Opinion | The Republican Climate Closet

For a political party stocked with people who deny the seriousness of the climate crisis, the Republican Party does some curious things.

Did you know, for instance, that a Republican Congress put an explicit price on emissions of the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide? That was in early 2018. Companies can now get a tax credit from the United States government as high as $50 a ton for pumping carbon dioxide into the ground, instead of emitting it into the air.

For years, Congress has also subsidized the installation of low-emission sources of electricity like solar panels and wind turbines, a policy that has helped scale the market and drive their cost down drastically. More recently, it has offered tax incentives for the purchase of electric cars, and their costs are falling, too. Some of these policies were originally adopted when Congress was controlled by the Democrats, but the Republicans declined to kill them in the years when they held both houses.

A huge extension of the wind and solar tax breaks passed Congress in late 2015. Like most of these policies, it sailed through with votes from both parties and little public fighting.

Yes, I know the 2015 subsidies were part of a much larger, must-pass budget bill. So was the 2018 tax credit for burying emissions. But with Republicans in full control of Congress, you can bet those measures would not have gotten through unless senior people in the party had wanted it to happen.

Because so much else was wrapped up in these bills, you didn’t read or hear much about the buried climate policy. That, you might have already guessed, was one of the goals.

What exactly is going on here?

I got my first clue a decade ago, over lunch in Washington. I had just sat down with an eminent figure in the Republican Party to discuss global warming. As a condition of the chat, he made me pledge I would never print his name in association with the remarks he made.

We ordered our iced teas, and he looked me in the eye.

“We know this problem is real,” he said, or words to that effect. “We know we are going to have to do a deal with the Democrats. We are waiting for the fever to cool.”

He meant the fever in the Republican base, then in full foaming-at-the-mouth, Tea Party mode. Denial of climate change was an article of faith in the Tea Party, and lots of Republican officeholders who had been willing to discuss the problem and possible solutions just a few years earlier had gone into hiding.

The fever never really cooled, of course. It transmuted into the raging xenophobia and nativism that put Donald Trump in the White House. Racist demagogy about foreign invaders is his stock in trade, but he has also become the climate-denier in chief, filling federal agencies with toadies for the fossil fuel industry and crackpot scientists.

What the fellow told me that day still holds true: Lots of Republicans know in their hearts that this problem is real. I hereby posit the existence of something you might call the Republican climate closet.

Over the past decade, as denial of climate change became a central feature of Republican political identity, lots of smart people in that party felt obliged to shut their mouths. Yet in that same decade, it became more and more obvious to the public at large that we really do have a crisis on our hands.

Certainly, some Republicans seem to believe that scientists are engaged in a worldwide conspiracy to cook the books on climate change. But they’re not all that crazy. And you can see this in the way that bits and pieces of sensible climate policy keep sneaking through Congress.

As long as nobody in those red districts back home is really watching, Republican members of Congress will adopt low-key measures to help cut emissions. They especially like ones that offer additional benefits, like building up the tax base in rural communities, as wind and solar farms do.

To be sure, these policies are modest, given the scale of the problem. But they tell you the political situation may not be quite as hopeless as it looks. Lurking below the surface of our ugly politics is, I believe, a near consensus to do something big on climate change.

Yet we can never get there as long as a large majority of Republicans hide in that closet. Even if Democrats take Congress and the White House in 2020 and push forward an ambitious climate bill in 2021, they are likely to need at least a handful of Republican votes in the Senate. We ought to hope for more than that. The policy will be more durable if it passes Congress with substantial bipartisan majorities, as all of our landmark environmental laws did.

We are, at long last, starting to see some Republicans inch their way out of the closet: a toe here, a foot there, followed by some carefully hedged statement hinting that the United States government might actually need a climate policy.

My favorite case is that of John Barrasso, the powerful senator from Wyoming, a state heavily dependent on coal mining. He long used his influence to block climate legislation, and only two years ago he received an award from the Heartland Institute, which does its best to deceive the public about the climate problem.

This year, he has come out as an advocate for climate action. And he is not just talking: He is shepherding a transportation infrastructure bill through the Senate that would, for the first time, recognize the need to limit emissions from cars and trucks, authorizing $10 billion in programs for that purpose. If it passes in its current form, that bill will be a milestone.

What this whole trend really tells us is that the Republicans — some of them, at least — are starting to sense political risk in continued climate denial. Their constituents, battered by the fires and torrential rains and the incessant rise of tidal flooding, are knocking on the closet door.

Frank Luntz, the pollster who wrote a scurrilous memorandum 17 years ago counseling Republicans to obfuscate the science of climate change, is among those who have come around. Watching Los Angeles burn from the window of his house apparently clarified his thinking. He distributed a memo to Congress in June warning that climate change was a growing vulnerability for Republicans.

In the coming debate, a Republican Party that came fully out of the closet on climate change would be liberated to play the role it naturally ought to play: arguing for a national climate strategy that does the least economic damage and makes maximum use of markets to find the solutions we need.

For those Republicans still cowering in the closet, I have a question: If we really decided to commit the nation in all its might to solving this problem, do you not believe that American ingenuity and American industry could get the job done?

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Justin Gillis, a former Times editor and environmental reporter, has been a contributor to the Opinion section since January 2018. He is working on a book about energy policy. @JustinHGillis Facebook

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