The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On climate change, Republicans can’t deny reality forever

Today, the White House released its gigantic new report on climate change, a work produced by 300 scientists, overseen by a 60-member expert panel, working in cooperation with 13 government agencies and the National Academy of Sciences. It’s the most comprehensive climate assessment the U.S. government has ever produced, and it paints a grim picture of what’s coming over the next few decades: Dust Bowl conditions in the Southwest, flooding in the Northeast, more heat waves, more hurricanes, rising ocean levels, and a host of other disastrous effects of rising temperatures.

While the report goes into great detail about concrete steps we can take to mitigate this evolving disaster, once you begin to think about the political environment any such measures will have to navigate, it’s hard not to get pessimistic.

One look at the comments sections of news articles on this report tells a depressing story. Many conservatives still believe that climate change is an elaborate hoax, that somehow thousands of scientists all over the world have conspired with public officials, the media, and who knows how many other people to pull off history’s greatest scam, and also managed to keep anyone from spilling the beans on the conspiracy. It isn’t all conservatives who feel this way; Republicans as a whole are split on the question. But the faction that inspires fear in Republican politicians — Tea Partiers — are the ones who most fervently believe it’s all a scam. For instance, this poll from the Pew Research Center showed 61 percent of non-Tea Party Republicans saying there’s solid evidence the Earth is warming, but only 25 percent of Tea Partiers agreeing.

That means that you’re going to be hard-pressed to find too many Republican politicians who are willing to take on the issue, or even vote in favor of any measure that might address it. Some Republicans may cringe when a nincompoop like Sarah Palin shouts “Drill, baby drill!” to a crowd and is greeted by cheers, but as long as today’s Republicans control at least one house of Congress, there will be no climate change legislation, period.

In that context, the president’s defenders have a reasonable case to make when they assert that this administration has been aggressive in using the regulatory process to cut carbon emissions. They set regulations doubling fuel efficiency standards for passenger cars and increasing efficiency for trucks. The 2009 stimulus bill included an unprecedented investment in green energy technologies. The EPA is planning new rules to cut emissions from power plants.

You can argue that Obama should have done more, or that these measures will be too little, too late. But particularly with the possibility of legislation cut off, there’s probably no more important avenue for addressing climate change than EPA regulation. (As Jonathan Chait has argued, fights over things like the Keystone XL pipeline have a great deal of symbolic value but little impact on the climate).

The administration seems to understand that, which is why the EPA is going to be the center of their efforts for the remainder of Obama’s tenure. The Supreme Court recently gave the EPA a victory in allowing it to regulate emissions that cross state lines, but you can be sure each new regulation will be greeted by lawsuits trying to block it.

However, Republican intransigence may not be eternal. What we’re likely to see in the next decade or two is more action on the state level, where the effects of climate change can’t be denied. If Texas turns into a dust bowl and Alaskan winters grow shorter and shorter, even Republicans in those places are going to have a harder time arguing that it’s all a hoax. Eventually, only a few holdouts will still believe Al Gore concocted global warming to destroy noble oil companies. At that point, congressional Republicans may finally agree to legislative action. Eventually they will look back at the report released today and admit we were warned. The only question is whether by then it will be too late.