Could Climate Change Be a Disaster for the GOP?

While one would be hard-pressed to say the Republican Party is in decline while they run the House of Representatives, can prevent vital votes by using the filibuster in the Senate and have a candidate running neck-and-neck with President Obama, the death knell may be sounding soon. Climate change could hasten the end for this powerful mainstream party.

The radicalism now in vogue among Republicans goes beyond small-government Tea Party partisanship. The Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank, was funded by large corporations until its decision to put up billboards in Chicago comparing belief in climate change to terrorism. The ads featured Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, proclaiming his belief in climate change, inviting a comparison to everyday believers in climate change. Many sponsors fled Heartland like a sinking ship in the aftermath.

The Republican attitude toward science is skeptical at best and derisive at worst. The major Republican candidates came out almost uniformly against science during the primaries, from Rick Perry calling evolution just a theory to Mitt Romney declaring he does not know if humans cause climate change. Only Jon Huntsman dared to break from the groupthink.

Perry's stance was not surprising. But Romney once supported climate change action when he was the governor of Massachusetts. Some donors hope that Romney will come through for the environment once elected president. They perhaps accurately think he is having to skew to the right to get on the ticket, which is forcing him to adopt anti-environmentalal positions, but campaign promises are good indications of how politicians behave in office.

There are reasons to think that such awkward contortion is bad for much more than Republicans' backs. Trying to appease the vocal minority of the Republican party is out of step with national opinion and irrational for a party that would like to stay relevant. Three out of four people in a recent survey support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Yet conservative leaders from Virginia to Texas, apparently unaware of or unconcerned about public opinion, sued to block the EPA from trying to regulate greenhouse gas emissions -- and lost.

Climate change is emerging as a wedge issue even among Republicans, with only a majority of the most conservative Republicans preferring traditional energy over alternative energy. What appears to be most troubling is that the more education conservatives have, the less likely they are to agree with climate science. So the Republican Party's well-educated elite leaders could well be the ones to drive their party into the ground.

Perhaps the Republican Party feels insulated from its self-destructive tendencies because of historical trends that value candidates and interest groups over party affiliation. The decline of the importance of the party could indicate that as long as powerful personalities and a network of interest groups motivate people enough to vote for conservative ideas on election day, the infrastructure and day-to-day actions of the party don't particularly matter. This line of thinking goes back as far as David Broder's 1971 article The Party's Over. But there is reason to doubt the notion that the Republican brand would not suffer any setbacks, especially when the effects of climate change could be so drastic as to tarnish the entire conservative establishment, which has hitched its wagon to denial.

The results of climate change, and thus for the Republican image, could be disastrous. One study reported that climate change is already killing thousands per year. Another study predicted that millions could be trapped in disaster zones. The net economic effect has been estimated at $1,240 trillion. People would make the connection that Republican obstinance helped produce those tragedies.

The collapse of major parties has sometimes been due to their inability to confront large issues. The Whig party collapsed because it could not tackle the slavery question in the 1850s. Other times, it has been because of a party's seeming aristocratic and anti-democratic tendencies, as with the Federalist Party's collapse. The Republicans are at risk on both counts.

Dealing inadequately with disaster does not always spell misfortune for political parties. Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy toward Germany did not result in a vast turnover for the Conservative Party. Churchill was elected prime minister as a Conservative in 1940 after Chamberlain left power. However, the Conservatives were shielded from fallout because most Britons did not want war under Chamberlain. In America today, most want action on climate change.

There are already demographic time bombs working against the Republican Party. The millennial generation is more progressive than other generations. And Latino political affiliation is more Democratic and Independent. If climate change gets worse in the coming months and years, and Republicans remain refractory in not embracing public opinion to do something about it, it could haunt them for generations.