Redemption Song

OK, OK, so I got it wrong. I was absolutely convinced that Mitt Romney would do it again like Steely Dan in 2016, but I guess he didn’t want to do that dirty work.

During Romney’s brief flirtation with a third run, he shocked those of us who remembered his sick joke about human-caused climate change at the 2012 Republican National Convention by once again acknowledging that he agreed with the scientific verdict on human-caused climate changean acknowledgment that earned him a stern rebuke from wingnuts such as Rush Limbaugh.

If Romney is sincere (I know, I know…) in his view that human-caused climate change is a threat, he’d be wise to join Tom Steyer, Michael Bloomberg and fellow Republican Henry Paulson in their efforts to highlight the risks climate change will inflict upon our economy if carbon emissions are not reduced sharply. As the New York Times noted several days ago, when the executive chairman of Cargill recognizes that climate change will be a disaster for the private sector, you know things are serious:

It was 8 degrees in Minneapolis on a recent January day, and out on Interstate 394, snow whipped against the windshields of drivers on their morning commutes. But inside the offices of Cargill, the food conglomerate, Greg Page, the company’s executive chairman, felt compelled to talk about global warming.

“It would be irresponsible not to contemplate it,” Mr. Page said, bundled up in a wool sport coat layered over a zip-up sweater. “I’m 63 years old, and I’ve grown up in the upper latitudes. I’ve seen too much change to presume we might not get more.”

Mr. Page is not a typical environmental activist. He says he doesn’t know — or particularly care — whether human activity causes climate change. He doesn’t give much serious thought to apocalyptic predictions of unbearably hot summers and endless storms.

But over the last nine months, he has lobbied members of Congress and urged farmers to take climate change seriously. He says that over the next 50 years, if nothing is done, crop yields in many states will most likely fall, the costs of cooling chicken farms will rise and floods will more frequently swamp the railroads that transport food in the United States. He wants American agribusiness to be ready.

Mr. Page is a member of the Risky Business Project, an unusual collection of business and policy leaders determined to prepare American companies for climate change. It’s a prestigious club, counting a former senator, five former White House cabinet members, two former mayors and two billionaires in the group. The 10 men and women who serve on the governing committee don’t agree on much. Some are Democrats, some Republicans.

Even when it comes to dealing with climate change, they have very different perspectives. Some advocate a national carbon tax, some want to mandate companies to disclose their climate risks. Mr. Page suggests that the world may be able to get by without any mandatory rules at all. Some members want to push investors to divest from fossil fuel companies. Several favor construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, while one member has spent more than $1 million lobbying to stop it. But they all do agree on one issue: Shifts in weather over the next few decades will most likely cost American companies hundreds of billions of dollars, and they have no choice but to adapt.

At the beginning of his tenure as governor of Massachusetts, Romney clearly recognized the threat posed by carbon pollution; as the Times observed in 2012, Romney “populated his Massachusetts administration with environmentalists, including one, Gina McCarthy, who now runs the clean air division of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama. He railed against the ‘Filthy Five,’ high-polluting power plants in the state. He issued a ‘climate protection plan’ and lauded it as ‘among the strongest in our nation.’ Under his direction, Massachusetts helped create a regional cap-and-trade program — anathema to most Republicans — intended to cut the greenhouse gas emissions that scientists believe cause global warming.”

As his tenure drew to a close–and as Romney prepared for his first presidential bid–Romney pulled Massachusetts out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a decision thankfully reversed by his successor, Deval Patrick. Romney’s decision failed to improve his chances in the 2008 Republican primary–and his disavowal of climate science in October 2011 struck the electorate as profoundly shortsighted a year later.

A little over a year after he lost to Obama, Romney himself subtly acknowledged this most inconvenient truth. In a January 2014 speech at the TD Ameritrade Inc. National Conference in Orlando, Florida, Romney remarked that climate change “…is a Democrat issue, but I think it’s an issue for both parties…If you think global warming is just in America, it’s not just America. There needs to be a global understanding and a real global effort. There’s no global effort whatsoever.”

Of course, those remarks were made before President Obama struck a climate deal with China, and before the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Lima, Peru made tangible progress towards a global climate agreement that will likely be signed in December 2015 in Paris. With 2014 officially the hottest year on record worldwide, it’s become clear that the arguments against taking strong action to curb carbon pollution are intellectually invalid, no matter how often those arguments are repeated in the House and Senate.

Romney could regain a lot of respect by joining Steyer, Bloomberg and Paulson in their Risky Business effort, and promoting the views of his longtime economic advisor Gregory Mankiw—who has long recommended a federal revenue-neutral carbon tax as the best way to reduce emissions in an economically efficient manner. Who knows? The campaign to protect our atmosphere for future generations is one he could actually win.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.