Republican Climate Denial Is No Political Problem — For Now

Republicans who oppose climate change are generally not, as Politico would have you believe, "climate skeptics." They are deniers of the sort that a recent poll suggests may be harming the party with younger voters. Over the short term, that doesn't matter.

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Republican Rep. Joe Barton of Texas is not, as Politico would have you believe, a "climate skeptic." Nor is Dana Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California. They are climate change deniers — of the sort that a recent poll suggests may be harming the Republican Party with younger voters. For now, though, it doesn't matter. Far from suggesting a problem for the party's energy policies, denialism is trapped in a chicken-egg paradox with calls for additional fossil fuel extraction.

Politico's overly gentle article on climate "skeptics" is predicated on that non-existent political problem: Will the party's opposition to climate change make the party's energy strategy more difficult? Will the arguments of Barton (the Great Flood was climate change) and Rohrabacher (there was bad weather a century ago, too) make the Republican argument on energy a tough sell? Part of the Republican House leadership's plan for the August recess is to bring the party's energy message — more oil drilling, essentially — to congressional districts. Will denial of the scientific reality of climate change make that trickier?

Not with young people. Last week, a survey conducted for an environmental group by two polling firms — a Republican firm and the pollster that did both of Obama's campaigns — discovered that young people are already hostile to that message. The Guardian reported on the results.

The implications were even more harsh for those Republicans who block Obama on climate action and dispute the entire body of science behind climate change. "For voters under 35, denying climate change signals a much broader failure of values and leadership," the polling memo said. Many young voters would write such candidates off completely, with 37% describing climate change deniers as "ignorant", 29% as "out of touch" and 7% simply as "crazy".

The climate cranks were unlikely to pick up many points with their base either; just under half of young Republicans said they would be less likely to vote for a climate change denier.

The League of Conservation Voters, which commissioned the poll, offers a more full set of data, albeit one that excludes the specific questions asked.

What Politico ignores as it nudges its "skeptics" — like Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, who claims somehow the planet is cooling — is that such arguments are inextricable from the party's energy plan. It is very difficult to simultaneously believe with certitude that the climate is warming as the result of emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are the result of extraction and combustion of fossil fuels and to argue that we should expand our extraction and combustion of fossil fuels.

It is similarly difficult for voters to both demand action on climate change (of the sort that the president recently endorsed) and to demand more drilling. The bridge argument in that case is jobs — that the short-term demands of employment necessitate additional extraction. It's why the number of jobs created by the Keystone XL pipeline has become a point of contention, one that Obama went out of his way to minimize during his interview with The Times this weekend. "Republicans have said that this would be a big jobs generator," he said. "There is no evidence that that’s true." (The estimate of long-term jobs created by the pipeline: 35.)

That bridge argument only applies to Americans who aren't deeply invested in the political debate. Partisans are already committed: Drill, baby, drill versus Earth first. (As we reported in May, that trend hasn't shifted much.) No matter how much advocates demand the opposite, including the young advocates who've been forcing the issue, the debate on climate change remains stubbornly non-scientific. It's political. Over the immediate term, that makes Joe Barton and Dana Rohrabacher's "skepticism" perfectly fine. And the Republican party has plenty of time before those young voters the LCV points to start becoming the majority on election day.

Photo: Yuan Yuan Deng, left, visiting from Long Island, N.Y., poses for a souvenir snapshot beside environmental activist Brian McLeane of the Alaska Wilderness League. (AP)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.