Why Republicans Deny Climate Change

Their ideology is unique in the free world

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With Democrats and President Barack Obama unable to pass any significant climate change legislation despite scientific consensus on the severity and immediacy of the threat, a number of political commentators are turning their attention to the widely held Republican position that climate change isn't real. Why, they ask, are U.S. conservative politicians nearly alone among the world's political players in their continued insistence that climate change is neither man-made nor a serious problem? Here's their conversation and what they say it means for the U.S., the world, and the effort to curb climate change.

  • GOP's Denial Unique in Entire Free World  National Journal's Ronald Brownstein writes, "Indeed, it is difficult to identify another major political party in any democracy as thoroughly dismissive of climate science as is the GOP here. Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, says that although other parties may contain pockets of climate skepticism, there is 'no party-wide view like this anywhere in the world that I am aware of.' It will be difficult for the world to move meaningfully against climate disruption if the United States does not. And it will be almost impossible for the U.S. to act if one party not only rejects the most common solution proposed for the problem (cap-and-trade) but repudiates even the idea that there is a problem to be solved."
  • Climate Denial Becoming GOP Orthodoxy  The New York Times editorial board warns, "With one exception, none of the Republicans running for the Senate — including the 20 or so with a serious chance of winning — accept the scientific consensus that humans are largely responsible for global warming. The candidates are not simply rejecting solutions, like putting a price on carbon, though these, too, are demonized. They are re-running the strategy of denial perfected by Mr. Cheney a decade ago, repudiating years of peer-reviewed findings about global warming and creating an alternative reality in which climate change is a hoax or conspiracy. ... Until the end of the 1990s, Republicans could be counted on to join bipartisan solutions to environmental problems. Now they’ve disappeared in a fog of disinformation, an entire political party parroting the Cheney line."
  • Poses Huge Problem for Foreign Leaders  The Economist's Ryan Avent points out on his personal blog, "One needn’t spend much time in the main offices of one of the world’s top weeklies to understand the real significance of this state of affairs. It poses an enormous problem to the leaders of the world’s other major powers, and there is almost nothing they can do about it. ... Imagine the world’s major powers sitting down in the early 20th century to negotiate a treaty on the law of the sea, only to have one of America’s major political parties vow to defeat any settlement, on the grounds that the world is in fact flat."
  • U.S. Politics More 'Responsive' to Popular Whims  The New York Times' Ross Douthat writes, "What’s interesting, though, is that if you look at public opinion on climate change, the U.S. isn’t actually that much of an outlier among the wealthier Western nations. ... There’s a reasonably large Western European constituency, in other words, for some sort of climate change skepticism. ... But the politicians haven’t been responding. Instead, Europe’s political class, left and right alike, has worked to marginalize a position that it considers intellectually disreputable, even as the American G.O.P. has exploited that same position to win votes. ... On issues ranging from the death penalty to (at least until recently) immigration, America’s major political parties generally tend to be more responsive to public opinion, and less constrained by elite sentiment, than their counterparts in Europe."
  • GOP Giving Up on Governing to Score Cheap Political Points  The Washington Post's Ezra Klein sighs, "This isn't a very popular statement, but there is a role for elites in public life. Just like I want knowledgeable CEOs running companies and knowledgeable doctors performing surgeries, I want knowledgeable legislators crafting public policy. That's why we have a representative democracy, rather than some form of government-by-referendum. But of late, the elites in the Republican Party are abdicating their roles, preferring to pander to the desire for free tax cuts and the hostility to Al Gore than make tough and potentially unpopular decisions to safeguard our future."
  • Free Market Conservatism Gone Too Far  The New Republic's Bill McKibben suggests that conservatives are taking their ideological insistence on free markets and deregulation a step too far.

Part of the conservative creed has always been that markets, left to themselves, accomplish most tasks more efficiently than government regulation. That’s true, of course, just as it’s true that markets don’t do everything you want. (That’s why we have cheap deregulated airlines and yet retain the Federal Aviation Administration.) But conservatives have grown more insistent on the deification of markets in recent years; Rand Paul is ever less an outlier. If markets do damage, that’s okay—it’s creative destruction à la Schumpeter.

But even if you accept that process absolutely within the economic sphere (and very few of us do, which is why Rand Paul just might lose), it doesn’t follow that it works outside of it. Destruction of the planet’s fundamental physical systems isn’t creative—it’s just destruction. If Microsoft disappears, innovators will take its place. If Arctic ice disappears, no young John Galt is going to remake it in his garage. The essential question is: Is the environment a subset of the economy, or is it the other way around? Or, more combatively, you really think you can out-argue physics? Hayek’s good, but atmospheric chemistry is a tough opponent.

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