Playing Chicken on Climate Change

Huffington Post
15 September 2011
The people trying to wake us up to the realities of global warming have taken to calling themselves “climate hawks.” In the field of Republican presidential candidates, we are seeing a new breed emerge: climate chickens.
Once upon a time, America elected heroes to be President of the United States, some of them veterans of war, others who earned the title in office when they refused to run from tough issues.
Those were the good old days. Today national politics is dominated by personalities who in polite company might be called “differently principled.” There seems to be no issue on which they won’t reverse positions, deny the obvious, pander to special interests and even act against the best interests of the American people.

On climate change, for example — the most dangerous long-term threat in the world today — the viable candidates in the GOP presidential field, with the exception of Jon Huntsman, are showing a reckless disrespect for science and a callous insensitivity to the victims of weather-related disasters, present and future.
Let’s review. Front-runner Rick Perry has called global warming “one contrived phony mess that is falling apart under its own weight”. His chief science advisor apparently is his father. While he campaigned at the Iowa State Fair, somebody asked Perry about the drought that’s killing crops, cattle and family businesses in his own state.
“We’ll be fine,” Perry said. “As my dad says, it’ll rain. It always does.” Unfortunately, it’s not his father’s weather any more.
Michele Bachman refers to climate change as “manufactured science” and the “man-made climate change myth.” Mitt Romney says he doesn’t believe greenhouse gases are pollutants that should be regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Newt Gingrich is begging forgiveness from the Far Right for the sin of appearing on TV with Nancy Pelosi and saying “our country must take action to address climate change.” Rick Santorum calls climate change a “beautifully concocted scheme” by the Left.
The latest example was this week’s GOP debate in Florida, a coastal state whose citizens are understandably sensitive to sea level rise and intense hurricanes. To avoid offending Floridians, who could decide the election next year, the candidates didn’t talk about climate change at all.
What’s remarkable is the dissonance between climate chickens and physical reality. While the aforementioned Republican candidates reject climate change or the need to do anything about it, tens of thousands of Americans are suffering from floods, fires, droughts, hurricanes and intense storms — exactly the kind of weird and violent weather climate scientists predict.
While the candidates court the Far Right extreme of their base, they might think about the consequences in the general election. The latest polling from the Yale Center for Climate Change Communications shows the majority of Democrats, Republicans and Independents believe global warming is underway. Only in the smallest political sub-group — people who identify themselves as members of the Tea Party — does a majority deny that climate change is happening. And even in the Tea Party, that majority is slim; 53 percent classify themselves as climate deniers.
Climate chickens roost in Congress, too, where they have some constituents so intimidated that even victims of this year’s weather won’t talk about it. E&E reporter Jean Chamnick writes that farmers and their trade groups are avoiding the C words as they lobby Congress for more protection from disasters:

The first eight months of 2011 have been a difficult time for American farmers, who have seen their operations disrupted by an endless stream of snowstorms, floods, droughts and record heat affecting regions across the country. As a result, farmers and their trade associations are telling Washington they need a more robust crop insurance safety net, making disaster relief a top ask for the 2012 farm bill…Still, agriculture groups are reluctant to link their new emphasis on risk management to the weather events of the past few years and they reject outright the notion that they are trying to insulate themselves form climate change.

It wasn’t always this way. Not so long ago, several of the GOP’s presidential hopefuls acknowledged climate change, supported cap and trade, and called for conservatives to return to their green roots. Republican governors in coastal states – Charlie Crist in Florida, Mark Sanford in South Carolina and Arnold Schwarzenegger in California — addressed climate change head-on. In 2007, Sanford wrote this in a memorable op-ed for the Washington Post titled “A Conservative Conservationist: Why the Right Needs to Get Invested in the Search for Climate Change Solutions”:

For the past 20 years, I have seen the ever-so-gradual effects of rising sea levels at our farm on the South Carolina coast. I’ve had to watch once-thriving pine trees die in that fragile zone between uplands and salt marshes. I know the climate change debate isn’t over, but I believe human activity is having a measurable effect on the environment. The real “inconvenient truth” about climate change is that some people are losing their rights and freedoms because of the actions of others — in either the quality of the air they breathe, the geography they hold dear, the insurance costs they bear or the future environment of the children they love.

Yes, the polls tell us the economy is the No. 1 concern on voters’ minds, and it’s likely to remain No. 1 through the 2012 election. But it might be a mistake to assume most voters think we should ignore global warming.
The Yale poll found that majorities in all four political groups (Democrats, Republicans, Independents and Tea Partiers) support more funding for research into renewable energy, as well as tax rebates for people who purchase energy efficient vehicles or solar panels. Majorities of Democrats, Independents and Republicans support an international treaty to cut carbon emissions and a renewable energy portfolio standard. Majorities of all four political groups say that protecting the environment creates jobs and improves economic growth.
Last June, researchers at Stanford University reported:

Political candidates get more votes by taking a “green” position on climate change — acknowledging that global warming is occurring, recognizing that human activities are at least partially to blame and advocating the need for action…Candidates of either party (who address climate change) can gain the votes of Democrats and Independents without losing Republican votes.

The Stanford study indicated that Republicans face a tradeoff: While climate denial might appeal to voters on the extreme Right, it may cost the votes of Independents. Climate chickens might consider, too, that public opinion is volatile. We can’t discount the possibility that if the violent weather trend continues, global warming will move higher on voters’ priority lists.
Watching the most recent debates among the Republican presidential candidates, I grew nostalgic for those past America’s leaders who, confronted by tough issues, soared like eagles. Today, it seems, we have birds of a different feather.
Bill Becker is a senior associate at the London-based sustainability think tank E3G and at Natural Capitalism Solutions in Colorado. This post is excerpted in part from articles he wrote for the current issue of the Crisis Response Journal and next January’s issue of the journal Solutions. For more information on how to assess and manage climate risks, see the E3G study “Degrees of Risk.”
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