Posted by guest-blogger Amanda Teuscher
The past couple weeks have been a bit of a mixed bag in the debate about climate change and environmental policy.
On April 1, Governor Jerry Brown imposed water restrictions on California for the first time—a 25 percent usage reduction meant to alleviate the state’s historic drought (which one recent study indicated was worsened by climate change). On Tuesday, President Barack Obama announced an initiative that connects global warming to public health concerns such as asthma.
Then there was the news in The Washington Post that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the influential conservative state policy organization, was threatening legal action if activist groups continued telling all ALEC’s rich friends like Google and Facebook that ALEC denies climate change. This is a bit rich considering its work protecting the interests of fossil fuel industries (as Ari Phillips at ThinkProgress writes, “Whether the group acknowledges climate change is somewhat beside the point if it doesn’t want to do anything about it.”), but it did prompt Dana Milbank of the Post to say, “There is no denying it: Climate-change deniers are in retreat.”
That all might sound like great news for environmentalists—enemy retreat is a good thing. But science-deniers weren’t the only enemies of environmental regulation; they were just a convenient cover. On Tuesday, David Roberts at Grist offered a sobering analysis of the demise of the debate over climate science, saying the shift away from denying the broad scientific consensus that global warming was real was “not because any flood of solutions is forthcoming, but because the science fight has become a distraction from the real work, the important work, which is blocking solutions and protecting the interests of the wealthy.”
Roberts claims that conservative efforts to scare the public away from environmental regulation rely on the same government-is-evil arguments conservatives use on economic issues. It makes sense—with more young voters considering the anti-science wing of the GOP to be backwards and a little out of touch, it’s better to drop the denialism cover. Even Senator Rand Paul, in his quest to appeal to younger voters, voted for an amendment stating that climate change is real, and (partly! just partly) human-made. (Don’t worry, though; if elected, he’s probably not actually going to do anything about it.)
But it might be even easier than focusing on the anti-government-intervention argument, because it turns out you don’t have to actually say you think humans caused it—the necessary step connecting acknowledgment of climate change to public push for proactive environmental policy. And conservatives might be able to continue to get away with that because less than half of the country believes climate change is caused by humans, according to a statistical model from Yale and Utah State University, and only about a third of Americans believe that there’s agreement among scientists. In the researchers’ maps depicting this consensus (or lack thereof) by congressional district, it’s easy to see why real proactive legislation might not be in the immediate future.
It’s really an effective strategy: Just say you know there’s a problem, but a problem that was naturally inevitable, and then you don’t have to do anything about it because, well, what could you possibly do? You could even go so far as Republicans have in California (including possible presidential candidate Carly Fiorina), who are boldly saying that environmentalists are the real culprits behind the state’s drought.
And really, that could be how the debate about what to do about climate change manifests in 2016, specifically in the Republican primary. Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz both voted "no" on that climate-change amendment earlier this year, denying that people have anything to do with global warming. If a majority of Americans aren't going to tell them they should—or even can—do anything about climate change, appearing to be anti-science is unlikely to hurt their political fortunes.
Then again, yesterday was a cold day in the nation’s capital—hovering in the 40s—which still matters when there’s a certain chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee who uses snowballs as evidence that global warming is a hoax.