Debating Climate Change: The 2016 Election
by Theo Koboski -- October 22nd, 2015
“We must square our shoulders to the great challenge of climate change and make this threat our opportunity.”
“…taking the opportunity posed by climate change to grow our economy.”
“…the scientific community is virtually unanimous. Climate change is real, it is caused by human activity, and we have a moral responsibility…”
Climate change was featured heavily in last week’s Democratic presidential debate. The three statements above—all reminiscent of arguments long made by proponents of climate action—were all made within the very first ten minutes. The topic seemed to keep coming back like a boomerang. Four of the five candidates mentioned climate change in their opening statements. In the foreign policy portion of the debate, climate change was mentioned as an exacerbating force to international conflict. When asked about the greatest threat to United States national security, Senator Bernie Sanders replied “The scientific community is telling us that if we do not address the global crisis of climate change, transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to sustainable energy, the planet that we’re going to be leaving our kids and our grandchildren may well not be habitable. That is a major crisis.”
The Democratic candidates seemed to be competing with each other over who took the issue more seriously and who was willing to get the most done to address it. And that’s pretty darn cool.
As for the Republican candidates… not so much.
In the last GOP debate, almost three hours passed before climate change was directly mentioned. Even then, the discussion lasted about three minutes before the candidates abruptly transitioned to arguing about the credibility and necessity of vaccines. STILL…those three minutes were significant in that not one candidate uttered a word denying the existence of climate change nor refuting scientific evidence of the magnitude of the problem (this doesn’t include Senator Ted Cruz, who was practically jumping up and down begging Jake Tapper to let him share his views as a “proud denier” before he was silenced). Instead, the few candidates who did acknowledge the question chose to focus their criticism on the specific effect President Obama’s climate policies will have on the U.S. economy.
While is doesn’t sound like Republican rhetoric has changed all that much, this glaring omission of climate denialism could hint at the beginnings of a major paradigm shift within the Republican party.
Up until now, what was once a bipartisan issue has become heavily politicized. When President Obama and Democrats in Congress began pushing harder for energy reform and greenhouse gas mitigation, Republicans took to stalling progress by quashing the foundational scientific argument that provided the very basis for climate change efforts. And it worked. After all, how effective can an argument be when your counterpart virtually equates you to Chicken Little? Republicans embraced the steadfast denialism of the far right and adopted it as a party platform.
Congressional Republicans who advocated for climate action began to lose their seats in primary battles to more conservative challengers who campaigned against these heretical offenses. Seats began to turn over in the House of Representatives, and then in the Senate. Soon, the party that had put forward a presidential nominee in 2008 who in his campaign against then-Senator Obama called the threat of climate change “a test of foresight, of political courage, and of the unselfish concern that one generation owes to the next” was now the only major conservative party in the democratic world to deny of the legitimacy of climate science.
So what makes things different now? What does this mean for the Republicans in the 2016 election? Is the Republican party really starting to change? Or is this whole debate happenstance just a minor blip on the radar?
As it turns out, there’s been a bunch of these little blips in the past year (remember the “I’m not a scientist” debacle?). And like a colossal glacier towering over the coast of icy Greenland, Republican denial is falling away piece by piece, layer by layer into the slowly rising ocean of inevitability.
For one, public opinion is changing. Recent polls have uncovered that the majority of Republican voters are now in favor of climate action. A 2013 Yale and George Mason University-conducted poll found that 52% of Republican and Republican-leaning Independent voters think climate change is happening, compared to 26% who say it isn’t. In the same poll, when presented with one of two conservative arguments saying America should respond to climate change, a solid majority (62%) say America absolutely should (23%) or probably should (39%) take steps to address climate change. Further, only a minority of Republicans polled agree with the Republican Party’s position on climate change (35%).
Next, and perhaps most importantly, moderate Republicans are starting to make a stand. Earlier this year, Senators Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Susan Collins of Maine, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina bucked the Republican party platform and voted against party lines on an amendment endorsing humans as the primary cause of climate change.
Just last month, around the time when Pope Francis was roaming the halls of the Capitol building, eleven Republicans in the House of Representatives unveiled a resolution calling for the House to go on record agreeing with the overwhelming consensus of scientists that human activity, through greenhouse gases, is warming the globe. The eleven signers hail from swing districts in traditionally purple states like Florida and Pennsylvania. This means that for some Republicans, instead of being an appealing character trait, denying climate change has become a political liability.
These small steps, when compounded, suggest that change is indeed coming to the Republican party slowly but surely. As for the 2016 election, it doesn’t seem the Republican presidential contenders can put off climate change for much longer. The 2016 Republican nominee will be faced with a growing clarion call for climate action that has since spread from the green groups to the general American populace in addition to a Democratic nominee who will most likely be chomping at the bit to lead the vanguard. It’ll be interesting to see how this particular policy issue gets discussed at future Republican debates. How ever the eventual GOP nominee’s platform begins to take shape, one thing is becoming clear—denial won’t be an option.