Is the Big Polluter agenda the environmental platform of the Republican Party?

Lindsey Graham asked a good question last month. The South Carolina Senator wants to know, “What is the environmental platform of the Republican Party?” Graham says he doesn’t know. He suggests it’s time for his party to do some “soul searching.”

Current Platform

Graham is right to suggest some soul searching. But, I’m surprised he doesn’t know the party’s platform. The Republican leaders in Congress, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, have consistently said “no” or fought against anything that qualifies as an environmental policy. During the first two terms of his speakership, John Boehner led House Republicans in more than 500 anti-environment floor votes. Mitch McConnell’s first 100 days as Senate Majority Leader have been marked by a strict adherence to the Big Polluter Agenda, which has included saying “no” to Environmental Protection Agency reducing carbon pollution and “no” to keeping dirty tar sands oil in the ground.

“No” is a pretty flimsy platform and Graham is right to think his party needs something stronger.

The Republican Soul

If Graham and his colleagues do embark on some true soul searching, what are they likely to find? To get some ideas, I went straight to the source: the website of the Republican Party itself.

The Republican Party describes itself in six bullet points on the history section of its website, Here’s how I believe these core facets of the GOP identity fit with political efforts to address climate change.

  1. Grand New Party. The Republican Party was founded by abolitionists. The party didn’t shy away from a tough fight then, and there’s no reason the party can’t take on one of today’s most critical problems: climate change.
  2. Party of Freedom. “Freedom” continues to be a favorite buzzword of climate deniers, who argue that dirty energy companies apparently deserve the “freedom” to pollute. Historically, Republicans have rejected this foolish argument, understanding the need to consider the population’s freedom to breathe. That’s why the Clean Air Act in 1970, and amendments in 1990, were passed with bipartisan majorities and why Republican Presidents Richard Nixon and President George H. W. Bush signed the bills.
  3. Party of Prosperity. Action to address climate change is essential to ensuring continued American prosperity. As detailed in the Risky Business report, unchecked climate change could result in the loss of up to $507 billion in coastal property by 2100, labor productivity losses of up to three percent, and increased energy costs of $12 billion per year. In contrast, a recent report found that international action to address climate change could create more than one million jobs in the clean energy sector. These wouldn’t be government jobs—they’d be private sector jobs in innovative fields. America should be leading the way on clean energy innovation.
  4. Party of Vision. Republicans have a long history of leadership on the environment, going back before Teddy Roosevelt to the creation of Yellowstone National Park by Ulysses S. Grant. This legacy was carried on as President Richard Nixon established the EPA and President George H.W. Bush enacted the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 and as even a Republican congress, led by Newt Gingrich, managed to pass two massive environmental bills in the mid-nineties. For a party that praises this legacy so strongly, they sure aren’t living up to it today.
  5. Party of Strength. Our military believes climate change is a threat multiplier and that failure to act threatens our national security. The United States must maintain its international leadership as a world leader in climate action.
  6. Party of the Future. The Tea Party is the only segment in American society that doesn’t believe climate change is happening—and the Tea Party is a small, small slice of American society. In contrast, only three percent of young voters believe climate change is not happening. To stay relevant, the Republican Party must put forth a plan to act on climate change.

Party of the Future?

Will the Republicans embrace climate action in order to stay relevant? In his final post for Grist, David Roberts argued that the party is already pivoting away from denial, but instead of pivoting to solutions, they are pivoting to chicken-little economic arguments, saying that the cost of addressing climate change is too high. Those hyperbolic, sky-is-falling cost arguments are staples of the dirty energy industry that’s looking to protect its own bottom line, but they have no place in a party platform that proclaims a commitment to vision, strength, and the future.

If the Republicans want to protect their worthy legacy and be the party of the future, it’s time to follow Lindsay Graham’s advice to do some soul searching, and start acting on climate change.

Rick Perry, Still A Denier

Rick Perry is back and this time he’s in it to win it. Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Perry left behind the bumbling Tea Party conservative of 2012 and did his best to appear a reasonable, professorial moderate on environmental issues. Yet, even this more polished Perry continued to flub the truth about environmental protection.

Remembering 2012

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Perry is attempting to shed the skin of his last presidential campaign In case you’ve forgotten, let me remind you of the crowning moment of Perry’s 2012 run. During a debate, Perry intended to name three cabinet-level agencies that his administration would eliminate. There was only one problem: Perry couldn’t remember that he wanted to eliminate the Department of Energy. Oops.

