America’s Shame

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.


  1. Bradley Soule says:


    Point taken, but you used a bad example with the Law of the Sea. The world did in fact sit down to do do what you say through the 1970s and early 1980s. 30 years later, the United States is one of only a handful of countries in the world that has not ratified the Convention. This is despite the urging or military leaders, environmental organizations, the oil industry, chamber of commerce and every living secretary of state.

    So, yeah, you were right to pick a ridiculous example, but the conservative party in the United States really is as ridiculous as you supposed.

  2. The idea of global warming being unquestioned is a very Western-centric one. Václav Havel of the Czech Republic is the global warming skeptic, and it’s quite common throughout the rest of Eastern Europe and a lot of undeveloped countries. Many of them believe (perhaps rightly) that it’s the West denying them the opportunity that it itself had to development. Even if they aren’t necessarily skeptical of the science, few outside the wealthy West believe much energy should be expended on trying to ameliorate it on a grand scale. Dealing with the consequences, yes, but few are willing to sacrifice the little that they have for it.

    I’m not taking one side or the other, but it’s not quite as universal as you think.

  3. Michael Cowtan says:

    I think you fail to take into account the fact that whilst the Feds are doing nothing, and Congress is doing nothing, some of the States are, and so is industry and commerce.

  4. Walsh44 says:

    I think Mr Smith means Vaclav Klaus (not Havel) the current Czech president, whose opinion on the subject is well known in denialist circles.

  5. Dan says:

    Unfortunately the US conservative mindset on climate change can be summed up as:

    – America can’t be the bad guys because we are blessed by God.

    – Any change in our climate is due to God’s will, not the actions of man.

    – Any change in world climate may cause some suffering, but only to those not so blessed by God.

    – And when we say “we” we mean “real Americans”, not those fancy talking east coast elitist, secular scientists who think they are so smart but have no common sense.

    This mindset is being cast in reinforced concrete (reinforced by the Fox News, Gingrich, Palin, Limbaugh echo chamber) and will be very hard to undo.

  6. Dano says:

    Mr Smith is quite wrong about the prevalence of denialism across the globe. Hertsgaard wrote about this topic years ago in Earth Odyssey and found the exact opposite, as do most others who work to overcome confirmation bias and collect facts.



  7. Efroh says:

    There are hundreds of millions of lives depending on the decisions the American government makes.

    But these people do not give them money or votes. So they could care less.

    The modern GOP is simply not serious about governing. They only care about winning elections, not good policy founded on good science.

    Future generations will curse the GOP for delaying action until it was too late to avert catastrophe. They will also curse the rest of us for letting these denialists seize power.

  8. Anonymous says:

    “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.”


    Okay, so that leaves us Mitch Daniels, Andrew Sullivan, and who else to work with? Schwarzenegger, maybe? Colin Powell? Apostates and traitors all to the Tea Partiers.

    The person you posit taking a stand has no sway within a party that considers “states rights” one of its pillars, that is also wildly interested in local land use decisions in NYC because they fear imminent Sharia law being imposed.

    Any energy waiting for this conservative Godot would be better spent reforming Senate rules on the filibuster. The latter at least has a slim shot of happening.

  9. Joseph Michael says:

    The League of Nations (promoted by US President Woodrow Wilson) fail partially because the US never joined. And the US never joined the League because of the bitter fight Wilson had with the Republican-controlled Senate. So what’s new with the GOP?

  10. Mike M. says:

    We’ll be convinced when they can model clouds. They can’t. They admit it. Just a 2% increase in cloud formation will overcome all of Hansen’s climate fantasies.

    In the meantime any Republican stupid enough to even negotiate on this subject will be rooted out of the party.

    If you couldn’t accomplish anything with these tools (Obama-Reid-Pelosi) then you’ll never get anything. Oh, and go look at the numbers. If you don’t have all the countries on board you’re not going to accomplish anything anyway. But by all means, bleat away on what rotten human beings Republicans are when they don’t cough up trillions in the middle of a world wide recession.

  11. Dano says:

    Nasty widdle delivery of Morano talking points, that.



  12. oddjob says:

    No, Mike M.

    You won’t be convinced ever, under any circumstances whatsoever.

    That’s what Ryan meant about your relentless insistence that the world is, in fact, flat.

    If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.

  13. Eric L says:

    It’s worth noting that Mike M apparently believes:

    1) That clouds are too complicated to model and scientists have no idea what their effect on climate will be.
    2) That he knows what their effect on climate is.

