Well, we did it – we showed those stupid globalists, what with their silly ideas about working together productively and thinking we all have to coexist on the same planet and whatnot. Trump gave a big fat middle finger to the rest of the world with his speech withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, and his fans cheered lustily. The rest of us still have to live here on planet Earth & endure the consequences.
So much has already been said & written in the last few days about Trump’s decision, by people much smarter than I am on climate change issues. So I’m not going to even try to get into a detailed discussion here about the effects of his decision or debate its merits. But I wanted to draw your attention to an interesting article from the New York Times this past weekend related to the topic.
And the Article Is . . .
The article is titled How G.O.P. Leaders Came to View Climate Science as Fake, but it’s actually about the GOP as a whole, not just the Party leaders. This article explains how the Party went from running a Presidential candidate in 2008 – John McCain– who touted his credentials on combating climate change to just a few years later being a party in wholesale denial that the problem of anthropogenic climate change even exists. (To be clear, even in 2008, the party didn’t exactly embrace the idea of climate change, and it had plenty of deniers. But at that point, the Party was still open to the possibility of solutions, and it wasn’t a litmus test issue for the Party).
I want to bring this article to your attention for 2 reasons: 1) the story behind how this happened is important, and surely has parallels outside of climate change. The cause of the Party’s transformation almost entirely boils down to one word, and that word won’t surprise you: money; and 2) while I’m glad the NY Times told this story, and I give them credit for exposing the primary force behind this change, unfortunately the authors were not able to resist that all too common sin of political writing & commentating: “both sides-ism.”
“Both Sides-ism” Refuses to Die
“Both sides-ism” is where the journalist or pundit just can’t resist finding a way to make every problem the fault of both Parties, no matter how badly they have to twist themselves (and the story) in knots to do so. It’s an effort to appear neutral or non-biased that leads the commentator to fail to call out even the most obvious cases of one-sided (or lopsided) blame. And that, of course, is a bias in and of itself. It’s one of the most destructive habits in politics today, because by blaming “both sides” for everything, the side that’s actually to blame doesn’t get held accountable.
After years of “both sides” punditry by the beltway press, Republicans have learned that they can pull off an awful lot of nonsense without the public realizing it, because pundits will always just blame it all on “Washington” or “Congress,” both things that are already unpopular with the public. This just adds to public frustration & disengagement with the system, without giving people any useful information. I don’t want to get too off topic here, so I’ll save a more detailed conversation about this for another day, but that’s “both sides-ism” in short. And with that, here’s one of the lead paragraphs in this weekend’s NY Times story about how the GOP, as a Party, came to deny climate science:
The Republican Party’s fast journey from debating how to combat human-caused climate change to arguing that it does not exist is a story of big political money, Democratic hubris in the Obama years and a partisan chasm that grew over nine years like a crack in the Antarctic shelf, favoring extreme positions and uncompromising rhetoric over cooperation and conciliation.
What??? Okay, so this intro mentions “big political money” and that’s a key part of the story, so that’s good. But then the next item on the list, getting basically equal billing, is “Democratic hubris,” which makes it sound like the Democrats somehow pushed Republicans into their science denial. The paragraph then ends with “a partisan chasm that grew over nine years favoring extreme positions and uncompromising rhetoric” And that makes it sound like both sides moved away from the accepted mainstream on the issue, out to further and further fringes, as if both sides staked out nonsensical positions and refused to accept facts or data. So that’s the way the story is framed, the set-up for the article.. Let’s see if the evidence, from within the very same article, bears that out . . .
It All About the Benjamins, Really
It turns out that by far the largest portion of the article discusses the significant role money has played in changing Republicans’ attitudes toward climate change. More than half of the article is dedicated to explaining how money from the fossil fuel industry, along with outside groups funded by the industry, have prodded GOP members into opposing any legislation to regulate their industries:
[W]hen Mr. Trump pulled the United States from the Paris accord, the Senate majority leader, the speaker of the House and every member of the elected Republican leadership were united in their praise.
Those divisions did not happen by themselves. Republican lawmakers were moved along by a campaign carefully crafted by fossil fuel industry players, most notably Charles D. and David H. Koch, the Kansas-based billionaires who run a chain of refineries . . .
