What changed? Not the scientific evidence. In fact, recent reports from the National Academy of Sciences show that the data and consensus on the principles of climate change are stronger than ever. The reports have concluded that increasing levels of carbon dioxide, produced primarily by burning coal and oil, are trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. A November scientific report by the Nobel Prize-winning United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concludes those rising temperatures will, over the next century, bring an increase in the frequency and intensity of heat waves, heavy precipitation, hurricanes, droughts, floods, and rising sea levels.
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In November, Richard Muller, a prominent physicist at the University of California (Berkeley) who was cited by climate skeptics after he questioned some of the data used in Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth, released the results of his two-year Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project, a new study of global temperatures around the world. In an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Muller wrote, “Our results turned out to be close to those published by prior groups. We think that means that those groups had truly been very careful in their work, despite their inability to convince some skeptics of that.… Global warming is real.”
Here’s what has changed for Republican politicians: The rise of the tea party, its influence in the Republican Party, its crusade against government regulations, and the influx into electoral politics of vast sums of money from energy companies and sympathetic interest groups.
Republicans have long had close financial ties to the fossil-fuel industry, of course. Between 1998 and 2010, the oil-and-gas industry gave 75 percent of its $284 million in political contributions to Republicans. But the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which allowed unlimited corporate spending on campaign advertisements, opened up a whole new avenue for interest groups to influence campaigns by flooding the airwaves with ads that support a political candidate or position. In the 2010 elections alone, the top five conservative and pro-industry outside groups and political action committees—including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Karl Rove-backed PAC American Crossroads, which have close ties to fossil-fuel interests—spent a combined $105 million to support GOP candidates (compared with a combined $8 million that the top five environmental groups spent to back Democrats). Both sides could double those numbers in 2012.
Among the most influential of the new breed of so-called super PACs is the tea party group Americans for Prosperity, founded by David and Charles Koch, the principal owners of Koch Industries, a major U.S. oil conglomerate. As Koch Industries has lobbied aggressively against climate-change policy, Americans for Prosperity has spearheaded an all-fronts campaign using advertising, social media, and cross-country events aimed at electing lawmakers who will ensure that the oil industry won’t have to worry about any new regulations.
Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, says there’s no question that the influence of his group and others like it has been instrumental in the rise of Republican candidates who question or deny climate science. “If you look at where the situation was three years ago and where it is today, there’s been a dramatic turnaround. Most of these candidates have figured out that the science has become political,” he said. “We’ve made great headway. What it means for candidates on the Republican side is, if you … buy into green energy or you play footsie on this issue, you do so at your political peril. The vast majority of people who are involved in the [Republican] nominating process—the conventions and the primaries—are suspect of the science. And that’s our influence. Groups like Americans for Prosperity have done it.”
NO WAY OUT
What makes the climate-change problem so difficult for Republicans is that the menu of solutions boils down to an unpalatable handful. Nearly all economists say that the best way to solve the greenhouse-gas problem is with a tax. Put a tax on what you want to reduce—in this case, emissions caused by burning oil and coal—and consumers will use less of it. Politically, that idea has been a nonstarter.
Reagan administration economists came up with a mechanism to cut carbon emissions in a way that harnesses the free market: cap-and-trade. Cap the number of tons of carbon pollution that can be produced, and allow industry to buy and sell permits to pollute. Direct regulation is another way to achieve that goal: Government agencies simply dictating to businesses what they need to do to cut pollution. Most experts say that any global-warming solution will probably also have to include some government spending to promote the development of non-fossil-fuel forms of energy.