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Opinion The price Republicans pay for embracing know-nothingism

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) speaks at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington on Sept. 4. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

For years, Republicans have refused to acknowledge the overwhelming scientific consensus about climate change. With the Trump administration’s own report confirming both the fact and urgency of climate change, some Republicans are begrudgingly moving to concede reality — in the most equivocal fashion possible. (Other Republicans such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida wrongly insist there is doubt that climate change is man-made, despite the danger that increasingly extreme climate conditions pose to their constituents.)

Released on Friday (in the Trump administration’s ham-handed effort to tamp down attention), the latest government report, the Fourth National Climate Assessment, was unflinching in its assessment of the dangers all of us face because of climate change:

Earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities. The impacts of global climate change are already being felt in the United States and are projected to intensify in the future—but the severity of future impacts will depend largely on actions taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the changes that will occur. Americans increasingly recognize the risks climate change poses to their everyday lives and livelihoods and are beginning to respond . . .
Climate-related risks will continue to grow without additional action. Decisions made today determine risk exposure for current and future generations and will either broaden or limit options to reduce the negative consequences of climate change. While Americans are responding in ways that can bolster resilience and improve livelihoods, neither global efforts to mitigate the causes of climate change nor regional efforts to adapt to the impacts currently approach the scales needed to avoid substantial damages to the U.S. economy, environment, and human health and well-being over the coming decades.

Chris Wallace grilled Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) on Sunday about the report, which painted a picture of dire consequences if we continue to ignore the obvious issue of climate change:

WALLACE: Senator, how seriously do you take this report from the Trump administration?
SASSE: Well, I think it’s clear that the climate is changing. I think reasonable people can differ about how much and how rapidly. But I think it’s clear that it’s changing and it’s clear that humans are a contributing factor.
I think the real question, though, becomes what do you do about it?  Because you can’t legislate or regulate your way into the past. We have to innovate our way into the future.
And right now, you don’t hear a lot of people who put climate as their number one issue. You don’t hear a lot of them offering constructive innovative solutions for the future. It’s usually just a lot of alarmism, but I think the report is important and it shows that the climate is changing.
WALLACE: But, for instance, you oppose what you call EPA overreach, including President Obama’s climate change plan. According to the report, rolling that back, which would limit greenhouse gas emissions, is exactly the wrong approach.
SASSE: Yes. Well, I think we have to recognize that this is a global issue and China and other countries that are rapidly building middle classes are going to be the number one drivers in the long term. So, what the U.S. needs to do is participate in a long-term conversation about how you get to innovation. And it’s going to need to be a conversation, again, that doesn’t start with alarmism, but that starts with some discussion of the magnitude of the challenge, the global elements to it and how the U.S. shouldn’t just do this is a feel-good measure, but some sort of innovative proposal.
And right now, that’s not really what I get from most of the people who make this a top two or three issue for themselves.
WALLACE: But just quickly, I want to move on to other subjects, China for instance is trying to grow into the future and has become a huge investor in solar panels. There was an international agreement in which countries made commitments, the Paris Climate Accord and the president is going to pull us out of that.
So, aren’t — isn’t much of the rest of the world actually moving faster than we are?
SASSE: So, I distinguish between the two parts of your answer. I think the first part about Chinese investment does show part of the way forward. The U.S. needs to have a long-term investment and innovation strategy, that’s true.
But things like the Paris Climate Accord tend to be more binding on us than on other nations. And so, that’s not good for the U.S. consumer and it’s not a long-term solution. But conversations like that are certainly important going forward.

One is left wondering what Sasse is really complaining about. Alarmism? Well, the administration is sounding the alarm (“the evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming and continues to strengthen, that the impacts of climate change are intensifying across the country, and that climate-related threats to Americans’ physical, social, and economic well-being are rising”). It’s almost as if Sasse and other Republicans so identify with their political tribe (the Trumpized GOP) that they cannot fathom adopting views inconsistent with its dogma, which has included climate-change denial. (It’s noteworthy that Sasse was a former university president; one assumes at this point no respectable university would hire a climate-change denier as its president.) Their tribal identifiers force Republicans to ignore facts, depart from reality and insist on doubt where there is none.

President Trump has irreversibly changed the Republican Party. The upheaval might seem unusual, but political transformations crop up throughout U.S. history. (Video: Adriana Usero, Danielle Kunitz, Robert Gebelhoff/The Washington Post)

“You can address these problems that are market friendly, nongovernment bureaucracy, intrusive manner that would be more effective in my view,” Bill Kristol said on CNN. “But Trump is just — is it impossible to even have that discussion with Trump. Trump attacks everyone’s motives, attacks everyone’s, you know, makes it seem like there’s no reasonable position on the other side. And then people — the Republicans sort of follow him like sheep and the party looks idiotic.” Indeed.

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Whether it is climate change or trade protectionism or FBI conspiracy theories, Republicans fear deviating from the Trumpian know-nothingism. They cling to the Trump/GOP hymnal, no matter how illogical or a-factual, while desperately trying to add a few caveats in order to avoid sounding idiotic. As a result, they sound both insincere and clueless. Perhaps they might consider simply embracing reality and criticizing Trump when he makes patently false statements.

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