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The Coming GOP Civil War Over Climate Change

Science, storms, and demographics are starting to change minds among the rank and file.

Clarion call? New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie tours the devastation in the wake of superstorm Sandy.(AP Photo/Mel Evans)

photo of Coral Davenport
May 9, 2013

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.

According to a pair of Gallup Polls in April, 58 percent of all Americans are worried about global warming, and 57 percent believe it is caused by human activities. Not surprisingly, responses reflect a partisan divide on the issue, but among Republicans, concern about global warming is rising. Gallup found that 75 percent of Democrats worry about climate change, compared with 59 percent of independent voters (up from 51 percent in 2010) and 40 percent of Republicans (up from 32 percent from that year).

A January poll of Republicans and Republican-leading independents conducted by George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication said that a majority (52 percent) think climate change is happening; 62 percent favor taking action to combat climate change, such as taxing carbon pollution. Only 35 percent of the Republican respondents said they agree with the Republican Party’s position on climate change. (The party’s 2012 platform opposed any limits on greenhouse-gas emissions and suggested the science underlying projections of a warming climate is “uncertain.”)

Meanwhile, a March poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 69 percent of Americans believe the climate is already changing. On the more contentious question of whether fossil-fuel pollution is causing that change, the poll uncovered a generation gap: Only 28 percent of voters over age 65 accept the scientific consensus that such emissions are warming the Earth, while close to 50 percent of those under 50 accept it.

“These polls show that there are a lot of people who are inclined to vote Republican—and believe America should respond to climate change,” says Edward Maibach, director of the George Mason program. “Republicans aren’t inclined to respond to it right now, but in the future, if they don’t take these issues seriously, they’re inclined to alienate a lot of Republican voters.”

CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS

Mother and daughter Roberta and Michele Combs are pillars of the Religious Right. Roberta, president and CEO of the Christian Coalition America, got her start in Republican politics working with celebrated strategist Lee Atwater. Michele, who was named Young Republican of the Year in 1989 and worked as a planner for events such as George W. Bush’s inauguration, is the coalition’s communications director. With their white-blond bouffant hair, penchant for fuchsia lipstick, soft South Carolina accents, and sterling conservative bona fides, the Combses are familiar presences in the ruby-red heart of the GOP establishment.

That’s why it’s so surprising to many that they are tackling climate change. But both women see global warming, and clean air and environmental protection more broadly, as issues that tie into their core conservative mission of protecting family values.

“This is an important issue for the Republican Party,” Roberta Combs says. “At one point in time, this was a Republican issue, but Democrats took it over.”

In 2010, Roberta led a Christian Coalition push for her friend Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to sign on to a Senate climate-change bill, as the measure’s sole GOP sponsor. Graham eventually pulled his support, but thanks in part to Roberta’s pressure, he’s remained one of the few Republicans to openly acknowledge climate change and to call on his party to look for a solution. He is sticking with his position even as he prepares to face South Carolina voters for reelection next year.

“I think the Republican Party needs to embrace an environmental agenda,” Graham says. “When you ask a Republican candidate for president, what’s your environmental platform, what do they say? We need to be able to speak to this just as quickly as to do to reforming the tax code. Younger people, people under 30, this is a huge issue for them.”

Roberta was the Christian Coalition official who persuaded Emanuel, the MIT scientist, to speak with the GOP presidential candidates in January 2012. And she continues to employ her group’s grassroots muscle to muster conservative support for Republicans like Graham who support action to combat climate change, with the hope that eventually one will sponsor a bill that can pass.

“I think the Republican Party has got to move to the center. We should never leave our base, but we’ve got to be more open-minded and look at issues more American families care about,” Roberta says. “As the electorate changes, we’re not going to win as much. It’s a different generation, and the Republican Party has got to look at all of this and broaden its agenda if they want to continue to win elections.”

Last summer, Michele launched a new group, Young Conservatives for Energy Reform, aimed at amassing grassroots support for lawmakers and legislation addressing clean energy and climate change. She is channeling her network of connections among the Christian Coalition and the Young Republicans.
She works closely with Brian Smith, a 32-year-old Air Force veteran and the chairman of the Midwest chapter, who is also a former cochairman of the Young Republicans National Federation, a training ground for party leaders founded in 1931. The energy group is structured like the Young Republicans, with volunteers staffing city, state, and regional chapters. So far, the group has state chairs in Florida, Georgia, Indiana, New Hampshire, Ohio, South Carolina, and Texas—all of which have Republican governors.

Over the past year, the group has held a dozen events in those and other states. In October 2012, it sponsored a get-together in Washington for GOP congressional staff. The gatherings—mostly of young professionals in their 20s, 30s, and 40s—feature hors d’oeuvres, cocktails, and a talk from retired Marine Gen. Richard Zilmer, who makes the case that both climate change and U.S. oil dependence are matters of national security, and that policies to cut fossil-fuel use are consistent with conservative values. Emanuel has also spoken at some of the events.

