Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Republicans Are Now Looking on the Bright Side of Climate Change

If Republicans don't come up with environmental policies of their own, the Green New Deal will own the future.
May 9, 2019
Republicans Are Now Looking on the Bright Side of Climate Change
(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

To get a room of Republicans laughing these days, there’s no safer subject to bring up than the Green New Deal. Freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s signature policy initiative has been a source of endless hilarity for the right since its bungled rollout a few months back, with President Trump dunking on it at rallies and Sen. Mike Lee lugging memes to the Senate floor to denounce it as ludicrous. Even notoriously unfun majority leader/narco Mitch McConnell got in on the action, trolling Democrats with a show vote on the proposal.

Amid all the chuckles, you might have missed the fact that Republicans have gotten pretty quiet about the substance of climate change lately. Gone are the carefree days of the early oughts, when GOP lawmakers were all-in on the idea that global warming was a nefarious hoax perpetrated by the communists and globalists of the environmentalist lobby. As the evidence has continued to pile up over the years to indicate that warming is not only coming, but is in fact already upon us, Republicans have been forced through a series of gradual rhetorical shifts: first, a grudging acceptance that warming was occurring paired with continued questions about whether or not human behavior could be responsible; next, a faux-fairminded commitment to pay attention to “both sides of the science” of the climate debate; and finally, the laughs-first, serious-talk-never approach we see (with occasional exceptions) today.

Of course, ignoring the problem isn’t really a sustainable solution. So this week, we saw what may be the beginnings of yet another strategic shift from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Speaking at a meeting of the eight-nation Arctic Council Monday, Pompeo uncorked a wild new talking point: Sure, climate change might have its downsides, but if we play our cards right, this thing can be great for trade!

“The Arctic is at the forefront of opportunity and abundance,” Pompeo said. “It houses 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil, 30 percent of its undiscovered gas, and an abundance of uranium, rare earth minerals, gold, diamonds, and millions of square miles of untapped resources.” He went on: “Steady reductions in sea ice are opening new naval passageways and new opportunities for trade, potentially slashing the time it takes for ships to travel between Asia and the West by 20 days.”

You might think that “melting the ice caps will help us exploit their resources faster” would be a talking point best left on some State Department drawing board. But Pompeo’s remarks were actually just the latest, loudest expression of the Trump climate doctrine: Yeah, the Earth is warming, but it’s too late to stop it, so we might as well quit bitching about it. Every melting glacier has a silver lining.

This doctrine was first hinted at last September, when reports surfaced that the latest forecasts from the Trump administration’s own climate scientists suggested that the planet would warm a catastrophic seven degrees Fahrenreit by the year 2100. But the administration had deployed this report not to underscore a call for environmental reforms, but to argue that a specific environmental regulation—fuel efficiency standards for new cars—be discontinued. The argument makes a kind of perverse sense—compared to the gigatons of greenhouse gas we’re already belching out, what’s one measly regulation more or less? The only thing worse than living in Mad Max’s world is living in Mad Max’s world with fuel-efficient cars.

One salutary facet of our current era of populist politics is that Republican voters have begun to wake up to the notion that huge corporations don’t always have the country’s best interests at heart, and that free markets aren’t necessarily the be-all and end-all of national economic policy that many previously insisted they were. So far, however, most of that newfound skepticism is relegated to those corporations that Republicans tend to believe are staffed by liberals who are actively participating in one left-wing conspiracy or another. Conservatives have soured on Facebook and Starbucks; less so on ExxonMobil. Funny how that works.

Maybe this will change. After all, polls consistently show that, for both Republicans and Democrats, alarm about global warming is inversely correlated with age; in other words, climate skepticism is literally dying off. For now, however, Republicans seem content to carry on with their time-tested strategy of ceding the climate-change lane to their Democratic opponents. This will go worse for them than they think. The last vote on the Green New Deal was a McConnell troll. But if Republicans don’t come up with some policy ideas of their own, then the GND will be the baseline for future discussions.

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger was a senior writer at The Bulwark.