Perry seems to be remaking himself this time around. Not only is his face now bespectacled, but he’s pretending he’s made an about-face on climate denial.

A Denier Can’t Win

It seems Perry has gotten the memo that a climate denier can’t win the White House in 2016. Polling shows that too many Americans are concerned about climate change to give the highest office in the land to someone who ignores this threat to our health, economy, and security.

According to a recent Washington Post/ABC News survey, a full 57 percent of Republicans, 76 percent of Independents, and 79 percent of Democrats support limiting climate change pollution from power plants. Closer to home, a Yale poll found that 70 percent of Texans believe in climate change and a majority believe government should be doing more about global warming.

Voters are looking for a leader who will confront the big challenges, not deny their existence.

During the last campaign, Perry said about climate change: “The science is – is not settled on this.”  He went on that “just because you have a group of scientists that have stood up and said here is the fact. Galileo got outvoted for a spell.”

Perry’s Change of Emphasis

At CPAC, Perry de-emphasized his denial and instead “explained how Texas managed to reduce pollution during an economic boom.” He argued that Texas added people and jobs while reducing nitrous oxide, ozone and carbon pollution through “thoughtful and incentive-based regulations.” He made the similar statements about pollution reduction in his farewell speech to the Texas legislature.

The good people at have already demolished the content of Perry’s claims, pointing out that he “exaggerates the Texas reduction in nitrogen oxide”, omits pollution from certain sources, and mischaracterized the policies that led to the reductions. In fact, Perry “ignores” two of the biggest drivers of recent pollution reduction in Texas: “the contribution of federal policy to wind energy and the shift away from a manufacturing-based economy.”

While Perry got his facts wrong about the reasons for and statistics behind Texas’s pollution reductions, there is at least one area where he’s got it right: a growing economy and pollution reduction absolutely do go hand in hand. This chart shows that from 1990 through 2008, U.S. Gross Domestic Product increased by more than 64 percent while the six most common air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act decreased 41 percent.

As the 2016 election season warms up, we’ll be sure to keep an eye on Perry and the other candidates hoping to win the White House. A denier can’t win. A candidate who offers climate solutions will.

Hobby Lobby, Climate Change, and the GOP’s Women Problem

More than 200 women brought their children to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to urge lawmakers to clean up the air pollution that causes climate change. The event was called a “Play-in for Climate Action”—you can’t expect all those kids to stay still for a traditional “sit-in”—and included a press conference with Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

Around the same time, GOP lawmakers in the House were busy drafting a bill that would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from doing the very thing those mothers want: clean up carbon pollution from power plants so their children have a better future.

Welcome to the latest battle in the Tea Party’s war on women. This conflict isn’t getting as much attention as the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling, but it could play a significant role in who wins and loses the midterm elections.

Republican and Democratic candidates have already worked the Hobby Lobby case into stump speeches, fundraising appeals, and attack ads. Yet few people will vote on the Hobby Lobby ruling alone. Most voters cast ballots based on a cluster of issues that matter most to them.

One negative story about a Tea Party position that hurts women would not turn the midterm tide. But these days, the stories are mounting. GOP candidates are alienating women voters on a host of issues, from reproductive health to equal pay to climate change.

When did climate change become a women’s issue? When women made it clear they care deeply about it. Women in battleground states understand (by a margin of 72 percent to 19 percent) that we have a moral obligation to future generations to make the air safer to breathe and the climate more stable. Climate change increases smog and contributes to asthma attacks and other respiratory problems. If we don’t act now, the next generation will pay a steep price, and most women want children to inherit a brighter future, not one plagued by unchecked climate hazards.

And yet nearly every single Republican candidate running for office in the past few years—from the presidential level on down—has ignored, denied, or belittled the threat of climate change.  Right now, GOP leaders are attacking the EPA’s new “Clean Power Plan.” This plan would unleash wind and solar power, boost energy and cost savings, and finally hold power plants accountable for the enormous amounts of carbon pollution they spew into our air.

Blocking this kind of climate action isn’t just bad policy; it’s bad politics.

