As America and the world attempt to fathom the US withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, most of us are blaming Donald Trump. On one level this is obviously correct. During the presidential election campaign, Trump pledged, if elected, to pull the US out of the accord; he has now made good on that pledge. Withdrawal from the Paris agreement is also consistent with his belligerent personality and isolationist approach to foreign policy. Yet there is a larger context that needs to be understood if we are to find a way forward.
The fact is, Republicans have been resisting action on climate change for just about as long as scientists have been asking the world to do something about it. In 1992, George HW Bush signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), pledging to translate the written document into “concrete action to protect the planet”.
He did this – along with other world leaders – because the scientific community had already made clear that anthropogenic interference in the climate system represented a serious threat to our future health, wellbeing and prosperity.
But even before Bush went to Rio, members of his own administration were objecting. The White House chief of staff, John Sununu, circulated a contrarian report that insisted – contrary to the emerging scientific consensus – that any observed warming was entirely natural, caused by the sun.
Shortly thereafter, Bush lost his bid for re-election, and Democrat Bill Clinton took office. Clinton did not particularly care about climate change, but his smart and articulate vice-president, Al Gore, did. As Gore made climate change an issue, and proposed the adoption of a carbon pricing system (a “BTU tax”), Republican opposition began to harden. Even while acknowledging that economists considered an energy tax to be most economically efficient means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, they insisted (without evidence) that it would hamstring the economy and destroy jobs.
In fairness, Democrats did not rally around the carbon tax, but neither did they reject the scientific evidence that climate change was a real problem. Conservative and libertarian thinktanks with close links to the Republican party, however, did. They promoted the rejection of climate science, insisting (again without evidence) that the science was unsettled and that if climate change turned out to be a real issue, we could simply adapt. They also launched highly personal attacks on climate scientists.
Meanwhile, the Conference of Parties had formulated a market-based approach to climate change as the basis for the Kyoto protocol to the UNFCCC. Emissions trading was a conservative idea – create carbon markets and let the private sector determine how best to allocate carbon assets.
It had been successfully implemented in the US to combat acid rain in the midwest and air pollution in California, with no discernible harm to the American economy. It offered a meaningful alternative to top-heavy command and control approaches. So one might have expected Republicans to have accepted the Kyoto framework. They did not. When George W Bush came to office in 2001, he announced that he would reject the Kyoto protocol, and few members of his party criticized that decision.
For the next eight years, both the president and his fellow Republicans in Congress continued to cast doubt on whether manmade climate change was even real. The Bush administration opposition to action was so entrenched that in 2007, 12 US states brought suit in federal court in an attempt to force the administration to act.
The US supreme court agreed that the federal government was out of compliance with the Clean Air Act and ordered the EPA to develop a plan to control carbon dioxide emissions. The clean power plan, developed during the Obama administration, was the response. And while Donald Trump came to office pledging to withdraw it, every candidate in the 2016 Republican primary opposed it.
Ted Cruz went so far as to call it “unconstitutional”, even though the supreme court had ordered it. And, with the exception of John Kasich, every Republican candidate in one way or another denied the reality or significance of manmade climate change. While their exact positions varied, not one of the major Republican candidates pledged to combat climate change.
One might suppose that this Republican intransigence reflected the views of Republican voters, but polls show this is not the case. Just last week, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication released new data showing that a majority of Republicans in every state support American participation in the Paris accord. Yet even as these new data were being released, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and 21 other Republican senators were urging Trump to withdraw from Paris – which, of course, he did.
There’s a saying in business: fix the problem, not the blame. It’s a nice concept, but you can’t fix a problem if you don’t know its cause. And just as the scientific evidence of anthropogenic climate change is clear, the historical evidence of opposition to action also clear: the greatest obstacle to American action on climate change for the past 20 years has been the Republican party, and this opposition has proven itself to be impervious to argument, even from what one might think would be trusted sources.
American business and religious leaders, distinguished senior Republicans who served in the Nixon and first Bush administrations, and even the Pentagon have called for action on climate change. But it has had no impact on Republican policies.
This conclusion is hard for some to accept, particularly for scientists, as it seems overtly partisan. (And it may seem unfair to the few, courageous Republicans who have spoken out on the issue.) But as scientists have called upon us to accept the reality of climate change, we must accept the reality that American climate change denial is not bipartisan. It is Republican. And the only way to fix it is to change the Republican party, or to vote Republicans out of office.