Four years ago, the author and climate activist Bill McKibben published a seminal article in Rolling Stone called "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math," laying out the stark cold numerical case for a carbon tax. To avoid a catastrophic 2 degrees' Celsius increase in global temperatures, he argued that humanity could only burn through another 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide -- a small fraction of the 2,795 gigatons of carbon that were then in fossil fuel producers' proven coal, oil, and gas reserves. Since then, the equation has only gotten harder to solve. In Paris last month, countries reached consensus that warming actually shouldn't exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius -- a level at which some low-lying areas could start to disappear and at which global food and water systems would come under serious stress. Since McKibben laid out his math in 2012, we've added huge new quantities of greenhouse gasses to the air and fossil fuel companies have continued exploring for new reserves. Leading scientists announced on Wednesday that 2015 was, by far, the hottest year since we've been keeping records.
There's still reason for hope. If, as McKibben advocated in his article, the world's leading emitters, including the United States, put a price on carbon through a tax or another method, it would enlist markets around the world in the fight against global warming. The equations would quickly change.
But, to pave the way for such a possibility, we need to reckon with a whole different kind of math: Electoral returns and Congressional whip counts as well as atmospheric gasses.
America's party of climate skepticism, the GOP, now controls 246 out of 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives -- a number that's unlikely to significantly change in the foreseeable future given that most House seats have solid partisan majorities and that GOP allies in statehouses have drawn a majority of the districts. For a sense of the extent of the districting advantage, consider that Republicans lost the presidency, the Senate, and the popular vote for the House of Representatives in 2012, but still came away with a 33-seat majority in the House. Even if something most pollsters consider nearly impossible comes to pass and Democrats retake the House sometime in next few election cycles, the math of legislative procedure -- including a 60-vote threshold for most measures in the Senate and the difficulty of holding together diverse and unwieldy voting blocs -- would make it extremely difficult to pass an effective climate bill with only Democratic votes. Just look at the remarkable failure of the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill just after the 2008 Democratic wave.
It's time to face an inconvenient truth: We can't solve the climate crisis without conservatives.
But there's still hope.
Peering at the headlines, it's understandable to imagine these electoral facts to be as terrifying as McKibben's math. Just look at Jim Inhofe sneaking a snowball to the Senate, at Ted Cruz's hearing to showcase Exxon-funded researchers' climate denialism, or Donald Trump's tweet that climate change is a plot to weaken U.S. competitiveness relative to China's. The conservative conversation on climate seems to be moving in the wrong direction at record speed.
But -- in spite of what we see on TV -- conservative views on climate are evolving. There's reason to believe that the Fox News figureheads and angry crowds at town hall meetings do not reflect the attitudes of the broader Republican electorate. According to a new poll commissioned by a top GOP donor, Jay Faison, and conducted by three of the most respected Republican pollsters, Whit Ayres, Glen Bolger, and Kristen Soltis Anderson, a majority of Republicans -- including 54 percent of self-identified conservative Republicans -- believe the climate is changing and that humans play a role in the change. The GOP survey found that 54 percent of conservative Republicans would actually support a carbon tax if the money were rebated or paired with a tax cut, and the same 54 percent supported a five-year tax credit to encourage the expansion of renewable energy. Incredibly, 87 percent supported policies to promote installation of rooftop solar panels if they would allow homeowners to save money by selling energy back to the grid.
There's numbers haven't come out of the blue: All the pillars of conservative coalition that Ronald Reagan built -- religious conservatives, defense conservatives, and fiscal conservatives -- now all have a serious stake in addressing climate change.
Among religious conservatives, Pope Francis is hardly on his own. Groups like Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, Interfaith Power and Light, and Evangelical Environmental Network are leading a movement to emphasis humanity's care for creation. As POLITICO recently reported, conservative churches are increasingly working with climate activists and integrating environmental work into international missionary work. New polls of evangelicals demonstrate increasing belief that anthropogenic climate change is an urgent problem.
Among defense conservatives, there's an increasingly keen understanding that climate impacts like massive drought and forced migration mean devastating consequences for national security. The Pentagon, retired top Republican national security officials including Reagan Administration Secretary of State George Schultz, and even current defense-oriented GOP politicians like New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte have come around to the notion that climate change as a "threat multiplier" that will intensify conflicts by causing water shortages, hurting food production, and forcing millions to migrate in already-unstable areas like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Africa.
While most conservative arguments against climate action hinge on financial concerns, the final part of the Reagan coalition, fiscal conservatives, are actually key to the party's potential turn toward climate consciousness. As George W. Bush's Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson emphasized recently: "More severe storms, deeper droughts, longer fire seasons and rising seas that imperil coastal cities... will add significantly to our fiscal deficit and threaten our long-term economic security." The costs here cut right to the core of the philosophy of fiscal conservatism. Jerry Taylor, who served as energy and environment director for the Koch-brothers' American Legislative Exchange Committee, wrote recently: "according to many conservatives, the core purpose of government is to protect rights to life, liberty and property...If greenhouse gas emissions threaten to violate those rights, then government must act against the threat."
While these ideological movements have not transformed the right, they are starting to produce real change. The most visible shift came in the fall when a group of eleven House Republicans filed a resolution stating their acceptance of climate science and their commitment to curbing greenhouse gasses. Earlier in the year, the R Street Institute and the Niskanen Center, two policy organizations with impeccable libertarian credentials, started pushing free-market proposals for pricing carbon. The most important shifts have been at the grassroots level, where green groups and the Tea Party have formed a "Green Tea Party" to press the utilities and their allies to allow rooftop solar leasing. The leader of one such group advocating for the right to sell renewable energy back to the grid explained his rationale in stark conservative terms last year: "Obamacare is bad because it diminishes health-care choice. Public education is bad because it diminishes school choice. You'd think it would apply as well to energy."
The electoral math of climate change might seem as terrifying as the meteorological math. But it doesn't have to be. Climate campaigners can and will make decisive progress through alliance on the right -- the question is whether this can happen quickly enough to avoid catastrophe. While it's more than fair to tear into Ted Cruz and Donald Trump for denying basic science, it's impossible to win the fight for the climate by simply lambasting the right. There's only one way to solve the climate equation: We need to find green allies in red states.