The Coming GOP Civil War Over Climate Change
Kerry Emanuel registered as a Republican as soon he turned 18, in 1973. The aspiring scientist was turned off by what he saw as the Left’s blind ideology. “I had friends who denied Pol Pot was killing people in Cambodia,” he says. “I reacted very badly to the triumph of ideology over reason.”
Back then, Emanuel saw the Republican Party as the political fit for a data-driven scientist. Today, the professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is considered one of the United States’ foremost authorities on climate change—particularly on how rising carbon pollution will increase the intensity of hurricanes.
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.
Emanuel predicts that many more voters like him, people who think of themselves as conservative or independent but are turned off by what they see as a willful denial of science and facts, will also abandon the GOP, unless the party comes to an honest reckoning about global warming.
And a quiet, but growing, number of other Republicans fear the same thing. Already, deep fissures are emerging between, on one side, a base of ideological voters and lawmakers with strong ties to powerful tea-party groups and super PACs funded by the fossil-fuel industry who see climate change as a false threat concocted by liberals to justify greater government control; and on the other side, a quiet group of moderates, younger voters, and leading conservative intellectuals who fear that if Republicans continue to dismiss or deny climate change, the party will become irrelevant.
“There is a divide within the party,” says Samuel Thernstrom, who served on President George W. Bush’s Council on Environmental Quality and is now a scholar of environmental policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “The position that climate change is a hoax is untenable.”
A concerted push has begun within the party—in conservative think tanks and grassroots groups, and even in backroom, off-the-record conversations on Capitol Hill—to persuade Republicans to acknowledge and address climate change in their own terms. The effort will surely add heat to the deep internal conflict in the years ahead.
Republicans have been struggling with an identity crisis since the 2012 presidential election. In particular, the nation’s rapid demographic changes are forcing the GOP to come to terms with the newly powerful influence of Hispanic voters and to confront the issue of immigration. For now, climate change isn’t getting anywhere close to that kind of urgent scrutiny from Republicans, at least not in public. GOP strategists say that Republican candidates hoping to win primary races, where the electorate tends to be older and more ideologically driven, are still best served to deny, ignore, or dismiss climate change.
Today, a Republican candidate “wouldn’t be able to win a primary with a Jon Huntsman position on this,” says strategist Glen Bolger.
The problem is, as polling data and the changing demographics of the American electorate show, it’s likely that the position that can win voters in a primary will lose voters in a general election. Some day, though, the facts—both scientific and demographic—will force GOP candidates to confront climate change whether they want to or not. And that day will come sooner than they think.
Already, the numbers tell the story. Polls show that a majority of Americans, and a plurality of Republicans, believe global warming is a problem. Concern about the issue is higher among younger voters and independents, who Republicans will need to attract if they want to win elections.