The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The country is on fire, and the biggest obstacle to action is the GOP

A display shows a temperature of 107 degrees on June 28 in the early evening in Olympia, Wash. (Ted S. Warren/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

In the Pacific Northwest, where high temperatures this time of year are usually in the 70s, residents who never had much need for air conditioning are suffering through an almost apocalyptic heat wave: On Monday it reached 107 in Seattle, 115 in Portland, Ore., and 117 in Salem, Ore.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, D.C., members of both parties came together to hammer out a bipartisan infrastructure deal. But to get Republicans to agree to it, President Biden and the Democrats had to set aside almost everything they have proposed to do about climate change.

That’s about as clear a summation of American climate politics in 2021 as you could ask for: the effects of climate change becoming more vivid all the time, Democrats eager to move aggressively on the crisis, and the Republican Party working hard to make sure the federal government does as little as possible.

That isn’t to say that the politics are simple. Not every Republican is a deranged climate denier bringing snowballs to the Senate floor to try to prove that climate change is a hoax. The GOP has a diversity of opinion on climate. But while some individual Republicans want to do something, they butt up against a party consensus that emphatically rejects meaningful action, and incentives that push ambitious members of their party toward the most retrograde positions.

The infrastructure debate is still unresolved, and even if the bipartisan bill contains only a few provisions that would help alleviate climate change, the more ambitious agenda Biden has laid out could still be a part of whatever Senate Democrats pass via a simple majority reconciliation vote. That could include a new clean electricity standard for power companies, tax incentives for renewables, new research money to develop clean technology, funds to retrofit buildings and phasing out fossil fuel subsidies.

A reconciliation bill won’t just copy and paste everything Biden has proposed. Since there are no Democratic votes in the Senate to spare, it will ultimately be up to Sen. Joe Manchin III — a Democrat from the coal state of West Virginia, who once aired an ad in which he fired a bullet through a cap-and-trade bill — to decide what the bill does and doesn’t contain.

But the real impediment to action is still the Republican Party.

That’s despite the fact that there are Republicans who sincerely want to devise a climate agenda. There’s now a Conservative Climate Caucus in the House (though it wants to make sure that fossil fuels are "a major part of the global solution”). House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has a climate agenda, though it too seems mostly focused on continued use of fossil fuels while doing things like planting trees to mitigate emissions produced by the continued burning of oil and gas.

That means there may be common ground on some things; it’s not as though liberals will object to planting trees. And slowly getting agreement here and there might make it more likely that some Republicans will eventually sign on to more meaningful efforts.

And in some areas change can happen without movement on policy. For instance, the coal industry is dying (as of last year, there were just 43,000 jobs left in the entire industry), and before long even Republicans may stop lying to people in Appalachia about how they’ll bring all the old coal jobs back.

But in the meantime, there’s a Republican policy consensus on climate change, and a Republican political consensus on climate change. The first is bad. The second is worse.

The GOP policy consensus goes something like this: Climate change might be happening, but we shouldn’t do much about it, and whatever we do must not hurt the fossil fuel industry.

Every mention of climate in the party’s most recent platform is about why we shouldn’t care about or act on climate (“Climate change is far from this nation’s most pressing national security issue”). Your average Republican member of Congress may say something like “Sure, the climate’s changing, but it always changes,” then pivot to the importance of fossil fuel jobs.

And the GOP political consensus goes like this: Opposing action on climate change is an excellent way to show that you hate liberals, which is the single most important key to success in this party.

That’s why Republicans have turned the Green New Deal — a proposal that is nowhere near to becoming law — into an all-purpose object of fear and blame. So when an unexpected snowstorm knocked out power in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) went on Fox News to declare that the failure of the state’s electricity distribution system "shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America.”

The Green New Deal is also to blame for the hangnail Abbott got later that day, and the fact that the Texas Rangers are dead last in the American League West.

When Republicans start their 2024 presidential primaries, they won’t be competing to see who has the most effective climate plan. They’ll toss off meaningless bromides about “free-market solutions,” then try to outdo one another on who hates liberals and their radical enviro-hippie ideas the most.

Which means that for the foreseeable future, progress on climate will come only when Democrats gain power, then manage to use it. Perhaps watching it get so hot in the Northwest that roads are buckling and power cables are melting will concentrate their minds.