As recently as 2008 the platform of the Republican Party mentioned climate change 13 times. The GOP acknowledged that the Earth’s warming was caused by human activity, and a commitment was made to reducing the nation’s long-term use of fossil fuels.
By the end of President Barack Obama’s first term, however, the GOP completely reversed its position. The 2012 Republican platform mentioned climate change once, in scare quotes, to disparage serious concerns about it. Moreover, the party dismissed any proposals to reduce carbon emissions.
Once elected, President Donald Trump moved to define climate change as a nonexistent threat. Through executive order, Trump directed federal agencies to abandon any planning for climate change and to abolish previously adopted rules and regulations. This unfortunate GOP reversal not only contradicts the Pentagon — which takes climate change very seriously and views America’s continued reliance on fossil fuels as a threat to national security — it abandons a key conservative ideal: morally responsible stewardship for future generations. This ideal was demonstrated by multiple Republican presidents in the 20th century.
Theodore Roosevelt created the U.S. Forest Service to protect wildlife and public lands. Calvin Coolidge supported legislation to regulate Alaska salmon fisheries, limit water pollution and conserve mineral resources. Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed into law the Safe Drinking Water and the Endangered Species acts. The Reagan administration negotiated the Montreal Protocol to protect the Earth’s ozone layer, while George H.W. Bush revised and signed into law the Clean Air Act.
The Republican elites who engineered the current estrangement between conservatives and science did not use reason or empirical analysis to arrive at their new conclusions, which they then transmitted to every red state in America. They simply realized that climate skepticism was a marker of identity and would deliver votes. But even Karl Rove has said that ridiculing climate science to mobilize the Republican base has been outweighed by the fact that this position repels young people, women, suburban voters, moderates and independents — all the people a center-right party needs to be viable in the 21st century.
By their guiding principles, namely a commitment to free-market solutions over heavy-handed regulation, conservatives are in a position to present America with a much more viable approach to addressing climate change than the Green New Deal. Consider that one of the leading proponents of the GND, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D- N.Y., said in 2019 that “the world is going to end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change.” A strong case can be made that anyone who makes a statement so divorced from science and reality is not fit for office, but Ocasio-Cortez simply inherited a long tradition of leftist climate alarmism. Whether she was being disingenuous or not, such tactics simply do not work.
Despite the apocalyptic rhetoric from the left, it’s unlikely that Americans will renounce growth, affluence and a higher standard of living. Americans are green but not that green, and the idea that citizens will give up beef, dairy, cars, flights and a drastic reduction in consumption is a losing one.
Both the government and the free-market must play an essential role in combating climate change. A national policy to reduce and eliminate greenhouse gases is required, combined with all the technological ingenuity that markets create. The key is getting the balance right.
Environmentalists perennially exaggerate the problems, while Republicans, at least since 2012, have belittled them. Climate mitigation in the 21st century, however, will require bipartisan action. To let Ronald Reagan have the last word: “The preservation of our environment is not a partisan challenge. It’s common sense.”