The goal, Michele says, is to build a database of voters who will, at some point, come forward to back Republican candidates who support cutting carbon pollution. “We are building a grassroots army of young conservatives around the country,” she says. “When the time comes, we’ll have the grassroots to organize around candidates or legislation, and we can activate them.”

PAYING THE PRICE

What Michele and Roberta want to do, in other words, is protect lawmakers such as Bob Inglis. Today, Republicans point to the former House member from South Carolina as the textbook tale of what happens when a red-state conservative dares to acknowledge climate change.

Inglis, who left Congress in 2011, recalls the challenge his son, Rob, threw down to him a decade ago before he was to vote in his first election. He said, “I’ll vote for you, Dad, but you’ve got to clean up your act on the environment.’ ”

Inglis had never given much thought to the issue of climate change. As a by-the-books conservative, he says, “I accepted that if Al Gore was for it, I was against it, until my son challenged my ignorance on the subject.” Inglis spent the next few years educating himself on climate issues. He joined the House Science Committee and accompanied climate scientists on research trips to Antarctica and the Great Barrier Reef, where he saw firsthand the damages wrought by rising carbon pollution and warming temperatures. “I got convinced of the science,” he says, and, in 2009, Inglis cosponsored climate-change legislation with Republican Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona. The bill proposed an idea that had strong backing from environmentalists, including Gore, as well as prominent conservative economists. It would create a tax on carbon pollution but use the revenue to cut payroll or income taxes.

Inglis would pay dearly for his support of the so-called carbon-tax swap. The following year, he lost his primary election to a tea-party candidate, Trey Gowdy. And Inglis knows his position on the climate was the reason. “The most enduring heresy was saying, ‘Climate change is real and we should do something about it.’ That was seen as a statement against the tribal orthodoxy.”

“But,” he says, “these heresies and orthodoxies change so quickly. Back in 2010, I was voting for immigration reform; look how that’s changed. It’s going to be like that with climate change.”

Along with the evolving politics of immigration reform, Bob and Rob Inglis also see in their situation a kinship with Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who jolted the party earlier this year when he came out in support of gay marriage. Portman changed his stance after conversations with his 21-year-old son, Will, who is gay.

“I hope there’s a parallel,” Bob Inglis says. “Rob [Portman] is a hero of mine. He loves his son. He’s willing to take risks for his son.” Unlike Inglis, Portman hasn’t yet had to face voters in a primary—and won’t until 2016. Given the rapid shift in public attitudes toward gay marriage, he may in fact suffer no repercussions. It wasn’t long ago that gay marriage served as a valuable wedge issue for the party (think George W. Bush in 2004)—much like placing limits on carbon is today.

For the moment, however, Inglis has taken on the arduous task of bringing his party back to him. Last summer, he founded the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, a nonprofit organization based at George Mason University, focused on convincing conservatives, particularly young ones, that climate change, caused by carbon pollution, is a serious threat—and on pushing for the carbon-tax swap as a fundamentally conservative economic solution. Since last fall, Inglis and a cohort of conservative economists have made their case at a dozen events, including talks at colleges and universities in Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, and Mississippi.

Last month, 21-year-old Republican Kevin Croswhite, a senior at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., who grew up in nearby Salem (both towns lie within in the district of Rep. Paul Ryan, the 2012 GOP vice presidential candidate) attended one of Inglis’s events—and was sold.

Croswhite has considered himself a conservative Republican since high school. As an economics major, he is a big believer in data: scientific, economic, and demographic. He is persuaded that his party’s rejection of the data on climate change will damage it politically.

“The country’s going to become more educated, and that’s not going to break our way, as a party, if we are denying what 90 out of 100 scientists say,” Croswhite argues. “If the scientific community is generally accepting of something, you need to trust that.”

While Combs’s and Inglis’s groups try to appeal to conservative Christians and young Republicans, another organization—the National Audubon Society—is reaching out to red-state conservatives in the West, linking the threat of climate change to the ideal of Theodore Roosevelt’s Republican conservatism, in a bid to appeal to hunters, fishers, ranchers, and other lovers of the outdoors. The venerable nonpartisan group has teamed with the Washington organization ConservAmerica to ask red-state voters to sign an “American Eagle Compact” calling for lawmakers to act on conservation policies, including climate change. The effort, which Audubon says is funded by a Texas Republican who has asked to remain anonymous, has so far garnered 55,000 signatures.

“We’re trying to figure out how to partner with those people, so they can turn out in communities across the country, to activate them for support,” says Audubon President and CEO David Yarnold. “We want to make sure that when Republican legislators who support conservation and climate policy go home, they’re not just getting hollered at. We want to make sure they’re hearing from reasonable conservationists who say this is not a partisan issue.”

