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Richard Cohen: Politics, not science, holds back GOP on climate change

Monday, July 7, 2014
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A friend of mine worked for a small-town newspaper years ago and had to write the weather report. The county fair was approaching but the prediction was for rain. So the editors, fearing the wrath of local merchants, ordered my friend to change "rainy" to "sunny." That was the newspaper's policy. It has since been adopted by much of the Republican Party.

It is a stunning thing, when you think about it -- GOP conservatives adopting a position of studied ignorance or, to put it more humorously, a version of what Chico Marx said in "Duck Soup": "Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?"

My own eyes show rising ocean levels. They show the Arctic ice cap shrinking. They show massive beach erosion, homes toppling into the sea and meteorological records indicating steadily increasing temperatures. The Earth, our dear little planet, just had the hottest May on record.

My eyes read projections that are even direr -- drought, stifling heat, massive and more frequent storms, parts of coastal cities underwater and, in the American Southeast, an additional 11,000 to 36,000 people dying per year from the extreme heat. These and other ghoulish statistics are taken from a report on global warming funded by former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and hedge fund manager Tom Steyer.

Paulson has been the point man on this. He served under George W. Bush and he is, of course, a Republican. As such, he is the very epitome of the Republican establishment so loathed by the tea party. Good Republican that he is, Paulson has pointed out that global warming is bad for business (also for human beings) and steps should be taken to modify it. Among other things, the U.S could reduce carbon emissions (mostly from coal-fired plants) that have contributed so much to global warming. Paulson believes, purely from the evidence, that human beings have contributed to the coming crisis.

Not so, cries the tea party. Not so, echoes most of the GOP's potential presidential candidates. The list of deniers includes Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Rick Santorum. ("Tell that to a plant, how dangerous carbon dioxide is," Santorum once said.) It's not clear where Paul Ryan is on the subject, and while Jeb Bush has conceded that global warming is real, he has hardly been adamant that it's at least partly manmade.

Politics, not science, may firm up both sides of the debate. A Pew poll last November found that 67 percent of Americans think the planet is indisputably getting warmer. Among Democrats and Democratic leaners, however, the figure is 84 percent, but among tea party types it's 25 percent. Maybe more to the point, only 9 percent of tea party members think "human activity" has contributed to global warming. For their own sake, they ought to get out of the sun.

The tea party has taken a licking in the recent Republican primaries -- the defeat of Eric Cantor being the exception. Still, its sway over congressional conservatives is considerable. For instance, the incoming House majority leader, Kevin McCarthy of California, has suddenly seen the wisdom in tea party opposition to the hitherto noncontroversial Export-Import Bank. With climate change ranking low in urgency in a different Pew poll, there's not much percentage in moderate Republicans standing up for science and common sense. Paulson et al. are to be commended for their effort, but they are -- as Mike Bloomberg found out years ago -- in the wrong party.

What possesses the tea party on climate change? Some of it has to do with traditional anti-establishment sentiment. If the elite say it's getting hot, then it must be getting cold. Mostly, though, their position is rooted in a raging antipathy toward (hiss!) big government. Climate change is hardly a local problem. Strictly speaking, it isn't even a national problem. (China and India are now major polluters.) It will take national and international agreements to deal with global warming and tea party types would rather -- almost literally -- burn in a kind of hell than submit to Washington or, God forbid, the United Nations.

So, reports will be issued and the Obama administration will pump for a reduction in carbon emissions and much of the Republican Party will deny the undeniable. But the waters will rise and the country will bake. Years from now, people gasping for air will ask how we let this happen and the GOP, sticking to its plan, will deny that anything is happening at all. Have an iced tea, y'all.

Richard Cohen is a nationally syndicated columnist.

 
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