On a recurring basis a rather troubling vision comes to mind. It is a reprise of that night on August 11, 2011 when Bret Baier said to the assembled candidates:
“I’m going to ask a question to everyone here on the stage. Say you had a deal, a real spending cuts deal, 10-to-1, as Byron [York] said, spending cuts to tax increases…. Who on this stage would walk away from that deal? Can you raise your hand if you feel so strongly about not raising taxes, you’d walk away on the 10-to-1 deal?”
In my dreaded vision, the question at a 2015 GOP debate might be something like, “Do you categorically reject the idea that climate change is a significant problem, that human activity is a major cause of the problem and that the government should seek a solution?” Once again, in obeisance to the view (or assumed view) of the party’s base, all arms are propelled upward. And once again Democrats will be given ammunition for their claim that Republicans are “anti-science.” A recent column by Greg Sargent in The Washington Post, (“Where the 2016 GOP Contenders Stand on Climate Change”) reported the position of each of the figures generally regarded as potential Republican nominees. The positions ranged from silence to evasion, to skepticism, to outright denial.
Some Republicans have previously expressed serious concerns about climate change and expressed a need for action. Four former heads of EPA under Republican Presidents (William Ruckelshaus, Lee M. Thomas, William K. Reilly and Christine Todd Whitman) conveyed that message in an August 1, 2013 New York Times op-ed piece titled “ A Republican Case for Climate Action.” Even some of the current Presidential hopefuls have previously expressed support for action on climate change in the form of a cap and trade system. None, however, appear to be doing so now. And, as documented by Ruth Marcus in The Washington Post, one prominent potential candidate, Marco Rubio, appears to be in full flight from his previous statements on the subject. (“Marco Rubio’s Changing Climate”)
The only Republican of stature who is currently urging that climate change be taken seriously appears to be Jon Huntsman. Given his disappointing campaign in 2012, Huntsman seems an unlikely candidate for President in 2016. On the other hand, as an accomplished public servant, his words should still carry some weight. In a May 6 op-ed piece in The New York Times, “The G.O.P. Can’t Ignore Climate Change,” Huntsman argued that:
Our approach as a party should be one of neither denial nor extremism. Science must guide sensible policy discussions that will lead to well-informed choices, which may mean considering unexpected alternatives. We aren’t inspiring much confidence, especially among millennials, who at least want an intelligent conversation on the subject.
In fairness to the skeptics of climate change, advocates of climate change have sometimes appeared to exaggerate the foreseeable results of climate change or the degree of confidence that should be placed in the computer models that predict those consequences. And such advocates have sometimes reacted with unseemly arrogance to critics, including respected scientists who have been so bold as to question or challenge the consensus view. These shortcomings have been regularly highlighted in the pages of The Wall Street Journal, most recently in “Obama’s Climate Bomb.”
Nevertheless, while we disclaim the expertise to make an independent evaluation of the scientific evidence, we believe that the consensus among scientists cannot simply be dismissed as a hoax or the product of conspiracy among politically minded (or grant-seeking) researchers. On the contrary, we believe that, while acknowledging that nothing is certain, there is ample evidence to conclude that a) there is a serious risk of drastically adverse consequences from climate change, and b) the severity of the change and its consequences can be significantly reduced by limiting the amount of carbon introduced into the atmosphere by human activity.
That being the case, surely the case for taking some action must be seriously considered. As Huntsman pointed out, “Hedging against risk is an enduring theme of conservative thought.” In this instance, the conservative response requires a thoughtful examination (unburdened so far as possible with political rhetoric) of the available options for dealing with carbon emissions. The examination should seek to weigh both cost and effectiveness of remedial actions against the risk and potential costs of doing nothing. Inevitably, assessments will differ, perhaps widely, but that is the turf on which the debate should be held.
There have been two principal approaches suggested for reducing climate change. The first is a cap and trade system under which “cap” is a legal limit on the quantity of greenhouse gases that a site can emit each year and “trade” means that companies can swap the permits among themselves. A cap and trade bill narrowly passed the Democratically-controlled House in 2009 (with 8 Republican votes) but failed in the Senate. President Obama urged passage of cap and trade legislation in his State of the Union message in 2013 but not in 2014. It has been reported that the Obama Administration is developing a new version of cap and trade, but it is uncertain when or if it will emerge. A cap and trade system can take various forms, but any version is likely to be complex. An alternative approach urged by some, is an emissions tax, which has the virtue of greater simplicity. The impact of either approach on the economy is uncertain and subject to debate, but cannot be ignored. Moreover, there are also legitimate questions as to whether a significant difference in the global climate would result from either approach.
Because neither a cap and trade system nor an emissions tax are likely to be adopted by Congress in the near future, President Obama has taken a narrower step by directing the EPA to adopt more stringent regulation of coal-fired power plants. A proposed regulation published for comment in January dealt with new power plants and a second regulation, applicable to existing plants, is expected to be announced in June. Senate Republicans have opposed the first regulation, accusing the administration of waging a “War on Coal,” and are likely to have as strong or stronger a reaction against the second. Given the length of time to finalize regulations, however, matters are not likely to come to a head before the November elections.
