Will Conservatives Come to Grips with Climate Change?

With the grim news that the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration registered over 400 parts per million for the first time in human history, a level not seen for millions of years, Coral Davenport has an encouraging piece in National Journal profiling the few lonely activists trying to bring the right out of the conspiracy swamps on climate change. This particular aside is a great demonstration of why only 6 percent of scientists identify as Republicans:

In January 2012, just before South Carolina’s Republican presidential primary, the Charleston-based Christian Coalition of America, one of the most influential advocacy groups in conservative politics, flew Emanuel down to meet with the GOP presidential candidates. Perhaps an unlikely prophet of doom where global warming is concerned, the coalition has begun to push Republicans to take action on climate change, out of worry that coming catastrophes could hit the next generation hard, especially the world’s poor.

The meetings didn’t take. “[Newt] Gingrich and [Mitt] Romney understood, … and I think they even believed the evidence and understood the risk,” Emanuel says. “But they were so terrified by the extremists in their party that in the primaries they felt compelled to deny it. Which is not good leadership, good integrity. I got a low impression of them as leaders.” Throughout the Republican presidential primaries, every candidate but one—former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who was knocked out of the race at the start—questioned, denied, or outright mocked the science of climate change.

Soon after his experience in South Carolina, Emanuel changed his lifelong Republican Party registration to independent. “The idea that you could look a huge amount of evidence straight in the face and, for purely ideological reasons, deny it, is anathema to me,” he says.

But he’s since come around to try to help conservative climate activists. Mainstream Republicanism is saturated with climate denialism, but Davenport details the few folks doing the yeoman’s work of trying to make science palatable again on the right:

[S. Carolina Rep.] Inglis would pay dearly for his support of the so-called carbon-tax swap. The following year, he lost his primary election to a tea-party candidate, Trey Gowdy. And Inglis knows his position on the climate was the reason. “The most enduring heresy was saying, ‘Climate change is real and we should do something about it.’ That was seen as a statement against the tribal orthodoxy.” […]

For the moment, however, Inglis has taken on the arduous task of bringing his party back to him. Last summer, he founded the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, a nonprofit organization based at George Mason University, focused on convincing conservatives, particularly young ones, that climate change, caused by carbon pollution, is a serious threat—and on pushing for the carbon-tax swap as a fundamentally conservative economic solution. Since last fall, Inglis and a cohort of conservative economists have made their case at a dozen events, including talks at colleges and universities in Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, and Mississippi.

Like I was saying earlier, this kind of work is the most important in American politics. (Florida conservatives ought to be especially interested.) Whatever policy the economists and scientists come up with, conservatives will almost certainly be able to strangle it in Congress or kill it in the courts. Bringing conservatives to the table would be a hugely positive development.

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.