Republicans Just Lost One of Their Favorite Excuses for Not Doing Anything on Climate

Will reasonable conservatives change their tune?

The wide-ranging climate deal between the U.S. and China may sound like good news for anyone who cares about curbing the effects of climate change, but it's bad news for politicians who just lost a top excuse for not doing anything about it.

As New York magazine's Jonathan Chait points out, Republicans have made something of a habit of opposing various policies to curb carbon emissions by arguing that it won't do any good overall because China, in particular, won't comply. The Wall Street Journal, in a recent editorial, mocked the very notion that the Obama administration could ever get China to agree to such a thing. And Mother Jones has compiled a whole video of Republicans driving home the point.

There's House Speaker John Boehner saying we can't possibly do much about climate change alone, and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., noting there are big climate-related problems in China, India, and Mexico. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., made the highly illuminating point that "there are other countries that are polluting in the atmosphere much more than we are!"

The new deal—in which the U.S. has vowed to cut carbon pollution by 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, and China pledged to achieve a peak in its carbon emissions by 2030 at the latest, as well as boosting its share of non-fossil-fuel energy to 20 percent by then—puts something of a damper on such arguments. Particularly as the U.S. and China together make up an estimated 45 percent of the world's greenhouse-gas emissions.

Presumptive Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for his part, is doing his best to hold onto the talking point. "As I read the agreement," he said in the wake of the deal-making, "it requires the Chinese to do nothing at all for 16 years." (Chait has a good response to that here.)

The larger question is whether any of the Republicans who have relied on this talking point for so long will take the opportunity to reconsider their positions, given China's stated intention. If not, perhaps they can at least accede that it's a victory? Charles Krauthammer expressed that very sentiment in an interview with Fox News last week—namely, that an agreement like the one just reached would be of tremendous consequence—even as he emphasized his disbelief that such a thing might actually happen.

"I think the one item he could negotiate, and I'm serious about this: climate change," Krauthammer said last week of the president's then-looming trip to China. "That's the one where, if we and China could agree, it would make a difference. You could shut down every coal mine in Kentucky, it won't make a dime's worth of difference. If he gets an agreement with China—which he won't, but that's the one area it would be historic."

Even with such acknowledgements and the China line effectively stricken from the GOP playbook, Republican climate-deniers have ample choices to fall back on for their arguments. There's the old "I am not a scientist" disclaimer, as well as the "regulations kill jobs" soundbite. But maybe the new agreement with China will inspire something different.

If Republican climate critics really believe what they've argued in the past, now would be the time for them to celebrate what a big win this agreement is—and maybe fashion a few of their own on Capitol Hill.