Women are one of the emerging voting blocs that will matter most in this election, along with Latinos and young people. Many female voters are likely to view Tea Party stance on climate change as yet another position that turns them off.

Republicans can’t afford that. In the 2012 presidential race, women favored the Democratic ticket by 11 percentage points.  Unmarried women voted for President Obama over Governor Romney by 67 percent. Those single women, it turns out, could be the soccer moms of this election—top Democratic strategists are already trying to appeal to them.

Some Republicans may be listening to what women want. Over the past few months, GOP leaders have hedged their climate bets; they have moved from outright denial to modest demurral. Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Governor Rick Scott (R-FL), and Presidential hopeful Marco Rubio (R-FL) have all said they don’t have the scientific background to assess the risks of climate change. This hardly constitutes a bold approach to a matter of national security, but it does suggest some Republicans realize that climate denunciation is a losing position.

Candidates who stand for climate action, meanwhile, can cast themselves as champions of clean air, public health, good jobs, and a brighter future for our children—a set of issues that appeal to many women voters.



Cantor Can’t

Eric Cantor went down in a surprise defeat Tuesday night to a tea party unknown, David Brat, upsetting the Congressional order. It’s hard to think of someone more deserving of this fate, but not for the reasons he suffered it.  His lifetime environmental score of 4% should earn him scorn but he may be about to be replaced with a representative who might proudly sport a zero rating.

What are the lessons to be learned from this race? For the Republican Party, the erroneous and overlearned response could well be the need to bow even further to the extremism of the tea party movement. For the environment this would mean more denialism about the existence of climate change in the face of overwhelming evidence, instead of coming to the table for solutions.

Overreaction by the GOP would be especially curious in light of the string of primary victories by so-called establishment Republicans in Senate races in places like Kentucky, Texas and South Carolina.  If the tea party’s wins from 2010 were considered to be episode one in this series, then this year’s episode two would definitely be called, “The Establishment Strikes Back.”

Yet overreaction could well be the order of the day.  For now safely perched in a politically safe and weirdly gerrymandered House majority, the far right wing of the Republican party continues to push for an extreme agenda that many establishment Republicans believe hampers their ability to win control of the White House and the Senate.  Frankly, allowing more progressive views on the environmental matters within the party would be the smartest path forward, and was the case before the rise of the tea party.  But I’m certainly not arguing that Cantor would have done better in the race if he had been better on the environment.  I’m just saying for establishment Republicans to conclude that they should not be better on the environment generally as a result of this race would be a serious error.

So what is the difference between tea party and the GOP establishment these days? Not much on policy, at least not since almost every moderate Republican member of Congress has given up or been driven out of the party. It seems to be mostly style, in the sense of an insistence by one side on a purity of position and a staunch resistance to working with others to get things done.  Still it makes a big difference to be at least reasonable and not radical. Or as Peter King, who’s no liberal, observed about Cantor’s defeat, “I don’t know where we go now as a party.  I’m very concerned that we may go all the way to the right, following Ted Cruz and the shutdown congressman, and marginalizing us as a responsible governing party.”

Cantor’s defeat can mostly be understood as an inattentive effort by a politician whose ambitions lay elsewhere.  If there was a policy issue that decided this race, it may have been immigration, where Cantor’s opponent accused him of supporting “amnesty” for his work on a Republican version of reform.  The party has struggled to construct a viable national strategy to attract the support of minorities and Latinos in particular, but a National Republican Committee proposal to do that has not taken hold. The same problem persists for the party among young people and women.

Yet the party continues to cut itself off from these groups with its policy agenda, including hostility to action on one of the most important issues of the day – clean air and climate change. Despite reams of polling data proving the support among these demographic groups for action on climate change, the tea party has maintained its choke hold on this issue.

Cantor can’t be the template for the GOP establishment if they want to reshape their national politics.  Instead of learning the wrong lesson about this race, they should master the proof contained in this polling. And it wouldn’t hurt for them to reexamine the irrefutable scientific proof behind climate change at the same time.

2013 In Review: It Could Have Been Worse

So 2013 is nearly done.  On the political scene it’s easy to hope that the door gives the year a good whack on the way out.  But as we take a final look back on the environmental front, there’s a lot for which we should be grateful– especially if you take into consideration the things that didn’t get worse.

