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Republicans might actually be willing to do something about climate change

Good news, environmentalists.

A coal-fired power plant outside Point of Rocks, Wyo. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)
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If you’re an American environmentalist, it’s hard not to feel a little bit hopeless.

Just look at Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe sneaking a snowball to the Senate floor to taunt IPCC scientists, at presidential candidate Ted Cruz’s climate denial hearing (featuring Exxon-funded research, naturally) or at Donald Trump’s tweet that global warming is a ploy to weaken American manufacturing competitiveness relative to China’s.

The conservative conversation on climate seems to be moving backwards at full speed. With Republicans in control of 246 out of 435 seats in the House of Representatives– a number that’s unlikely to change significantly any time soon— passage of a meaningful climate law seems like an incredibly tall order. Even if Democrats do retake the House in the near future (something most pollsters consider nearly impossible), the math of legislative procedure — including a 60-vote threshold for most measures in the Senate —would make it extremely difficult to pass a serious climate bill with only Democratic support. Just look at the failure of the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade billjust after Obama’s 2008 Democratic wave.

At this make-or-break moment for curbing emissions, we need to accept an inconvenient truth: It’s impossible to solve the climate crisis without winning conservatives to the cause. Believe it or not, this shouldn’t be reason for despair.

There’s evidence that conservative views on climate are evolving. According to a recent poll commissioned by a top GOP donor and conducted by three respected Republican pollsters, a majority of Republicans — including 54 percent of self-identified conservatives — not only believe in human-induced climate change but would support a carbon tax if the money were rebated or paired with an accompanying tax cut. Sixty-six percent of conservative Republicans said they would support requirements that electric utilities include renewable power in their power generation mix, and 87 percent supported policies to promote installation of rooftop solar panels if they would allow homeowners to save money by selling power back to the grid.

Is the polling wrong? Or are the politicians who get the preponderance of cable TV attention disconnected from some of the real policy preferences of Republican voters?

There’s increasing reason to believe the latter is the case. The three pillars of the conservative coalition that Ronald Reagan built—religious, defense and fiscal conservatives—now have some stake in addressing climate change.

Start with religious conservatives. While the Papal visit was a watershed moment for Christian environmentalism, the evangelical climate movement (often called “creation care”) predates Pope Francis by a decade. This summer,  a group of 100 influential evangelical and Catholic leaders issued a public letter saying that we have a “moral obligation” to act on climate change. This builds on the advocacy of leading Catholic organizations and a range of protestant groups like Young Evangelicals for Climate ActionInterfaith Power and Light, and Evangelical Environmental Network. As Politico reported in December, a small but growing number of conservative churches are inviting climate scientists to speak to their congregants, and some are making environmentally-oriented sustainable development work part of their international missionary work. While there’s still skepticism, polls of evangelicals, especially younger ones, demonstrate increasing belief that human-caused climate change is a problem.

Among national defense conservatives, climate change has long been a natural concern. Nearly a decade ago, senior retired military leaders issued a report describing climate change as a “threat multiplier,” promising to intensify conflicts by causing water shortages, damaging food production and forcing millions of people in already-unstable regions like South Asia to migrate. Since then, the Pentagonscores of defense analysts, and Republican national security bigwigs like former Reagan Administration secretary of state George Schultz have come around to this line of thinking.

As the financial costs of climate change get clearer, big businesses and some fiscal conservatives are getting concerned. Risky Business, an alliance of major corporate leaders, is advocating for climate action on purely economic grounds. Big firms, from Walmart to Goldman Sachs, are altering their business plans to account for the climate. Even some Tea Party allies are accepting that climate action isn’t necessarily anathema to a free-market world view. Jerry Taylor, who once served as energy and environment staff director for the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Committee, wrote recently: “The core purpose of government is to protect rights to life, liberty and property. … If greenhouse gas emissions threaten to violate those rights, then government must act against the threat.”

Of course, how these ideological shifts translate into policy change remains to be seen. The vast majority of Republican elected officials continue to oppose climate action. Oil and gas companies continue to lavish campaign contributions on GOP candidates. And for many hard-core party activists who dominate primary processes, denial of climate science remains an article of faith. Even the Republicans who are loath to go against scientific consensus often refuse to think about climate because, as prominent conservative thinker Jim Manzi puts it, “they fear, at least implicitly, that the politics of climate change is just a twisted road with a known destination … ceding yet another key economic sector to government control.”

In spite of these obstacles, there are prospects for policy change at the federal level and, especially, at the local level.

Just a year ago, only anonymous staffers would speak about the need for a Republican climate platform. In recent months, however, a group of 11 House Republicans filed a resolution announcing their commitment to action, and four prominent GOP Senators announced the creation of a climate-oriented policy group. In December, the Republican majorities in the House and Senate unexpectedly agreed to extend tax credits for solar and wind for an additional five years — a move that will result in $73 billion of investments and enough electricity to power 8 million U.S. homes. Earlier in the year, both the R Street Institute and the Niskanen Center, two think tanks with unimpeachable conservative libertarian credentials, touted free-market plans for pricing carbon.  These coalitions could make serious climate legislation possible. Just as an alliance of Democrats and Republicans recently circumvented GOP leadership to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, even a modest cadre of climate-conscious Republicans could provide adequate support for legislative action.

Already, there have been serious policy impacts at the grassroots level, where green groups and the Tea Party have formed a “Green Tea Party” to challenge the incumbent utilities and their allies to allow rooftop solar leasing.  The leader of one such group advocating for the right to sell renewable energy back to the grid explained his rationale in right-wing red meat terms last year: “Obamacare is bad because it diminishes health-care choice. Public education is bad because it diminishes school choice. You’d think it would apply as well to energy.” The Green Tea alliance recently persuaded Georgia’s GOP-dominated legislature to pass legislation to enable homeowners to sell solar energy back to the grid, and they’re making progress in other states.

As the conservative author Roger Scruton writes in his book “How to Think Seriously About the Planet,” it’s no coincidence that conservatism and conservation share an etymological root. Both, he explains, are about “husbanding resources and ensuring their renewal.” So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Nixon created the core federal environmental protection programs. Or that George H.W. Bush established a cap-and-trade system that successfully curbed acid rain. Republicans, particularly in the West, considered themselves to be the heirs to Teddy Roosevelt’s environmental platform for the better part of the last century.

There’s no guarantee that Republicans will return to these roots. The financial and psychological forces behind climate denial are as formidable as ever. But given the realities of U.S. electoral politics, there’s just one way to solve the climate equation: finding green allies in red states.