Republicans Can Lead On Climate…If They Open Their Eyes

Blind Elephants
©2010 National Wildlife Federation® | by Max Greenberg

When politicians take pains to miss the point, are they really being leaders?

The parable of the blind men and the elephant is near and dear to many a cartoonist’s heart*—never more so than when the public sphere is clogged with folks bumbling around a vital issue, all arriving at wildly different conclusions and missing the core of the thing. The behavior of some modern GOP leaders when it comes to acknowledging and engaging climate change certainly fits the bill.

New York Times (Editorial, 10/17/10):

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.

In one way or another, though, all are custodians of a strategy whose guiding principle has been to avoid debate about solutions to climate change by denying its existence — or at least by diminishing its importance. The strategy worked, destroying hopes for Congressional action while further confusing ordinary citizens for whom global warming was already a remote and complex matter. It was also remarkably heavy-handed.

Nowadays, it is almost impossible to recall that in 2000, George W. Bush promised to cap carbon dioxide, encouraging some to believe that he would break through the partisan divide on global warming. 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.

National Journal (10/9/10):

[British Foreign Secretary William Hague’s] strong words [about addressing climate change] make it easier to recognize that Republicans in this country are coalescing around a uniquely dismissive position on climate change. The GOP is stampeding toward an absolutist rejection of climate science that appears unmatched among major political parties around the globe, even conservative ones.

Just for the record, when the nonpartisan National Academy of Sciences last reviewed the data this spring, it concluded: “A strong, credible body of scientific evidence shows that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems.”

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.”

This dispiriting spectacle—call it ‘the story of the blind elephants and the horrific mega-elephant’**—has kept pace even amidst wave after wave of scientific findings confirming climate change and its consequences. Projected disease, drought, severe weather events, geopolitical instability, sweeping loss of biodiversity and other wildlife effects—a gallery of horrors, yet apparently none so stark or scary that it can snap key Republican standard-bearers to their senses.

What accounts for this intense trend? As mentioned in the editorial above, Big Pollution’s campaign largess makes for many silent statesmen, but we also seem to be in the middle of a boom cycle for political cowardice. Once, many Republican lawmakers  were willing to talk openly about environmental problems; now, we have scores of unconscientious objectors. Not all Republicans deny climate change or its importance, but far too many do. The Times points out that some deniers and obstructionists may legitimately believe that the science of global warming is somehow a hoax, plot, mirage, etc., but it seems far more likely this spike owes a great deal to a sweeping courage deficit. At least I hope so—that would make it easier to fix, at least in theory.

This is not to say that Democrats have been uniformly more educated about global warming, or roundly more enthusiastic about doing what’s needed to stop it in its tracks. As it stands, there is plenty of blame to go around for our continuous failure to pass comprehensive climate and energy legislation and our tendency to bump global warming ever further down the queue of public policy concerns when adversity looms.

But as noted months ago by NWF CEO Larry Schweiger, Republicans have been on the hook for failed climate efforts repeatedly in recent years. It does not have to be that way:

Throughout the history of the nation’s environmental movement, from President Theodore Roosevelt to Senator John Heinz (a Republican senator from Pennsylvania who worked with Senator Tim Wirth of Colorado to lead efforts to curb acid rain), Republicans have been conservation leaders who understood their moral duty to work in a bipartisan way to protect nature and stop pollution. But the spirit of bipartisanship has been compromised in recent decades as too many Republican members of Congress have become unwilling to acknowledge the large body of climate science and address the threats of global warming.

Despite the stalling tactics of many Republican leaders, their interest in insisting that global warming is not a danger and the vitriolic misinformation on cable channels that fuels a partisan divide, the public’s support for a new energy policy continues to rise—without the political divide some leaders continue to ferment. The public’s understanding of the importance of clean energy investments in creating millions of new jobs and safeguarding natural resources from global warming impacts continues to increase—again, without the political divisiveness some leaders seem to crave.

This presents Republican leaders with a choice: demonstrate their confidence in America’s ingenuity and ability to lead the clean energy revolution, or continue to focus on a partisan divide that doesn’t achieve anything but missed opportunities and mounting danger for future generations.

The old Jain/Buddhist/Hindu/Muslim story I have inverted and mutated in the cartoon above is generally treated as a commentary on man’s tendency toward obduracy and disagreement or, if you want to get zen, the “inexpressible nature of truth.” (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

In this case, the truth is beyond dispute: global warming is happening, we are causing it, and it is a serious problem. That some blind gropers continue to invent other causes or pretenses for the monster in the room seems a sure indication of that first lesson’s validity.

It’s one thing to be blind, quite another to revel in your refusal to see.  It’s time for more Republicans to face facts and be strong on conservation now, as they have in the past.

* – Unsurprisingly, this is not even close to my first time using this motif for a cartoon.
** – Good title for a SyFy channel original movie, no?

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Published: October 20, 2010