Resistance against the reality of climate science on the American right-wing goes much deeper than Donald Trump’s now realized campaign promises. A refusal to take action to reduce emissions and to mitigate climate change has been part of the fabric of the Republican party for decades. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, though it may seem like a move to fulfill an off-the-cuff campaign pledge, builds on decades of climate science denial and policy crafted to avoid substantive action. To secure a future in which the US can become a world leader in fighting climate change, changes will be necessary that go much deeper than just removing Trump from office in 2020.
Republicans have been standing in the way of climate change action for since at least the 1990s. After George HW Bush signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992, promising “concrete action to protect the planet,” he immediately faced opposition from within his own administration. One report, circulated shortly thereafter by White House chief of staff John Sununu, argued against the already established scientific consensus, contending that any warming was natural and caused by the sun instead of by human activity.
Shortly after Bush lost reelection, Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, proposed a carbon pricing system. Republicans argued that the “BTU tax” would eliminate jobs and generally slow the economy, despite economists considering the tax as the most efficient way to reduce carbon emissions. Thinktanks associated with the Republican party promoted the notion that climate science remained unsettled, despite evidence to the contrary. They also argued that if climate change was indeed real, society could easily adapt to the changes.
The Conference of Parties offered a market based approach to the problem as the foundation of the Kyoto protocol. At its heart, emissions trading built on conservative ideas, creating markets for carbon and allowing the private sector to adapt, without heavy handed government regulation. These ideas had already been tested, implemented to deal with acid rain in the Midwest and air pollution in California, without any apparent harm to the economy.
Nonetheless, shortly after George W. Bush began his first term in 2001, Republicans rejected the Kyoto Protocol. During his eight years in office, Bush and his party stood firmly against taking any substantive action on climate change. Where possible, they spread doubt as to whether the science of climate change was settled, despite the broad consensus among scientists. It took a suit in federal court, by 12 states in 2007, to force action on climate change during the Bush years. The supreme court ruled that the federal government was failing to uphold the Clean Air Act, and ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to take action to control carbon emissions. This laid a foundation for Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which not only Donald Trump, but every single Republican primary candidate opposed in 2016. Ted Cruz called the plan “unconstitutional.”
The climate change denial promoted by Republican politicians has had a profound effect on the party’s voters. Despite a consensus among at least 90 percent of climate scientists that warming patterns can be attributed to human activity, the American public is sharply divided along partisan lines. According to a Pew Research Center poll, 79 percent of liberal democrats agree with this, compared to just 15 percent of conservative Republicans. Republicans who reject climate science regularly win elections. This phenomenon is somewhat unique to the US. Not only does climate science enjoy widespread acceptance in Europe, but in developing nations as well. A 2010 Pew Research poll found that 91 percent of consumers in China believed in the realities of climate change, as well as 73 percent in India and 71 percent in South Korea.
A now deep-seated tendency exists among voters and politicians on the right to ignore the widely held consensus among scientists. With no evidence that climate action hurts the economy, Republicans are creating an obstacle to an urgent, time-sensitive problem that ultimately threatens the entire world. The argument relies on two main points: that the science behind climate change is unsettled, and that action to stop climate change risks unacceptable damage to the economy. The former is easily disproved by noting the consensus among scientists that climate change is real, and is driven by human activities. The latter is a fallacy, since catastrophic climate change would have a profound impact on the global economy. One study, published in Nature, found that rising temperatures would leave GDP per capita 23 percent lower in 2100 that it would be without any warming effects.
But to address the problem, getting Donald Trump out of the White House would only be the first step. The right needs to start offering candidates who believe in the conclusions of science. This won’t happen, however, until Republican voters become educated as to the reality of climate change, and its potential impact.