The End of Climate Denial?

Although you wouldn't know it from the GOP's presidential candidates, there are signs that more conservatives are warming up to the idea that global warming is real and we really need to do something.
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Something remarkable happened last week in Washington D.C. The major news networks missed it. Two prominent Republicans and two prominent Democrats participated in a panel discussion and nobody got hurt. No one threw a punch or hurled an insult. Everyone was surprisingly civil.

The discussion was hosted by the Aspen Institute on the theme of "common ground", as in "Can the two political parties agree on anything?" The topics were the usually contentious issues of global climate change and the need for America to transition to clean energy. Former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter and former White House climate leader Heather Zichal represented the progressive position; Theodore Roosevelt IV and former U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis represented the conservative perspective. The referee was the Aspen Institute's Walter Isaacson, whose job turned out to be easy.

It's possible the event wasn't considered news because the search for common ground is becoming more common these days. Some people have been trying to find it for several years. And although you wouldn't know it from the GOP's presidential candidates, there are signs that more conservatives are warming up to the idea that global warming is real and we really need to do something.


Take Congress, for example. When the 114th session was seated last year, a headcount found that more than 56% of the members denied or were skeptical about climate science. They have made sure that Congress has remained inactive on what is justifiably called the most important issue of our time.

Rumors have persisted that there are Republicans in Congress who acknowledge the climate crisis but have been afraid to say so. Now, some are breaking ranks. A dozen Republicans have signed a House Resolution that acknowledges the adverse impacts of climate change on weather, national security, economic productivity, the environment, government spending, and every region of the United States. "There is increasing recognition that we can and must take meaningful and responsible action now to address this issue," the resolution says.

Also in the House, a Republican and a Democrat have teamed up to create the body's first Climate Solutions Caucus to explore economically viable solutions to global warming. The Democrat, Rep. Ted Deutch of Florida, hoped the Caucus "sends a powerful message not just to our colleagues in the house but to the American people that a bipartisan dialogue on climate change is actually possible."

These developments do not yet constitute a turnaround in Congress's reluctance to confront climate change, but they are a start. They are an acknowledgment that climate change is not confined to computer models any more; it is having an impact on Americans' lives in ways that climate scientists predicted.

Science foresaw that warming oceans and melting glaciers would result in rising sea levels. Most recently, data analysis by Climate Central, an independent organization of scientists and journalists, showed that coastal flooding days have more than doubled in the United States since the 1980s and sea levels are rising faster than they have in the past 2,800 years.

Residents of Kivalina, Alaska, can testify to that. Their village has been falling into the sea because of relentless erosion. Sea ice was once an effective bunker, but it isn't anymore. The villagers now have something in common with the Arctic's polar bears: The disappearing ice is keeping away the seals they rely upon for food.

Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of 21 Florida mayors wrote to the hosts of presidential primary debates, urging them to grill the candidates on what they would do about the damages the sea is inflicting on coastal communities. Miami Beach already has spent $100 million of a $400 million project to elevate streets and install pumps. Sea level rise is affecting 230 miles of the South Florida coast and the ocean is expected to keep rising.

"Any serious presidential candidate needs a clear plan to tackle climate change, because the reality of this threat is no longer up for debate," the mayors wrote.

Science also predicted that climate change would result in higher temperatures and drought. In 2011, parts of Texas and Oklahoma set new records with more than 100 days over 100 degrees. The heat and the drought it caused resulted in more than $10 billion in agricultural losses. By last fall in California, several unrelenting years of drought had idled more than a half-million acres of cropland, costing farmers and the economy $1.8 billion and more than 10,000 direct jobs.

Science said, too, that long-term patterns rather than isolated weather events would be proof of climate change. Those patterns are now a matter of record. All but one of the hottest years ever recorded have occurred since 2000. The last two years, 2014 and 2015, were the hottest ever. The most recent National Climate Assessment confirmed that "Over the last 50 years, much of the U.S. has seen increases in prolonged periods of excessively high temperatures, heavy downpours, and in some regions, severe floods and droughts."

Congress and the Republican Party itself have been getting signals from their base that they need to start paying attention. Eight of America's leading hunting and fishing organizations grew worried enough about global warming eight years ago to sponsor a study about its likely effects on their sports. The study concluded that climate change "is expected to have profound impacts on a broad range of fish and wildlife species with the potential (of) dramatically affecting hunting and fishing in the future".

In 2013, another group of hunters and anglers formed an organization called Conservation Hawks made up of "conservationists of the Teddy Roosevelt school" to "pass on a healthy natural world to the next generation of sportsmen" and to "educate hunters and anglers on the challenges and threats we face in the future." The group identified global climate change as its single most important issue.

Last December, two dozen organizations representing forest land owners, wood products companies and conservation groups wrote to President Obama, urging him to "support a powerful role for U.S. forests" in his Climate Action Plan.

The nation's governors are beginning to weigh in. Last month, 17 of them including four Republicans released a "Governors' Accord for a New Energy Future". Their goals include "transformational policy changes" for the nation's transition to clean energy.

In civil society, several conservative-leaning organizations are working on bipartisan or conservative approaches to energy and climate issues. Among them are ConservAmerica, Young Conservatives for Energy Reform, the Clear Path Foundation founded by Republican billionaire Jay Faison and the Energy and Enterprise Institute created by Mr. Inglis.

The Presidential Climate Action Project (PCAP), which has spent the last decade identifying Executive Branch authorities to deal with climate change, now is working on energy and climate policies that reflect both conservative and progressive values. PCAP has created an advisory committee consisting of prominent national thought leaders from both parties including three former EPA Administrators under Republican presidents.

Ritter, who earned national praise while he was governor for his work to create a clean energy economy in Colorado, has just issued a book that describes elements of a middle path to America's "energy revolution". It is winning accolades from Democrats and Republicans alike.

We still have plenty of national leaders and candidates for high office who are content to fiddle while Florida floods, Katalina falls into the ocean, California thirsts, the West burns, and record rainfalls overwhelm the Midwest's flood control dams. But polls show they are out of synch with the American people, Republicans, Independents and Democrats alike. So, watch for the leaders who obstruct action to be increasingly marginalized as the realities and risks of climate change become undeniable.

Despite the embarrassing spectacle of this year's presidential race, I'm cautiously optimistic that reality is giving birth to reason on this issue. If political leaders can stake out common ground on the need to mitigate the risks of climate change, they might even be encouraged to look for détente on other big issues.

If that seems too optimistic, then we should remember the nature of this beast. The one certainty in the politics of climate change is that denial will die. The moment will come when the destructive impacts of global warming are so persistent and personal in the lives of the American people that any skeptic or outright denier will be marginalized.

If that moment has not arrived yet, then it seems to be getting awfully close.

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