While climate change is an issue that cries out for honest debate and dialogue, the prospects for either are not encouraging. If Republicans are reluctant to admit the existence of a problem, Democrats are too often unwilling to acknowledge that the solutions themselves may have problems. Indeed, some prominent advocates of climate change appear to be deniers in their own right, seeing no need for a serious and disciplined cost/benefit analysis.
For example, Paul Krugman in The New York Times wrote a May 11 column titled “Crazy Climate Economics” in which he was airily dismissive of concerns over the economic impact of carbon regulation:
[W]e’ll see claims that any effort to limit emissions will have what Senator Marco Rubio is already calling “a devastating impact on our economy.”
Why is this crazy? Normally, conservatives extol the magic of markets and the adaptability of the private sector, which is supposedly able to transcend with ease any constraints posed by, say, limited supplies of natural resources. But as soon as anyone proposes adding a few limits to reflect environmental issues — such as a cap on carbon emissions — those all-capable corporations supposedly lose any ability to cope with change.
While Senator Rubio’s assessment may well be an overstatement, Krugman’s effort to minimize the proposed regulations (“any effort to limit emissions,” “a few limits to reflect environmental issues”) seems disingenuous and unhelpful.
Krugman similarly attempted to wave off the problem of whether carbon restraints in the United States and Europe will have a meaningful impact on global climate unless comparable restraints are adopted in China and the developing world. As Robert J. Samuelson has pointed out in The Washington Post:
[A]lmost all the projected increases in global emissions come from poorer countries, half from China alone. By contrast, U.S. emissions (and those of most rich nations) are projected to stay stable over the three decades. Economic growth is slowing; energy efficiency is increasing; and, in Japan and some European countries, populations are declining. Because poor countries understandably won’t abandon their efforts to relieve poverty, any further U.S. emissions cuts would probably be offset by gains in China and elsewhere.
While Krugman did mention China, he proceeded to assure readers that “U.S. action on climate is a necessary first step toward a broader international agreement, which will surely include sanctions on countries that don’t participate.” Krugman cited no evidence to support his optimistic prediction. Notably, The Washington Post, which also supports carbon limitation, presented a more realistic picture in a December 6, 2013 editorial entitled “How to make a global climate change deal”:
[Negotiators] need to drop the fantasy that whatever treaty they come up with will be legally binding. The size of each country’s emissions reductions and the enforcement of policies to achieve them will have to come from national governments, not from some international agreement. World negotiators tried to strike a deal with a “top-down” approach; they didn’t get close to pulling in all the major actors.
Krugman also ignored the problem that countries of the developing world are seeking “reparations” from the United States and Europe as the price for restraining their own carbon emissions. As the Post observed:
Developing nations must also get real about the amount and type of climate-related money that they will get from the West. Europe and the United States are not going to fund an expensive system to compensate poor nations for effects they might ascribe to global warming.
Despite those cautions, the Post managed to remain optimistic that global progress could be made:
The future of the climate is not going to be decided at one big meeting, or by an ailing Europe and a weary United States ponying up massive sums of money. Barring some technological revolution that makes green energy extremely economical, it’s going to be decided piece by piece in national legislatures and committee meetings, in off-the-record bilateral meetings and Group of 20 summits, and by politicians pushed at home and abroad to act.
While there may be promise in the course suggested by the Post, the uncertainty of the international situation must be considered in weighing the extent and the timing of the constraints the United States is willing to place on its economy.
As a political matter, Republicans have so far paid little, if any, price for their stance on climate change A January 14, 2014 report by the Pew Research Center stated that “The American public routinely ranks dealing with global warming low on its list of priorities for the president and Congress. This year it ranked second to last among 20 issues tested.” That climate, however, may also change.
The National Climate Assessment, issued on May 13, 2014 tied climate change to developments in climate and weather already experienced:
Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present.
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Americans are noticing changes all around them. Summers are longer and hotter, and extended periods of unusual heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced. Winters are generally shorter and warmer. Rain comes in heavier downpours. People are seeing changes in the length and severity of seasonal allergies, the plant varieties that thrive in their gardens, and the kinds of birds they see in any particular month in their neighborhoods.
While debate will continue as to whether particular phenomena, hurricanes for example, are a product of climate change, an overall sense of change in our weather patterns seems unavoidable. As Americans become increasingly aware of and impacted by changes in climate and experience extreme weather, their political priorities may well change accordingly—and swiftly. At that point, other findings of the Pew Research Center become interesting. Only 46% of Republicans (and 25% of Tea Party members) presently believe that there is solid evidence of global warming, compared with 67% of all adults (and 84% of Democrats.) Only 24% of Republicans believe that global warming is caused by human activity, compared with 66% for Democrats and 42% for Independents. Two-thirds of all Americans, including 43% of Republicans, favor stricter emission limits on power plants to address climate change. Climate change may not be an issue on which Republicans can long afford to be the outliers.
We believe that RINOs should attempt to move the Party off the position of sullen skepticism/denial of climate change. That, however, does not imply uncritical endorsement or acceptance of particular approaches to the problem. It does imply that Republicans should seek to play a role in the search for realistic and cost-effective solutions.