Doyle McManus: Republicans doing the climate-change dance

05/15/2014 12:00 AM

05/14/2014 5:07 PM

Last week, the White House issued a new and alarming edition of its national report on climate change. How did leading Republicans respond?

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the GOP’s leader in the Senate, scoffed at President Obama for “talking about the weather,” dismissing the issue as a hobbyhorse of “liberal elites … who leave a giant carbon footprint and then lecture everybody else about low-flow toilets.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., argued that Obama’s proposals to regulate carbon emissions “would have a devastating effect on our economy” without solving the problem.

And Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said the central issue wasn’t climate change but cost-benefit analysis. Asked whether he thought global warming had been caused by human activity, Thune said: “I’m not denying that. I’m simply saying that the debate ought to be: What are we going to do about it, and at what cost?”

Perhaps this counts as progress. They weren’t calling climate change a hoax, as many conservatives once did (and some still do). They’re not even challenging the scientific consensus that human activity has contributed to the warming of the Earth (although some still contest that finding, too).

Why the shift?

Polls have found that most Americans are worried about global warming, except for one group – tea party conservatives. A Pew Research Poll conducted last year found that only 25 percent of tea party adherents believe climate change is real, against 61 percent of non-tea party Republicans (and 84 percent of Democrats).

That puts the GOP in a bind, caught between its most zealous conservative supporters and the broader majorities it’ll need to win elections.

More worrisome for the GOP, younger voters are even more convinced that climate change is a big problem.

In the not-too-distant past, the Republican Party’s platform actually listed global warming as a national problem and cited “human activity” among its causes. But that was 2008, when Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was the nominee; even Sarah Palin, his running mate, agreed. “It’s real,” she said then. “We need to do something about it.”

But that was before the tea party insurgency of 2010, and before Democratic proposals for cap-and-trade legislation made climate change a forbidden zone for most Republican politicians.

Some current GOP members of Congress still deny that the problem exists. Others agree that climate change is real but say they aren’t certain that it’s man-made – and, as a result, they feel no need to fix it.

But increasingly, the most popular argument among leading Republicans in Congress is a mix of all of the above – maybe it’s a problem, maybe it isn’t – plus a new talking point designed for tough economic times: Whatever the problem, it looks too expensive to fix.

“There has to be a cost-benefit analysis,” Rubio said last year.

That position would carry more weight if Rubio and other Republicans had actually done the cost-benefit analysis they ask for, one that includes the costs of flooding in Miami and droughts in the Southwest as well as the price of regulating coal-burning power plants. But they haven’t.

To borrow a word from a different public debate, the GOP appears to be evolving, but only in its rhetoric, not its policies. But evolution is a slow process, and if the environment changes as quickly as the scientists expect, some political species could soon become endangered.

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