LIGHTING THE WAY

While those groups work from the bottom up to help push Washington to move on climate issues, a constellation of prominent conservative economists is bolstering the cause. These conservatives include such intellectuals as Art Laffer, the former senior adviser to President Reagan; George Shultz, Reagan’s secretary of State; Gregory Mankiw, who was an economic adviser to the Romney campaign and the former chief economist for George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers; Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the president of the influential conservative think tank American Action Forum, a former head of Bush’s Council on Economic Advisers, and an economic adviser to Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign; and a host of other well-respected conservative economic thinkers.

Laffer spoke to National Journal by phone from his home in Tennessee, where he lives next door to Gore. The Reagan economist and the liberal global-warming crusader disagree on many issues but are united on the wisdom of a carbon-tax swap as good environmental and economic policy. “Al is a dear friend, and I think he’s a damned good public servant,” Laffer says. “I am ignorant-squared on climate change, but what I do believe is that the risks of reducing carbon in the environment are less than the risks of putting more carbon into the environment.”

Last year, Laffer wrote a detailed paper on how best to structure a carbon-tax swap, presumably as part of the broader tax-reform effort Congress appears to be moving toward. “What I believe in, and Al Gore believes in, is if you’re going to do a carbon tax, you need to offset it dollar-for-dollar with marginal tax reduction on income or employment,” he says. “Anyone who goes through what I just went through, they’ll agree with me. I’ve had more experience than anyone in the financial thinking on this.”

At the beginning of this Congress, a group of Republican lawmakers, along with a few coal-state Democrats, sponsored a measure that vowed they would never back a carbon tax, and given the antitax mood in Washington, prospects for such a tax appear dim. Still, both opponents and proponents concede that the idea will certainly be on the table if Congress makes a serious attempt at tax reform in the coming years.

Laffer said that as with so many of the policies he’s proposed before, the time will ripen for a carbon tax as it moves from impossible to inevitable. “My policies are always the North Star,” he says. “Right now, this is viewed as a third-order problem. But if we take over in 2016, this will have huge traction.”

Laffer spent last year promoting the idea on college campuses. The climate-change advocacy group Clean Air-Cool Planet flew Holtz-Eakin to New Hampshire to participate in living-room chats with voters about the economic costs of climate change and the economic benefits of addressing the problem.

In March, Schultz went to Capitol Hill to talk about climate change and push the carbon tax to congressional aides. In a standing-room-only gathering in the Rayburn House Office Building, he argued, “Good work on conservation and the environment is in the Republican genes; we’ve been the guys who did it.… My proposal is to have a revenue-neutral carbon tax.” Schultz got a standing ovation. Among the audience were staffers from the offices of Republican Reps. Phil Roe of Tennessee, Billy Long of Missouri, and Randy Neugebauer of Texas—ranked as the most conservative member of the House in a 2011 NJ survey.

A SLEEPING GIANT

It’s long been taken as a truism that the powerful oil lobby is the reason nothing happens on climate change in Washington. For many years, that was indeed true. In particular, Exxon Mobil, the nation’s largest oil company and a major contributor to Republican candidates, was associated with a campaign to fuel skepticism about climate science. From 1998 to 2006, Exxon Mobil contributed more than $600,000 to the Heartland Institute, a well-known nonprofit group that holds conferences and publishes books aimed at debunking the science of climate change. Exxon Mobil’s support of Heartland made sense. The oil company stood to take a financial hit from “cap-and-trade” climate-change proposals that would have priced carbon pollution from oil.

For a number of reasons, that equation is changing. Exxon Mobil has ended its support of Heartland’s agenda. It’s not that the oil giant has had a green awakening; it’s just that a series of internal changes have positioned the company to profit from at least some policies that price carbon emissions.

In 2010, Exxon Mobil bought the natural-gas company XTO Energy, which transformed the venerable oil producer into the world’s largest natural-gas producer. Around the same time, the company began making a noticeable shift in its climate policy. The reason: Natural gas, which is used to generate electricity, is the lowest-polluting fossil fuel, emitting just half of the greenhouse gases as coal, the world’s top electricity source. In the event of a tax on carbon pollution, demand for coal-fired electricity would freeze, while markets for natural gas would explode.

Every year, Exxon Mobil puts out a widely read report with projections on the global state of energy development. The most recent one included the assumption of a future price on carbon and a corresponding surge in natural-gas consumption. “We assume there’s going to be a price on carbon in the future, and that assumption drives our investment strategy,” says company spokesman Alan Jeffers.

And the position on climate change at Exxon Mobil that once helped fund the Heartland conferences? “We have the same concerns about climate change as everyone. The risk of climate change exists; it’s caused by more carbon in the atmosphere; the risk is growing; and there’s broad scientific and policy consensus on this,” Jeffers says.

