May 8, 2017 - Energy & Environment
Column / Harder Line

Washington's broken climate debate

Rebecca Zisser / Axios

Washington is a mess when it comes to climate change, split in two mutually exclusive groups of people: those who think the issue is the most urgent problem facing the world and those who refuse to acknowledge it's a problem at all.

Why it matters: Dealing with climate change should be a priority for the U.S. government, but it's impossible with two sides that don't even agree on the terms of the debate. Congress hasn't seriously considered a climate bill since 2010, the last time any sizable group of congressional Republicans were willing to talk openly about addressing the issue. Meanwhile, outside of the beltway, concern about climate change is at record highs, according to a March Gallup poll.

The two sides:

  • The right: President Trump, his EPA administrator and almost all congressional Republicans refuse to publicly acknowledge that climate change is a problem. This position, fueled in part over the last seven years by deep-pocketed conservative advocacy groups and fossil-fuel companies, is becoming less common among everyone except elected Republicans. For example, most fossil-fuel companies are joining the rest of corporate America in backing global climate policy.
  • The left: Many of the most influential Democratic and environmental groups, including at times the Obama administration, have pushed agendas that exclude conservatives who also want action on climate change. They do this by pursuing policies that focus almost entirely on renewable energy at the exclusion of other sources that are cleaner than traditional fossil fuels, including nuclear power and coal using technology capturing the carbon emitted. Political backers of climate action often downplay any uncertainty and play up potential catastrophic outcomes.

Here's how the divide plays out: The first New York Times column by Bret Stephens, who left The Wall Street Journal opinion pages, articulated a common conservative viewpoint on climate change that leaders on the left pushing the climate agenda refuse to acknowledge uncertainty inherent in climate science (Stephens himself has shifted from outright dismissing the entire issue to questioning the certainty of long-term projections). The piece set off a firestorm of angry responses from progressives and some of the world's most well-known climate scientists.

Stephens accepted the scientific consensus that human activity is driving climate change, but he characterized the uncertainty and what that means in a less pressing manner than most scientists do. Many people in this country share Stephens' viewpoint.

A lot of people, including some who voted Trump into office and others elected to Congress, are reflexively skeptical about constant warnings of certain catastrophic doom if the world doesn't immediately stop burning fossil fuels. Ignoring, belittling or bashing viewpoints like the one Stephens presented won't change anyone's minds, no matter what the facts of climate science say. More to the point, it won't get you anywhere in this Republican-run Washington.

"My frustration with liberals is my perception that they'd rather be right than effective," said Ed Maibach, an expert on climate-change communication at George Mason University who considers himself a liberal.

What's next? The two sides still aren't talking much at all, especially not publicly, but there are some small efforts to get Washington's climate debate unstuck:

  • About 20 congressional Republicans (roughly 8% of the House GOP) have joined a bipartisan group created last year in Congress backing action on climate. Some members of that group introduced a bill last week creating a panel of lawmakers to review policies to cut carbon emissions, a baby step toward any substantive climate bill.
  • A small group of conservative leaders, including top officials from the Reagan and both Bush administrations, are trying to lay the groundwork to push Congress and the Trump administration to pursue a tax on carbon emissions. Even if the group, called the Climate Leadership Council, convinces the Trump administration and at least some congressional Republicans to consider the idea of addressing climate change (a big if), it will need to then need to bridge the deep divide with liberals.

"I don't think there is any way to get where we need to be in the long-run, in 2050, on this issue with it remaining a liberal or Democratic party issue," said Noah Kaufman, an economist at the World Resources Institute, an environmental research organization.

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