Mugged by Reality

"People will get mugged by reality." It's a very provocative line of rhetoric, especially coming from a man who earned a reputation for knowing how to parse his words. And yet there was the venerable George Shultz, Ronald Reagan's Secretary of State, and arguably one of the most distinguished public servants in post-­World War II America, using "mugged by reality" to describe what he thinks of the current crop of presidential candidates in his beloved Republican Party refusing to believe in (or even in most cases acknowledge) the reality of global climate change. He went on, "I tell them all, 'be careful of the words you use. You are going to get mugged by reality.'"

Secretary Shultz knows all too well how ideology and reality can conflict. And when you've been on the front lines as long as he has, you know that in the end reality will always win. He is careful not to demonize climate change skeptics. He is eager to share his ideas for how to change the national conversation on the issue. He also is proud of what he says is a long history of action on, and concern about, the environment by Republican administrations (some of which just became public with the release of confidential memos) . But in the end, it is clear that Secretary Shultz believes anybody who vocally denounces climate change now will end up looking very foolish in the judgement of history. I hope you take the time to watch the interview.

My Interview with George Shultz on Climate Change

Here are some highlights:

I had come to Stanford University recently because I heard that Secretary Shultz was passionate about climate change and I was getting tired of an issue this important becoming so partisan. Sitting in his conference room with walls covered in awards and pictures with decades of GOP luminaries, I found the Secretary as mild-­mannered and deliberate as he's always been. But his message was strong and unmistakable. Climate change is a real and growing threat to the world, and its implications for American economic and national security are so profound we must act now, and decisively.

I asked the Secretary whether he tells this to the current crop of leaders of his party, many of whom seem hostile to any talk of action on climate change. He said "Well anybody who wants to talk to me, I talk to them. But they don't come around very much." That's a damn shame.

Why Secretary Shultz Feels Climate Change Skeptics Will Be Mugged By Reality

Spending some time with Secretary Shultz I couldn't help but think that as the world gathers for the pivotal Paris climate summit, the United States is long past due for having a meaningful debate about climate change. I don't mean a debate over whether or not it's real. I mean we need to have a real debate about what we should do about it. This is a daunting enough challenge that we need ideas from all sides. I have known Secretary Shultz for many decades, and I have always respected his ability to think clearly and creatively about solving problems on the national and global stages.

Make no mistake, George Shultz has not gone wishy-­washy on his Republican worldview. He decries over­regulation and the government meddling in the free­ market economy. He implicitly criticizes the Obama Administration when he bemoans a lack of American leadership on the world stage. And yet, he's passionate about climate change. That's because he doesn't see this is a liberal issue. He sees it, and its close cousin energy policy, as vital concerns for America's future. He says everyone from military leaders to doctors know that climate change could mean new instability on the world stage and even new diseases at home.

Secretary Shultz is eager to tout the Republican environmental record, going back to Teddy Roosevelt. He is especially proud of the actions of the Nixon Administration, which under Shultz's guidance created the Environmental Protection Agency. It is that Agency that President Obama has been using to implement many of his climate change actions in the face of an intractable Congress. "A lot of improvement in our atmosphere has come about as a result of what the EPA has done," Shultz says.

The Secretary is also eager to use his service with Ronald Reagan as an example. He notes that in the 1980s, there was great fear within the scientific community about a shrinking ozone layer. Shultz and Reagan brokered an international agreement known as the Montreal Protocol that successfully addressed the issue. He notes there wasn't scientific consensus then about how serious the problem might be, but that it could be catastrophic. So their approach was to say that acting was the equivalent of an "insurance policy." He talks a lot about "insurance policies" when he talks about tackling climate change too.

You get the sense that at nearly 95 years old, Secretary Shultz feels a great urgency to act, not he says for himself ("I won't be affected very much"), but for his growing family of grandchildren and great grandchildren and all the other young people in the United States, and around the world.
His solutions are firmly conservative. He believes in ramping up alternative energy R&D. He says of funding levels now, "In the federal budget, the amount being devoted, you can't even find it in the rounding error." He thinks you can sell that idea to Republicans and Democrats, but

he doesn't believe in government being partners in private enterprise along some of the lines of the Obama stimulus package. "As soon as you say now here's this great idea let's have the government go into business with it, you lose everybody including me."

His other idea is a bit more radical, but very thought provoking. He suggests a revenue­neutral carbon tax. He says, "we need to say, if carbon is the problem, let's put a tax on it. " But being a conservative, he doesn't want a mass infusion of government funds. Rather he sees all that money being redistributed to the American public, perhaps through the Social Security Administration.

Secretary Shultz's Approach to Tackling Climate Change

I asked Secretary Shultz what he would do if other countries like China won't act. His answer was that we put a carbon tax on the goods they sell in the United States. But Secretary Shultz just got back from China and sees that nation as ready to act.

In the end, I came away from my visit with Secretary Shultz invigorated that ingenuity and fresh ideas could create a consensus for action on climate change. I just worry that in this current political climate, we are in a bit of a commercial break from sanity. We have to stop arguing about what is real and start focusing on what we really can do about reality. You never know where the best ideas may come from, like that wise old policy pro I talked to who worries about the future of his country and the global community in which we all must inevitably play our part.

Dan Rather is founder and president of News and Guts Media.

This post is part of a "Dangers of Denial" series produced by The Huffington Post, in conjunction with the U.N.'s 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris (Nov. 30-Dec. 11), aka the climate-change conference. The series will put a spotlight on politicians and their supporters who actively deny the existence of or greatly downplay the gravity of climate change. To view the entire series, visit here.