There are many reasons why a Republican politician might oppose action on climate change. Addressing the problem requires government regulation, which many Republicans think is inherently bad. People they despise think we ought to address the problem, which makes it unpalatable. The Obama administration has taken a number of moves to address the problem, and everything Obama does is wrong by definition. Yet at the same time, there’s a vast scientific consensus that global warming is happening and we should act on it, and most Americans agree — even significant numbers of Republicans.
So if you’re a GOP candidate, what do you do?
Judging by last night’s debate and what the candidates have said lately, what you don’t do is say that it’s all a hoax. You don’t even have to take the widely ridiculed “I’m not a scientist” line in order to argue that we have no idea whether it’s happening or not. Instead, the emerging Republican position appears to be a kind of passive acceptance of climate change — less “This is a real problem” than “Sure, it’s probably happening, whatever” — accompanied by an insistence that we absolutely, positively can’t do anything about it, at least not anything that requires government action.
In the debate, moderator Jake Tapper presented the climate change question by noting that George Shultz, who served as secretary of state under Ronald Reagan, says we should take out an “insurance policy” by acting to address climate change the way we did decades ago on ozone depletion. “Secretary Shultz asks, why not take out an insurance policy and approach climate change the Reagan way?” You can see this question as either a clever way to force the candidates to address the issue outside of a partisan frame, or a ridiculous attempt to shoehorn Reagan in there instead of just dealing with the facts. Either way, the candidates weren’t biting.
To Tapper’s question, Marco Rubio answered, “Because we’re not going to destroy our economy the way the left-wing government that we are under now wants to do.” After explaining that any attempt to reduce emissions would practically leave all Americans wearing sackcloths as they stood morosely in bread lines waiting for scraps of food, Rubio brought in a second element that has become common to the Republican argument, that there’s no point in America reducing its emissions because “America is not a planet.”
Though that’s technically true, it ignores the fact that we can’t get other countries to agree to a collective effort if we make no effort of our own, not to mention the fact that it’s the kind of logic that would have me dump all my garbage in the street on the theory that my house is just one part of my neighborhood and I can’t control whether everybody else is keeping the neighborhood clean. Chris Christie then argued that his state had reduced its emissions without the government taking any steps because New Jersey uses nuclear power, and Scott Walker jumped in to say EPA rules on greenhouse gases would destroy thousands of jobs.
Because Tapper was eager to move on to other issues, nobody got a chance to toss in the final element of the current Republican argument on climate change: “innovation.” For that we can turn to an interview Carly Fiorina gave earlier this week. “The answer is innovation. And the only way to innovate is for this nation to have industry strong enough that they can innovate,” she said, after contemptuously dismissing the idea that nations could band together to confront climate change. “We need to become the global energy powerhouse of the 21st century, for so many reasons. To create jobs, to make the bad guys less bad, and so we have industries — including the coal industry — that’s powerful enough to be able to innovate.”
You may be thinking that the coal industry being insufficiently powerful isn’t high on the list of the reasons we haven’t solved the climate change problem yet. But the handy thing about “innovation” is that it sounds like the person advocating it is forward-looking and optimistic. And there will certainly be a part for innovation to play in addressing climate change; the problem is that it’s impossible to know exactly what that role will be. In the meantime, we can’t just wait around for some spectacular new invention to come along.
That’s why, if somebody advocates “innovation” as the solution to climate change, they ought to be asked two questions. First, what do you think government should to do spur this innovation? If their answer is to make a huge investment in clean energy research and technologies, then that’s something (and it’s also what the Obama administration has done). If their answer is “Get out of industry’s way,” then you can be pretty sure it’s just a cover for “Let them pollute, like they already want to.” Not to mention that allowing industry to pollute lets them off the hook without any need for innovation at all; force them to meet emissions targets, and out of necessity they’ll find innovative ways to do it.
The second question the advocate of innovation ought to be asked is, “What do we do in the meantime while we’re waiting for this innovation you promise?” If by way of answering they talk about all the terrible things regulation will do, that means their real answer is, “Nothing.”
Which is the end point of the entire argument Republicans are making on climate change (except for those lonely few who actually propose to confront the problem). That applies to the remaining conspiracy theorists who think it’s a hoax, the ones like Ben Carson who falsely believe that scientists aren’t sure whether humans contribute to it, or the ones who acknowledge that climate change is a problem but only want to talk about how terrible government regulation is. The answer they all have is the same.