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What Republicans are getting wrong about climate change

Rebecca Zisser / Axios

Most Republicans in Washington refuse to publicly acknowledge a problem nearly all other political leaders on this planet realize is real: climate change caused by human activity.

Why it matters: Unlike other policy areas, like health care and tax reform, where politicians from both parties agree the government needs to do something, there is not even that basic agreement when it comes to climate change. Washington's GOP leaders refuse to address it at all, while some Democratic leaders say it's the greatest threat to humanity. So it's worth a look at what is driving each side into the positions they hold. Next week I'll tackle this same question about Democrats.

Most Republicans currently in Congress and those in the Trump administration who refuse to acknowledge climate change generally fall into three categories. Most are in the middle (#2), with the rest on either side.

  1. True skeptics: Genuinely question the science and don't think anything could solve it anyways. This includes lawmakers like Sen. James Inhofe (R., Okla.), and many people in the Trump administration like EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
  2. Passive watchers: Privately acknowledge climate change is a problem, are concerned but skeptical of the alarmism surrounding it, worried about political blowback. Most of the GOP are ultimately focused on other things their constituents care about more.
  3. Quiet backers: Publicly acknowledge the scientific consensus, think something should be done but aren't supporting policies shaped by Democrats and environmental groups. Republicans in a House climate caucus fit into this category, and a few Trump officials like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Let's tackle each of those separately.

True skeptics

This category of Republicans will probably never change their minds but are the loudest and most influential politicians helping shape Washington's polarizing debate on climate. They often raise questions that are impossible to answer, or answer questions with more questions.

Pruitt, for example, says things like this: "Measuring with precision, from my perspective, the degree of human contribution is very challenging, but it still begs the question: what do we do about it? Does it pose an existential threat as some say?" Science can't ever be measured with perfect precision. Pruitt is asking the scientific equivalence of catching a horizon: it is by definition impossible.

Beyond the basic consensus that human activities are "extremely likely" to be the main driver of climate change in the last century, according to the United Nations' scientific panel, there is a lot of uncertainty that gets glossed over in politics. Republicans like Pruitt seize on alarmist messages from advocates and others, which perpetuates this black and white political debate that doesn't exist in the scientific realm.

"Where we've made mistakes in the past is arguing that humans are causing it, full stop," said Christine Todd Whitman, former EPA administrator under President George W. Bush. "It's not that we're the only cause. We're exacerbating a natural phenomenon."

Passive watchers

Climate change is not a high priority for most Americans, especially Republicans.

Furthermore, the biggest experience Republicans have with voting on climate change is bad: Some House Republicans were voted out of office in 2010 after voting yes on a sweeping climate bill conservative groups called a tax.

Why would a Republican stick their neck out on an issue his constituents don't care about that could cost him his job? Such a question may seem harsh to those who think a global problem like climate should transcend politics, but it doesn't.

Joseph Majkut, director of climate policy at the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank that backs a tax on carbon emissions, says in his conversations with congressional Republicans that many privately acknowledge climate change is a problem, but they go on to say: " 'no solution thus far is acceptable to me, so therefore, I'm just not going to talk about the problem.' "

Quiet backers

Of the 26 Republican members of a bipartisan climate caucus in the House created last year, all but six have joined this year. That's an impressive increase, especially considering Trump is working to repeal all U.S. climate policy.

But the caucus represents a baby step after inaction from within the GOP since at least 2010. The members are opposed to regulations and don't support market-based systems, like a tax on carbon emissions, to cut emissions. Some members are pushing smaller legislation, like measures extending clean-energy tax credits.

There isn't any obvious negotiation going on with Democrats, in part because Washington is focused on myriad other things voters care about more. But also, some of the rhetoric coming out of the Democratic party and environmentalists about how the world must wean itself off fossil fuels entirely turns off Republicans who want to take action.

"There are concerns that the environmental groups are just so closely tied to Democrats that it would be hard to find support for doing the right thing on climate," Majkut said.

Next week: What Democrats are getting wrong with climate change

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