The intractability of Republican climate politics


It largely doesn’t matter what Mike Pence’s plans for the presidency are, given that his odds of being elected to that position next year are just a bit better than your odds of winning Powerball. Pence on Sunday did offer a useful articulation of the right’s climate policy — an articulation that recent polling reinforces.

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CNN’s Dana Bash asked Pence on “State of the Union” if he believed that climate change was primarily caused by human activity, as scientists have convincingly and overwhelmingly argued. Pence didn’t really give a substantive answer.

Instead, he offered a greasy-spoon diner’s menu of distractions. During “our” administration (that is, when he was serving as Donald Trump’s vice president) there was $2-a-gallon gas, he said — a state of affairs that depended on the cratering of the economy from the coronavirus pandemic. Trump (who must be annoyed every time Pence adopts administration successes as his own) backed the country out of the Paris climate accord, but the nation might hit those goals anyway.

“We had the cleanest air, water and land in the history of the country during our administration,” Pence said, conflating “air quality” with “climate change” in a way that Trump himself pioneered. “We can meet the goals in our environment without crippling the American economy.”

And that, right there, is the essence of GOP climate politics: that there is somehow a trade-off between economic growth and addressing climate change, and the economy should take precedence.

Last week, Marist College released new polling conducted for NPR and “PBS NewsHour” evaluating (among other things) views of the balance between the climate and the economy. There’s been a shift to prioritizing the latter since 2018, the last time the same question was asked. That’s largely because of an increase in the percentage of Republicans who believe that economic growth should be given priority.

This is often a false choice. For years, advocates for addressing climate change pointed toward emerging markets in batteries and renewable power that the U.S. could foster. Failing to address climate change, meanwhile, meant long-term economic damage.

But thanks in part to advocacy from fossil fuel companies, these arguments got less traction than stated concerns about ways in which addressing climate change would introduce economic constraints. On CNN, Pence pointed to President Biden’s cancellation of the Keystone pipeline as an example — a project that would not have had a significant effect on gas prices nor created many long-term jobs.

As part of an exploration of diverging partisan policy views, Gallup on Monday released data on how Democrats and Republicans considered several climate-related concepts. The divergence on climate issues over the past two decades is wider than on most things, with Democrats having embraced climate change as an issue, while Republicans’ views slipped (probably largely during the contentious political period that emerged 15 years ago).

In 2003, there was about a 30-point gap between Democrats and Republicans on whether environmental protection should be prioritized over energy development. Now, it’s 55 points. Twenty years ago, there was only about a 20-point gap in the extent of concern partisans had about climate change. Now, it’s more than 50.

Pence, seeking the Republican nomination, is in line with his party by not expressing an enormous amount of concern about climate change and by arguing that the economy must be protected at the expense of the environment.

Notice, too, that the Gallup polling shows only about a third of Republicans expressing the view that global warming is a function of human activity. Pence declined to answer Bash’s question on that point, saying “I don’t know” when asked.

An answer that won’t hurt his standing with his party, even if it — like everything else — is not likely to propel him to victory.

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