The article looks back to describe when the real turning point came, the point in 2008 when attitudes among Republicans overwhelmingly shifted:
It was called the “No Climate Tax” pledge, drafted by a new group called Americans for Prosperity that was funded by the Koch brothers. Its single sentence read: “I will oppose any legislation relating to climate change that includes a net increase in government revenue.” Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, was the first member of Congress to sign it in July 2008.
The effort picked up steam the next year after the House of Representatives passed what is known as cap-and-trade legislation, a concept invented by conservative Reagan-era economists.
John McCain had run his presidential campaign on a platform that included a cap and trade plan. But now, less than a year later, conservative activists saw the chance to win a big victory in the climate debate. So with the assistance of outside think tanks and experts funded by the oil industry, along with some misleading use of data to undermine & embarrass climate researchers, they waged war on the plan and won.
As Congress moved toward actually passing climate change legislation, a fringe issue had become a part of the political mainstream . . .
Unshackled by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and other related rulings, which ended corporate campaign finance restrictions, Koch Industries and Americans for Prosperity started an all-fronts campaign with television advertising, social media and cross-country events aimed at electing lawmakers [in 2010] who would ensure that the fossil fuel industry would not have to worry about new pollution regulations . . .
Republicans who asserted support for climate change legislation or the seriousness of the climate threat saw their money dry up or, worse, a primary challenger arise . . .
Even for congressional veterans, that message was not missed.
So by the 2010 mid-term elections, the Koch message had thoroughly penetrated. Republicans who supported climate regulation would be targeted and thrown out of office. Those who toed the Koch line would be backed by Koch group money and survive. And Republicans all understood that.
But How About Those Dems?
So now, are you ready for the part of the article that explains the “Democratic hubris” and “extreme positions” and “uncompromising rhetoric” that pushed Republicans into their denial? Here it is . . . Or, here’s the portion of the article where you’d expect it find it . . .
A couple years later, after Obama won re-election in 2012, he decided he was going to move on climate change without Congress. (Republicans had won the House back in 2010 and still held it). So Obama acted under a “rarely used” provision of the Clean Air Act which gives the EPA the authority to regulate carbon dioxide. He created his Clean Power Plan, which would significantly cut down on carbon dioxide emissions, but this required closing down hundreds of coal-burning power plants. Republicans were naturally incensed. They hated the policy, and they were even more furious Obama put it in place by going around them.
In the New York Times telling of the story:
Republicans who had supported the climate change agenda began to defect and have since stayed away.
Except, this doesn’t make sense, because the article already told us that the turning point came in 2008, when the Koch Brothers required Republicans to sign the “No Climate Tax” pledge. And by 2010, they’d seen dozens of their “climate agenda” friendly colleagues thrown out of office, and they all well knew the electoral danger they’d be in if they supported a climate agenda. In fact, most of the apostates had already been thrown out.
It’s possible the authors are trying to say that there were a small handful of Republicans who still supported the climate change agenda, and Obama’s move pushed even them to the opposing side, but upon further investigation, even that doesn’t wash. The only Republican the article mention in this section about Obama’s Clean Power Plan is the ever-present John McCain (I swear I’m not picking on him, but he’s the one the article chooses as their example). But if we take a look back, we can see that by 2009, just one year after his presidential campaign, John McCain was already opposing the cap and trade bill that had passed the Democratic House. He had moved on to echoing GOP talking points on the climate issue:
McCain has emerged as a vocal opponent of the climate bill — a major reversal for the self-proclaimed maverick who once made defying his party on global warming a signature issue of his career. Now the Arizona Republican is more likely to repeat GOP talking points on cap and trade than to help usher the bill through the thorny politics of the Senate.
McCain refers to the bill as “cap and tax,” calls the climate legislation that passed the House in June “a 1,400-page monstrosity” and dismisses a cap-and-trade proposal included in the White House budget as “a government slush fund.”
Former aides are mystified by what they see as a retreat on the issue, given McCain’s long history of leadership on climate legislation . . .
