Ron Brownstein pointed out, over the weekend, that the Republican party is almost unique among major political parties across the world in its overwhelming skepticism of the science of global warming. As an American living in America, I counted this as one of the pieces of knowledge I held in my possession, but not one which I tended to reflect on and fully appreciate. But one needn’t spend much time in the main offices of one of the world’s top weeklies to understand the real significance of this state of affairs. It poses an enormous problem to the leaders of the world’s other major powers, and there is almost nothing they can do about it.
Ryan Lizza has just written an in depth piece on the life and death of the climate legislation during the presidency of Barack Obama. Before I read it, I saw on Twitter that a number of people were citing it as another indictment of the men and women and institutions of the Senate. I read it and came away thinking that the administration itself is far more culpable in the failure of the climate bill than I had imagined. In fact, neither Senate nor president is particularly praiseworthy. But there is simply no getting around the fact that the effort was very nearly doomed to insignificance or failure from the start, thanks to the fact that the opposition party, which has the means to derail legislation through abuse of the Senate’s procedural rules, is deeply committed to the position that anthropogenic global warming isn’t happening like the scientists say it is. Further, there are no Republicans of any real stature that are capable of maintaining their acknowledgment of the science of climate change in the face of pressure from the GOP base.
Let me reiterate this. We’re not talking about a nuanced, Jim Manzi-argument in favor of a recognition of the science but inaction on the policy. If that were the median GOP position, a bill much tougher than any placed on the table would have flown through Congress. No, it’s far worse than that. No GOP leader of consequence is able to make and sustain the argument that climate change is occurring as the scientists say it is. That’s remarkable! Imagine the world’s major powers sitting down in the early 20th century to negotiate a treaty on the law of the sea, only to have one of America’s major political parties vow to defeat any settlement, on the grounds that the world is in fact flat.
This is an immense tragedy, for America, but especially for the rest of the world. I recognize that Democrats are no angels on this subject. Politics is politics, and no one is going to line up to accept painful sacrifices. I accept that in a world in which Republicans do believe in global warming, it would still be nearly impossible to pass a carbon price sufficient to slow and eventually halt warming. But that’s not the only option out there. It could still be possible to price carbon sufficiently to cut off the possibility of extreme tail events (some of them anyway). It would still be possible to invest in some new green technologies and some crucial adaptation plans. It would still be possible to strike a meaningful international deal on emissions, general mitigation strategies, and contingent plans for extreme weather events. We can’t even debate these options, because half of the people who matter in Washington are committed to denial of the basic facts.
We are sowing the seeds of catastrophe. I keep thinking that at some point, a conservative of conscience will take a stand and force the GOP to do some soul searching on this issue. There are hundreds of millions of lives depending on the decisions the American government makes. Surely some Republican of some importance values those lives over short-term political gain!
If America doesn’t get this right, and soon, it will be among the biggest and most unforgivable failures in our history. And we will be dealing with the fallout for as long as you and I live. We will be the bad guys. Worse, we are the bad guys.