over the years.”
The Koch Brothers are also guilty of obstructing action on climate change. Since 1997, David and Charles Koch have sent at least $79,048,951 to groups denying climate science. Very worryingly, these same two brothers have promised to spend anywhere from $750 million to $889 million in the 2016 election cycle.
It is no surprise that so many Americans distrust climate science today. There has been a well-organized – and disingenuous – campaign to slander climate scientists and to turn climate change into a partisan issue. It remains unclear how to convince non-believers into believers. A couple of things are clear. Climate scientists should not demonize the conservative movement. All across the world, other conservative parties have plans to deal with climate change. Even in the United States, there are large numbers of conservatives who support the Clean Power Act and other efforts to mitigate climate change. By demonizing the conservative movement, climate scientists would alienate millions of Americans and could make the situation worse.
Climate scientists need to expose the climate records of ExxonMobil and the Koch Brothers. These groups, and others, need to be called out for funneling millions of dollars toward a nefarious purpose.
The threat of climate change remains disconcertingly high. However, there is still hope that the world can adequately deal with the problem. The chance of such a response would grow considerably if the Republican Party changed its stance on climate change.