And if you’re thinking that perhaps McCain just didn’t like that cap and trade bill, that maybe there were some specific provisions in there that offended him but he would’ve liked a different bill, that’s not likely. Contemporaneous reports indicated that McCain seemed to have just lost interest in the issue entirely – he didn’t offer up any alternative solutions to that bill he disliked so much:
McCain is barely engaged in the issue beyond criticizing the climate bill passed by the House, while Kerry has emerged as one of the chamber’s leading dealmakers. The fact that the two no longer appear to be on the same side underscores the challenge Democrats face in enacting the first national cap on greenhouse gas emissions.
So the article attempts to blame Obama’s aggressive actions on the Clean Power Plan for alienating Republicans from the climate cause, but it seems quite clear that by that point, there was no one remaining to alienate. Now, it certainly makes sense to say that Obama’s actions hardened the opposition and energized their fight against him and the policies he was proposing. But that’s wholly different from claiming that he caused them to change their beliefs on the issue.
Etc, Etc. (Or How it Became a Partisan Death Match)
And indeed, the rest of the article is about how the fight became more energized and amped up, with significantly increased partisan fervor. A group of Republican Attorneys General – led by Scott Pruitt, at the time the AG of Oklahoma, now our EPA Chief – sued the Obama administration over his Clean Power Plan. They were successful in getting the Supreme Court to put the plan on hold while the case goes through litigation in the lower courts.
Then the article takes us through how Trump used the climate issue in his presidential campaign, and then ultimately how he came to his decision on the Paris Climate Agreement. There is no further discussion of Obama or any other Democrats. The article moves to a close with this:
While the politics of climate change in the United States has grown more divided since then, the scientific community has united: Global warming is having an impact, scientists say, with sea levels rising along with the extremity of weather events. Most of the debate is about the extent of those impacts — how high the seas may rise, or how intense and frequent heavy storms or heat waves may be . . .
But in Congress, reluctance to embrace that science has had no political downsides, at least among Republicans.
“We don’t yet have an example of where someone has paid a political price being on that side of it,” said Michael Steel, who served as press secretary for the former House speaker John A. Boehner . . .
Until people vote on the issue, Republicans will find it politically safer to question climate science and policy than to alienate moneyed groups like Americans for Prosperity.
I urge you to read the whole article if you get a chance. Though I excerpted a lot of it here, it’s a decent length article, so I still left out quite a lot about how the outside groups & their executives pressure Republicans in Congress. Also there’s more about the way the interest groups work to undermine the climate scientists and their data. And I didn’t give you most of the last third of the article, which describes the legal fight against Obama’s climate initiatives and then Trump’s campaign and how he used the climate issue, flaming the partisan passions even further.
And in Conclusion . . .
But I think you’ll notice that in the entire article there’s nothing about any substance when it comes to the GOP shift in attitude. The reason the GOP went from being somewhat open to solutions on climate change to being nearly unanimously opposed had nothing to do with their assessment of the data or concerns about how potential solutions might affect the economy, etc. It was entirely because of the money that was being used to pressure them electorally. They feared either losing their funding stream or having money spent against them to get them voted out of office.
And on the “both sides” are to blame angle at the opening of the article – where is the substance on that?? Two-thirds of that opening paragraph was made up of claims about how the Democrats contributed to the Republican denial of climate science. But aside from Obama, Democrats were barely even mentioned in the the article after that. A couple names were listed as road kill on the Koch’s path to getting rid of anyone with a climate agenda, but that’s about it. So how does that support the claims in the opening paragraph? There was no support for those claims at all.
Even the claim about Obama is hardly supported, as discussed above. One can argue over whether his Clean Power Plan was overreach and provided valid fuel for opponents’ anger, but you can’t realistically argue that it turned any Republicans from believers into deniers. They had already chosen denial by that point.
So why did the authors frame this story as one that blames both parties equally? Why is that urge so irresistible even in the face of overwhelming evidence against doing so?? Like so many other things on this big earth, for now, it remains another of life’s great mysteries . . .
Photo Credit: Creative Commons Sunny Day Tidal Flooding Miami by B137 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.