The Obama administration should be congratulated for the big step it took last summer in its commitment to fight climate change. Following on the heels of the landmark 2012 rule by the Obama administration to require automakers to vastly increase the average fuel economy of new cars and trucks, President Obama announced his commitment to take further action on climate change and avoid, as the President put it, condemning “future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.” A particularly significant feature of the President’s climate action plan is its stated goal to establish carbon pollution standards for both new and existing power plants. If done right, these standards could have an enormously positive impact on public health and would be a momentous victory in the fight to control climate change.

Another important climate item in 2013 was something that didn’t happen. Namely, the Obama administration did not approve TransCanada’s Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. While it remains to be seen whether the administration will eventually approve the counterproductive project, the President’s skepticism concerning the benefits of the pipeline and his commitment to evaluate its contribution of carbon to the atmosphere provides hope that the administration will scrap the misbegotten proposal altogether in favor of a cleaner energy future for America.

Also worthy of attention are the many staffing changes made in highly influential energy and environmental positions within the administration. Lisa Jackson left her post as EPA Administrator with an exceptional list of accomplishments, including adoption of air toxics standards that will save thousands of American lives every year. The Obama administration’s decision to replace Jackson with the highly capable Gina McCarthy serves as a sign of the administration’s continued commitment to climate and other crucial environmental protections.  A further proof of this continued commitment was demonstrated as the brilliant Dr. Stephen Chu was replaced at the Department of Energy by veteran climate policy leader and energy expert, Dr. Ernest Moniz.

Heather Zichal, former senior energy and climate adviser to the White House, departed too after the President’s unveiled his groundbreaking climate action plan.  Zichal helped orchestrate the development of this plan and should also be credited for the critical role she played in securing the vehicle fuel economy standards. Also announcing her departure was Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, who can be proud of her accomplishments such as oversight of the creation of the first comprehensive National Ocean Policy.

The biggest item on the arrival side of White House staffing news is the addition of John Podesta, former Chief of Staff to President Clinton and previously a board member of the NRDC Action Fund. Podesta will be serving as senior counsel to president Obama and, considering his work in making climate change one of the top priorities of the think tank he founded after leaving the Clinton Administration, his return to the White House is an exciting prospect for the administration’s increased activity on climate change in the coming year.

Any review of 2013 would be remiss if it failed to discuss Congressional activity, or lack thereof.  There was at least a bipartisan budget deal, but otherwise Congress remained largely ineffectual. This meant that progress on the environment was left almost entirely up to action by the executive branch even as the administration fended off persistent attacks by climate deniers in Congress.

Hope persists that an eventual legislative agreement can be reached to update the federal law (the Toxics Substances Control Act, or TSCA) that regulates chemicals used in commercial and consumer products, but negotiations on a bill have stalled over how to set clear standards and deadlines that would actually make the law better than what exists now. Still, a good day in Congress is sometimes defined as doing no harm, and so it was good that bad environmental laws were kept off the President’s desk, and sneak attacks on the environment through unrelated provisions in other bills (termed “riders”) were mostly avoided.

Another topic that warrants discussion is the ongoing internal debate within the national Republican party. Following the party’s defeat in the last Presidential election, the Republican National Committee commissioned an assessment of the root causes of their underperformance. This report emphasized the party’s need to reach out to minorities, to alter their stance and messaging on immigration, and to pay greater attention to generational issues in order to remain relevant and competitive in elections moving forward.

Despite these recommendations, the Republican Party has retained a reputation as ideologically exclusive and controlled by extremists. This fall’s extended government shutdown is a perfect example of the Republicans’ increased isolation from mainstream opinion, as most Americans held an unfavorable view of the shutdown because it hampered the ability of federal agencies like the EPA to do their jobs protecting us.

The party’s unfortunate fate when it’s outside the political mainstream was evident in state races this past fall. In Virginia, the more conservative a Republican candidate for statewide office was, the worse he performed in his election – and Ken Cuccinelli’s views on climate change in particular were used to help define him as an extremist. Alternatively, New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie took a more reasonable stance on climate change  and other issues, and subsequently won re-election in a landslide in a “blue” state.

So the administration’s commitment to action on climate change and the possibility that more reasonable, bipartisan cooperation will return to Congress in not a bad place to start for 2014.  Certainly 2013 set a standard of performance that our leaders should be expected to exceed.  Here’s hoping they exceed it by a lot.