In 2010, during Senate negotiations on the cap-and-trade bill, Exxon Mobil told the White House that it wouldn’t back that bill, but it would support legislation with a straight carbon tax, ideally, a carbon-tax swap along the lines of what Inglis and Laffer propose. Ultimately, of course, all of those attempts failed. And, today, Exxon Mobil is not actively lobbying for the tax. The company’s position remains the same, though, Jeffers says. “Our approach has been, if public policymakers have decided they want to put a price on carbon, we see a revenue-neutral carbon tax as the most efficient way to do that.”

In the 2012 campaign, Exxon Mobil gave $2.7 million in political contributions, with 88 percent going to Republicans. One of the world’s biggest and most profitable oil companies—a lobbying powerhouse and major influence in GOP politics, particularly in deep-red oil states—has accepted the science of climate change and figured out how to profit from a carbon-price policy. While Exxon Mobil won’t be leading the green revolution, its shift could make a difference in the way many Republicans approach the issue.

HEADING FOR THE HILLS

For now, however, no prominent Republican running for office in the next few years will want to get anywhere near a carbon-tax proposal, or even talk about climate change. While the rift in the party over global warming is becoming increasingly evident, most Republicans feel much more secure on the side that denies the problem.

That was made abundantly plain during the Conservative Political Action Conference in March, the annual Washington gathering that the GOP base uses to anoint its future leaders. Two leading speakers this year were Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush, both of Florida, the state that scientists such as Kerry Emanuel warn is the most vulnerable to devastation from intensified hurricanes in the coming years.

Rubio was the undisputed star attraction, and his keynote speech sparked some of the loudest cheers when he denounced climate science in the context of condemning abortion.

“The people who are actually closed-minded in American politics are the people who love to preach about the certainty of science with regards to our climate but ignore the absolute fact that science has proven that life begins at conception,” Rubio said. A month earlier, in his response to President Obama’s State of the Union, Rubio had said, “When we point out that no matter how many job-killing laws we pass, our government can’t control the weather, [Obama] accuses us of wanting dirty water and dirty air.”

Bush’s CPAC speech had a decidedly different tone. He castigated his party for espousing hard-right views. “Way too many people believe Republicans are anti-immigrant, antiwoman, antiscience, antigay, anti-worker … and the list goes on,” he said. “Many voters are simply unwilling to choose our candidates, because those voters feel unloved, unwanted, and unwelcome in our party.”

Bush did not specifically mention climate change, although many on both sides of the aisle interpreted his remark about science as a signal that he’d be open to addressing the issue. Pundits praised the speech, but it was not a hit with his party. Bush spoke to a quiet room with a fair number of empty seats. Many in the audience members were checking their mobile devices. When he finished, Bush was met with a polite, modest smattering of applause. (Another Republican who has signaled support for climate-change legislation, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, wasn’t even invited to CPAC.)

At 41, Rubio personifies the next generation of Republican leadership, while Bush represents an older, perhaps out-of-date moderate mind-set—which means the party may very well be heading in the wrong direction when it comes to embracing climate science. Rubio’s view is likely to remain the mainstream one in the party in the short term, thanks to tea-party groups such as Americans for Prosperity, a super PAC founded by David and Charles Koch, the principal owners of Koch Industries, a major U.S. oil conglomerate.

Over the last several years, 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 fossil-fuel industry won’t have to worry about any new regulations. The group spent $36 million to influence the 2012 elections.

“We’ve been having this debate with the Left for 10 years, and we welcome having the debate with these new groups. If there are groups who want to do a niche effort with the Republican electorate, we’ll win that debate,” says the group’s president, Tim Phillips. He’s not worried that organizations such as Combs’s Christian Coalition or economists such as Laffer will influence lawmakers—because AFP would hit any such candidate with an all-out negative campaign. “Let them bring a carbon tax on. They know it’s political death for them to bring this forward on their own.”

There’s no denying the political power of groups like Americans for Prosperity. Still, despite its massive wealth, the super PAC failed to achieve either of its two chief political goals of 2012—unseating President Obama and claiming the Senate majority for Republicans.

The goal of grassroots efforts is to persuade Republicans that they’ll be rewarded if they take a stand in support of climate action—and that they could doom their party to minority status if they don’t. Advocates in the GOP realize that it’s too early and too fraught for Republicans seeking reelection to sound the alarm over the changing climate.

But out of sight on Capitol Hill, staffers say, conversations are taking place about how to go about doing that—eventually. “Most Republicans say the same thing behind closed doors: ‘Of course, I get that the climate is changing, of course I get that we need to do something—but I need to get reelected.’ Somehow they’re going to have to find a safe place on this,” says the Audubon Society’s Yarnold.

“We’re trying to get them to come out of the climate closet,” he says. “There’s no question they’re leaving votes on the table because of this. And they know it.”

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