When British Foreign Secretary William Hague visited the U.S. last week, he placed combating climate change near the very top of the world's To Do list.
"Climate change is perhaps the 21st century's biggest foreign-policy challenge," Hague declared in a New York City speech. "An effective response to climate change underpins our security and prosperity." The danger was no longer just distant thunder, he suggested, warning that the recent devastating floods in Pakistan heralded the sort of extreme events that will become more common in a warmer world. "While no one weather event can ever be linked with certainty to climate change," he said, "the broad patterns of abnormality seen this year are consistent with climate-change models."
William Hague is not a holdover from the left-leaning Labor Government that British voters ousted last spring. He's not even from the centrist Liberal Democrats who are governing in a coalition with the Conservative Party of Prime Minister David Cameron. Hague is one of Cameron's predecessors as Conservative Party leader.
His strong words make it easier to recognize that Republicans in this country are coalescing around a uniquely dismissive position on climate change. The GOP is stampeding toward an absolutist rejection of climate science that appears unmatched among major political parties around the globe, even conservative ones.
This change has proceeded in two stages. First came a hardening of Republican opposition to cap-and-trade legislation intended to limit the emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases linked to climate change. Most congressional Republicans had always opposed such legislation, but that position wasn't monolithic: In 2005, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and five other Republicans voted for a cap-and-trade bill that he co-sponsored. Several GOP governors also acted on climate-change issues.
This year, when Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., spent months negotiating bipartisan cap-and-trade legislation, he could not attract any Republican co-sponsors -- not even McCain. And when National Journal recently surveyed the 21 GOP Senate challengers with a serious chance of winning this fall, each opposed cap-and-trade (including Rep. Mark Kirk of Illinois, who voted for it in 2009).
It is difficult to identify another major political party in any democracy as thoroughly dismissive of climate science as is the GOP here.
Even many climate-change activists prefer alternatives to cap-and-trade, such as a carbon tax. But virtually all of the serious 2010 GOP challengers have moved beyond opposing cap-and-trade to dismissing the scientific evidence that global warming is even occurring.
Senate nominees with tea party roots, such as Nevada's Sharron Angle, have expressed these views most emphatically. But the pattern of repudiation extends to more-measured nominees such as Ohio's Rob Portman and California's Carly Fiorina who pointedly insisted, "I'm not sure," when asked whether climate change was happening. Of the 20 serious GOP Senate challengers who have taken a position, 19 have declared that the science of climate change is inconclusive or flat-out incorrect. (Kirk is the only exception.) With sentiments among rank-and-file Republicans also trending that way, it's no coincidence that two Republicans who affirmed the science -- Rep. Michael Castle in Delaware and Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska -- were defeated in Senate primaries this year.
Just for the record, when the nonpartisan National Academy of Sciences last reviewed the data this spring, it concluded: "A strong, credible body of scientific evidence shows that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems." Not only William Hague but such other prominent European conservatives as French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have embraced that widespread scientific conviction and supported vigorous action.
Indeed, it is difficult to identify another major political party in any democracy as thoroughly dismissive of climate science as is the GOP here. Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, says that although other parties may contain pockets of climate skepticism, there is "no party-wide view like this anywhere in the world that I am aware of."
It will be difficult for the world to move meaningfully against climate disruption if the United States does not. And it will be almost impossible for the U.S. to act if one party not only rejects the most common solution proposed for the problem (cap-and-trade) but repudiates even the idea that there is a problem to be solved. The GOP's stiffening rejection of climate science sets the stage for much heated argument but little action as the world inexorably warms -- and the dangers that Hague identified creep closer.
This article appears in the October 9, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.