The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion As climate change worsens, Republicans insist we must do nothing

Flooding in Alexandria, Virginia in October 2021. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Back in 2008, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and former speaker Newt Gingrich recorded a television ad in which they acknowledged their bitter political differences, but made a shared commitment on one critical issue.

“We do agree,” said Gingrich, “our country must take action to address climate change.” He added: “If enough of us demand action from our leaders, we can spark the innovation we need.”

Somehow, that new Republican understanding of the importance of addressing climate change never quite caught on. If anything, as the effects of climate change intensify, the GOP has become more committed to opposing any and all efforts to do something about it.

Let’s take a look at some of the latest major climate news:

  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a report showing that coastal sea levels will rise by an entire foot between now and 2050, “intensifying the threat of flooding and erosion to coastal communities across the country.”
  • A new study shows that the ongoing drought in the western states has made this the driest period there in 1,200 years.
  • The climate provisions in the Build Back Better bill are on ice, now that BBB has stalled amid lockstep Republican opposition. The Post reports that this has “frozen hundreds of billions of dollars in private capital” earmarked for climate projects across the country, which has “complicated America’s much-touted clean energy revolution.”
  • Republicans are trying to block President Biden’s nomination of Sarah Bloom Raskin as chief banking regulator at the Federal Reserve. Why? Because she has advocated for the financial industry to do more to plan for the economic effects of climate change.
  • Spurred by climate-denial organizations, Republican legislators at the state level are working to prevent officials from dealing with businesses that are moving to wean themselves from fossil fuels or otherwise taking climate change seriously.
  • In Florida — where there is ample sunshine — Republicans in the legislature are working with the state’s largest utility to undermine net metering, the hugely popular system under which customers with solar panels send back surplus energy to the grid. Solar companies in Florida say if the bill passes, they’ll have to shut down and move to other states.

It wouldn’t be fair to portray the Republican Party as an absolute monolith on climate — a smattering of Republican officials here and there say they would like to do something on climate, even if their solutions always seem to include uninterrupted drilling and burning of fossil fuels.

And the Republican electorate has complicated views on the topic. Depending on how pollsters ask them, a majority of Republicans sometimes express concern about climate and support various ideas to reduce emissions. But by other measures, Republicans have actually grown less concerned about climate in recent years.

If that’s the case, it could be partly because the administration of Republican god-king Donald Trump was the most aggressively anti-environment in history. Or it could be because as you move down the funnel from vague popular notions to elite opinion and finally to policies the party supports, the closer you get to the apparent belief that conservative identity-signaling requires one to oppose doing anything at all to slow global warming.

Take the Sarah Bloom Raskin situation. The Senate Banking Committee isn’t filled with fire-breathing Republican culture warriors; some of its members, such as Tim Scott of South Carolina or Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, are what passes for serious legislators in today’s GOP. But every one of them has joined in boycotting her nomination — not just voting against it, but denying the committee a quorum so it can’t take a vote at all.

That’s even though they know there’s only so much the Federal Reserve can do about climate change. What sane people like Raskin suggest is that the Fed help banks understand the risks climate change poses to their own stability, to limit economic fallout from future disasters, whether sudden or slow-moving.

For instance, in 2021 natural disasters caused $145 billion in damage, a figure that included 20 separate wildfires, hurricanes, floods and storms with price tags over a billion dollars. To say the increasing frequency of such events isn’t something banks need to prepare for is utterly bonkers.

Yet Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the committee, is waging a crusade against Raskin. He wrote a letter to Biden lamenting the fact that no one from the fossil fuel industry sits on the Federal Reserve Board, and saying Raskin’s “demonstrated hostility” to fossil fuels is “unacceptable.” The other Republicans on the committee seem to agree.

So today, the consensus Republican position appears to be that even thinking about climate change in economic policy is a threat to prosperity, a stunningly upside-down perspective on the future of the economy. Meanwhile, the more liberal position within the GOP is essentially that while climate change is real and perhaps we shouldn’t actively work to make it worse, we shouldn’t do much of anything to make it better either.

This means that every step of progress we make on climate will only come after a fight. And with the power they wield, Republicans will make those fights as long and difficult as possible.