The majority of politicians from the political right in the United States have been attempting to dance around the climate change issue, sometimes feigning lack of knowledge, using “I’m not a scientist,” or, “we know it’s happening, we just don’t know why,” or “human activity has little influence on it…”
And then there are the climate change deniers, Senator Jim Inhofe, who chairs the Senate committee on the environment and commerce who calls it one of the greatest hoaxes perpetuated on the American public, or Senator Marco Rubio, Presidential hopeful, who stated in an interview, “…I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it…” This creative dancing would be somewhat amusing if climate change were not such a serious subject.
The Republican Presidential hopefuls have either staked a claim on denier credentials, or voice skepticism. Marco Rubio, “…I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it…”. Rand Paul’s “not sure anybody exactly knows why.” Rick Santorum, “[the] idea that man…is somehow responsible for climate change is, I think, just patently absurd.” Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz agree with Inhofe that it’s a hoax. Bobby Jindal in an op-ed piece stated, “[we] must put energy prices and energy independence ahead of zealous adherence to left-wing environmental theory.” Donald Trump doesn’t think it’s a big problem, and Jeb Bush, “I think global warming may be real… [but] It is not unanimous among scientists that it is disproportionately manmade…”
The dialogue within the right is highly influenced by such politically conservative entities as the Koch brothers and the various groups they support financially, such as American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Americans for Prosperity. For a Republican candidate, if you take any position approaching acknowledging human activity is contributing to climate change, you run the risk of alienating some of your most important contributors and becoming a target of the more conservative branch of the Republican Party. When 97 percent of the climate scientific community has taken the position that human activity does contribute to climate change, you’ve got to question why such a small percentage of this scientific community (three percent) have such a disproportionate influence on the Republican party. Though Senator Ron Paul refuses to be pinned down on the causes of climate change, in an interview he at least opined that “scientific debate should not be dumbed down to politics.”
Ironically, in a study released in 2012, funded to a large degree by the Koch brothers, the “Berkeley Earth Temperature” project arrived at the conclusion that global warming was real and almost entirely caused by human activity. The study was overseen by its Director, a prominent UC Berkeley University professor, Richard Muller, who describes himself as previously a skeptic of human influence on climate change. In a NY Times op-ed piece published in July of 2012, he explains the basis of his reversal. It was compelling scientific evidence.
This hasn’t stopped the Koch brothers from funding campaigns to undermine policy and regulatory efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but the message has morphed to focusing on the potential adverse effects on the economy, job losses, increased cost of energy and reduced GDP that adoption of regulations aimed at reducing GHG emissions will have. They do not deny that the burning of coal has an adverse effect on the air we breathe and the general health of those living near the power plants that burn it and the people who mine it. But the purported job losses and the increased cost of electricity is held up as the grand threat to the economy, and reason enough not to wean the U.S. from a dependence on coal.
Depending on whose numbers you use, the nascent solar industry either employs more people than the coal industry or an equal number. Solar employment is increasing at more than 20 percent annually versus employment in the coal industry which is either stagnant or has been steadily decreasing, again, depending upon whose numbers you use. There is no dispute that the combined solar, wind and demand side management (think energy conservation) industries employ more people, directly and indirectly, than the coal industry, and that the job growth potential in each exceeds that of the coal industry. If Republicans are so concerned with job growth, why not promote those industries which show the most potential for job growth?
It is difficult to get people worked up about something as abstract and slow moving as climate change, something that might not noticeably affect them in their lifetime. It gets hotter, you turn up your A/C; it gets colder you turn up the heat – weather happens. On the other hand, the conservative right has done quite well promoting the mantra of reduce taxes, reduce spending, reduce the debt, with the justification of not wanting to saddle future generations, their children and grandchildren, with exorbitant national debt. What about bequeathing to future generations air too dangerous to breath, polluted aquifers, and a more dangerous world due to instability attributable to climate change – something the Department of Defense 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review references as a concern, as do numerous other DOD, CIA, and UN papers and studies.
A study titled, the “National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change,” which was done under the purview of a panel of 17 former high ranking military personnel, identified climate change as a significant threat to future world stability.
Which brings us to these politicians’ constituencies. While the Republican politicians banter back and forth as to what is causing climate change and questioning whether there is anything that can be done about it, their constituents have pretty much arrived at their own conclusions. Based upon polls taken by numerous organization, both left-leaning, right-leaning, and non-partisan, it appears that the majority of Republicans believe climate change is an important issue and that climate change is occurring. In a recent George Mason/Yale University poll, one of their findings were
“…that a solid majority of self-identified moderate and liberal Republicans – who comprise 30% of the party – think global warming is happening (62% and 68% respectively). By contrast, 38% of conservative Republicans think global warming is happening. At the extreme, Tea Party Republicans (17% of the party) are the most dismissive – only 29% think global warming is happening.”
To some of us, it is probably not surprising, that of Tea Party adherents, only 29 percent believed global warming is happening. In a University of New Hampshire poll conducted in 2014 of New Hampshire residents, of those identifying themselves as Tea Party affiliated, 43 percent said they did not trust scientists as a source on environmental issues, 29 percent weren’t sure, and 28 percent trusted them. I contrast, 83 percent of the Democrats trusted them, 63 percent of Independents, and 60 percent of Republicans.
As the Koch brothers and their allies – and a number of state legislatures – attempt to roll back mandatory renewable energy portfolio standards, energy conservation mandates, and net metering laws, there appears to be a disconnect from the populace they purport to represent. In Florida, Tea Party conservatives have allied themselves with liberal conservationists, forming a coalition to draft a 2016 ballot initiative to eliminate state and utility restrictions, which they believe are impeding the development of solar in Florida. The coalition faults the state for not developing a comprehensive clean energy policy and protecting the utilities from competition from the solar industry.
In a poll conducted of Florida residents, there was only a percentage point difference between Democrats (78 percent) and Republicans (77 percent) in support of net metering. In a nationwide 2013 poll conducted by Yale and George Mason Universities, the percentage of Republicans supporting increased use of renewable energy was 77 percent. Interestingly, only 20 percent of those surveyed believed people like themselves have influence over what elected officials think or do regarding climate change. Surveys of Democrats views on the increased use of renewable energy are generally in the 90 percent range. While such organization as Conservatives for Energy Freedom, founded by a Tea Party activist, say it’s about promoting free market principals, its agenda meshes well with that of the liberal conservationists. This has given rise to unanticipated alliances in a number of states between these seemingly polar opposite organizations. What they have in common is promoting an agenda to be able to generate clean renewable energy.
I believe the polling numbers are less important than the fact that they are indicative of a disconnect between the agenda the Republican Party politicians and their funders are pushing, and what the majority of their constituents would like to see them champion. While Republican legislatures at the state level are attempting to dismantle energy conservation programs, make rooftop solar less attractive and repeal renewable energy portfolio standards, the polls show that the majority of their constituency wants just the opposite. It appears the Republican politicians are pandering to a well-financed minority, represented by the Koch brothers and their allies, whose agenda is protecting the status quo and traditional energy interests.