    For the record, they do model clouds, see for example. Clouds can heat or cool the Earth depending on when and where they happen or what type they are.

  14. Max says:

    Forget common sense when blinded by capitalism, so American.

    The IPCC was formed in cooperation with the Regan Administration, how ironic!

    Close all doors to a garage run your car inside and see how long you survive. The issue for Republicans appears to be the cost of finding out if the metaphorical garage exists, lame.

    With a near 7 billion population I suppose we’re all a bit overwhelmed…

  15. Ed says:

    One of the points that Keith Hennessey made in May of 2009 is that the US emits about 20% of the world CO2 production, China emits 21%, Russia 6% India another 4%. Cumulatively these 5 countries account for 51% of global emissions. Right now all of these countries economies are growing much faster than the US and none of them have any intention of agreeing to any emission standard that will at all impair their own growth.


    So the policy issue is what price should the US unilaterally set on carbon emissions here? And what are the consequences?

    Do we set it at $30 to reflect the environment costs of our emissions to the planet? Do we set it at $15 to reflect the environmental costs to ourselves? Or do we set it at zero?

    Whatever price we set, there is an excellent chance that firms will go around that and just site emission sources abroad. Instead of buying aluminum from US aluminum smelter using US coal, it gets shut down and the US imports Chinese aluminum made from Chinese coal. The net effect is that jobs are exported from US to China, but global emissions aren’t really changed that much. The smelter, the coal and support services for those industries are just all shifted abroad. In an economy with 9.2% unemployment and unemployment much higher in swing states like Ohio, and Florida, is that a politically expedient decision?

    Do we bribe the Chinese, Russians and Indians to not emit? Again, given the concerns about US debts and US deficits, can we afford to? do we have the political will to do so?

    Do we start a trade war by trying to impose CO2 emission tariffs? Many people have argued that the Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act created the Great Depression. Given the state of the US economy right now, is this a risk that people are willing to take right now?

    Given current emissions in China, India and Russia and their rapid growth rates, there is a really good chance that no matter what we do as a nation, its not going to matter in terms of slowing or rolling back the global growth in carbon emissions.

    That being the case, why impose these costs on ourselves and instead just mitigate consequences of higher CO2 later, ala Climatopolis.

    Keith Hennessey was a former economic advisor to Bush, but I doubt that the internal policy analysis is that different between the Bush and Obama administrations.

    Collective actions problems don’t disappear merely because we don’t like them.

    This is why I think Obama decided to prioritize healthcare. It was an issue that he thought he could get through Congress that would help his base and be in the best long term interests of the country.

    Obama raised US fuel economy standards, and pored more money into transit via stimulus so its not like his backers didn’t get anything.

    But long term there aren’t any good solutions to collective action problems, so I don’t think anything will be done on them.

  16. RedMango says:

    Very nice post!

  17. Hank Roberts says:

    Ed, every country that ever got rich did so by using methods we now disavow. Heck, most every person who got rich did too. The key to progress is for the next generation to invent new, less damaging, more economical ways to get rich rather than repeat the old rapacious wasteful methods.

    “It wasn’t illegal when we did it, so we don’t owe society anything for our rich position” doesn’t wash.

    The solution to collective action problems is maturity — which each generation has to accomplish for itself.

  18. Ed says:


    The national unemployment rate is 9.2%. It looks like the House is almost certainly going Republican and Intrade puts the chances of the Republicans taking control of the Senate at about 50/50.

    I understanding making moves that result in political hits to the party if you believe that the end result is something that will be good for the country. This is why I thought acting on healthcare was a good idea. In the short term, there might be seats lost in the House, but a lot of people have expanded access to healthcare and longterm we will have done something to control the increases in healthcare spending. If that results in loosing the majority, I am willing to do it.

    Coal is the cheapest form of electricity. The use of machines powered by cheap electricity is the fastest way to raise living standards. China and India are opening multiple coal plants each week to raise the citizens out of poverty. Russia feels that the benefits of global warming outweigh the costs (opening of the artic, continued sales of carbon based energy sources like oil, coal, and shale)

    As a result there is an excellent chance that the US can adopt very stringent CO2 standards and because of actions in China, India and Russia, global CO2 levels will nevertheless keep increasing along the trend line.

    Symbolic measures that don’t have any guarantees of actually fixing the problem are just symbolic measures.

    Taking steps that cost the majority and possibly lose the presidency for a policy that still might not fix the problem even if enacted, well that is a lot harder to justify.

    I agree with you that the solution to collective action problems is maturity. But we have very different notions of what constitutes political maturity.