Speaking at the climate conference in Paris today, President Obama noted a way in which America is different from all other nations. Around the world, he said, concern about climate change “spans political parties.” Said Obama:
“I mean, you travel around Europe and you talk to leaders of governments and the opposition, and they are arguing about a whole bunch of things. One thing they’re not arguing about is whether the science of climate change is real and whether or not we’re going to have to do something about it.”
Nowhere else among the world’s major nations (and maybe the minor nations, too, though I don’t claim to be familiar with all 200 of them) is there a political party representing half the electorate which is adamantly opposed to doing anything to address climate change. So congratulations, Republicans: you have made America truly exceptional.
It’s important to note, however, that there is diversity of opinion within the GOP on this issue — to a point. At one end you have the denialists, who believe that climate change is not occurring at all. The people who believe this also tend to believe that the fact that it still snows in the winter constitutes proof that climate change isn’t happening, which shows the intellectual rigor they bring to this question. This group includes not only the notorious Sen. James Inhofe and a gaggle of less prominent congressional knuckleheads, but also presidential candidates Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Rick Santorum, and Mike Huckabee.
At the other end you have a few lonely Republican voices saying that climate change is a real problem that we should do something to address. Included in their number are two of the presidential candidates, Lindsey Graham and George Pataki. But the broad majority of the party’s elected officials fall into what we might call the uncertainty caucus. When you ask them whether climate change is happening, they say, “Maybe, sure, who knows?” Is it caused by human activity? “It’s possible, could be, how can we say for sure?” What should government do about it? “Absolutely nothing.” So while they might not sound as deranged as the denialists, their policy prescription is the same.
And while their argument in the past has always been that we can’t confront climate change because moving away from fossil fuels would destroy the economy, they’ve shifted their focus in recent weeks. Now when you ask the GOP presidential candidates about the issue, the response you’ll get is more likely to be, “How can we worry about climate change when ISIS is about to kill us all!!!” This is how the candidates have responded not just to President Obama’s belief in the seriousness of climate change, but to his mere attendance at the Paris conference, as if he should have instead stayed home to spend his time filling Americans with fear of terrorism.
“This is the president once again living in his fantasy world rather than the world as it actually is,” said Chris Christie with his characteristic contempt. “He really believes that folks are worried about climate change when what they really care about now is the Islamic State and Syria and terrorism.” Marco Rubio brought his perspective: “Let me just say no matter how you feel about the issue of the environment and climate and changes to climate, there’s no way any reasonable person could conclude that the most immediate threat we face to our security is what the climate is going to look like in 25 or 30 years.”
It’s easy to believe that terrorism is a greater threat to Americans than climate change, because everyone can conjure up a vivid and terrifying image of what terrorism looks like. And though there’s always the possibility that a future terrorist attack could kill large numbers of Americans, the actual number of Americans killed here at home by jihadi terrorists since 9/11 stands at 26, which, as I keep saying, also happens to be exactly the number of Americans killed this year alone by lightning strikes.
The deaths caused by climate change, on the other hand, are complicated to estimate with precision, don’t show up in YouTube videos, and don’t have the kind of dramatic violence that gets presidential candidates thumping their lecterns. But those deaths are real nonetheless. According to a 2012 report commissioned by the governments of 20 nations, climate change kills 400,000 people a year worldwide, mostly through hunger and the spread of communicable diseases. The World Health Organization estimates: “Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress.”
You might say, well, that’s obviously terrible, but it really isn’t about national security. But the Department of Defense, not exactly a place where you find a lot of tree-hugging hippies, would beg to differ. Here’s how they described a recent report they produced on the topic:
The report reinforces the fact that global climate change will have wide-ranging implications for U.S. national security interests over the foreseeable future because it will aggravate existing problems such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions that threaten domestic stability in a number of countries.
The report finds that climate change is a security risk because it degrades living conditions, human security, and the ability of governments to meet the basic needs of their populations. Communities and states that are already fragile and have limited resources are significantly more vulnerable to disruption and far less likely to respond effectively and be resilient to new challenges.
In other words, climate change will produce the contexts in which threats to U.S. national security will fester and grow, which is just one of the reasons that the Republican policy position — do nothing — is so dangerous.
But here’s an interesting thing about that position: not only have they failed to persuade the American public that they’re right, they haven’t even persuaded their own voters. According to a new New York Times/CBS poll, not only does two-thirds of the public overall support the U.S. joining an international treaty to reduce carbon emissions — something that almost every Republican elected official vehemently opposes — but a healthy 42 percent of Republican voters support it as well, with 52 percent opposed. And a majority of Republicans said they’d support a policy to limit carbon emissions from power plants. That’s what President Obama’s Clean Power Plan does, and Republicans in Congress are desperately trying to kill it.
The rightward drift of the GOP during the Obama years is a complex story, with many different causes and effects. There are issues on which the party’s voters have gone right along with its leaders, producing a mass consensus that mirrors the elite consensus. But on climate change, it appears that the politicians’ ability to persuade their voters has been incomplete at best. Not that that means the politicians are going to change any time soon.