Trump Thwarts GOP Plot to Pretend His Climate Agenda Isn’t Idiotic

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The American people believe climate change is real, and they want their government to do something about it.

A record 72 percent of voters said global warming was an “important” issue for them personally in a Yale/George Mason University poll released earlier this year. That same poll found a majority of Republican voters favored government action to combat warming, with 56 percent endorsing “strict carbon-dioxide emission limits on existing coal-fired power plants to reduce global warming and improve public health, even if the cost of electricity to consumers and companies would likely increase.” This finding is broadly consistent with other recent surveys. Last year Gallup found that 62 percent of voters believed the government was “doing too little” to protect the environment — the highest that figure has been in more than a decade. Meanwhile, some 57 percent told the pollster that environmental protection should take priority over economic growth. Concern for the climate is (unsurprisingly) acute among younger voters, which is likely one reason that the rising generation is the least Republican in modern memory.

And yet, when the rubber meets the road — and concrete climate policies make the ballot — voters tend to get cold feet. Last November, amid a “blue wave” midterm election, in overwhelmingly Democratic Washington State, 56 percent of voters rejected a plan for establishing a carbon tax and investing its revenues into a variety of environmental improvements. That same night, Colorado awarded the Democratic Party full control of its state government — while voting down an initiative that would have placed hard limits on fracking in the Centennial State. Meanwhile, even as Arizona sent Democrat Kyrsten Sinema to the Senate, 70 percent of its voters opposed a proposition that would have required all of the state’s utility companies to derive 50 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2030.

All of which is to say: The median voter has no tolerance for climate denialism but a great deal of openness to industry-funded messaging about why any given climate policy isn’t actually worth doing.

Republican operatives can read these tea leaves. They understand their party can simultaneously accept the science of climate change and privilege Big Oil’s short-term interests over humanity’s long-term survival. After all, that’s what just about every other center-right party on earth is already doing. So in recent months, Republicans have begun flirting with the “talk loudly, but don’t carry a big stick” approach to climate policy that so many voters ostensibly want. As the New York Times reported in April:

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“Denying the basic existence of climate change is no longer a credible position,” said Whit Ayers, a Republican political consultant, pointing out the growing climate concern among millennials as well as centrist voters — two groups the G.O.P. will need in the future …

 In recent weeks, Senator John Cornyn of Texas — an oil state where climate denial runs deep — said he is helping write legislation to reduce emissions through “energy innovation.” Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said he wants to create a “Manhattan Project” for clean energy funding. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is exploring bipartisan plans to curb emissions from her position as chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. And Representative Matthew Gaetz of Florida, who once called to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency, introduced legislation to tackle climate change by encouraging nuclear energy and hydropower, as well as “carbon capture” technology, which aims to pull planet-warming carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Some of these proposals would be better than nothing. None are commensurate with the scale of the climate crisis. Most important, the GOP’s congressional leadership has evinced no serious interest in passing any of them.

But all of the proposals do help Republicans shift the terms of debate over climate change in a more favorable direction. Instead of having an argument over whether the public should believe coal barons — or their own lying thermometers — on the subject of global warming, the GOP’s performative acceptance of climate science allows it to a pick a fight over whether the solution to the crisis should involve raising taxes or gas prices.

But Donald Trump refuses to transition to cleaner, more sustainable talking points. Rather, on climate, the president insists on putting his party’s dumbest face forward.

Not content to merely accelerate warming through its policies, the Trump administration is adding insult to ecological injury. At a meeting of the Arctic Council this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to sign on to a joint statement affirming the necessity of protecting the Arctic region from the threat of rapidly melting ice — unless all mentions of climate change were stripped from the document. Pompeo further horrified his fellow diplomats by suggesting that climate change is actually good for the Arctic, since melting ice caps are “opening up new shipping routes” and thus making it more economically viable to expand oil drilling in the region.

Pompeo’s “climate change isn’t a big deal, but if it was, that would be awesome” position is shared by William Happer, the 79-year-old physicist who serves on Trump’s National Security Council. Happer has said repeatedly, in public, that “the demonization of carbon dioxide is just like the demonization of the poor Jews under Hitler.” He further argues that humanity has actually been suffering through a “CO2 famine,” which the fossil-fuel industry has been heroically combating.