In the first GOP debate the other night, Michele Bachman launched into her usual rant about the evils of Big Government and vowed, if elected (fat chance, Tea Party girl), to eviscerate federal agencies that interfere with corporate America doing as it pleases. "And I would begin with the EPA, because there is no other agency like the EPA," Bachman said. "It should really be renamed the job-killing organization of American." Newt Gingrich chimed in to say that, he, too, hates the EPA, and would like abolish it in favor of "an environmental solutions agency." And as for tackling climate change or getting off fossil fuels – forget about it. Drill it, mine it, burn it. That’s the American way.
On one level, there’s nothing surprising about this. Conservative Republicans have long argued that any restraint on our God-Given Right to burn oil, coal and natural gas will destroy the economy, force children to go hungry, and leave millions of old Republicans sweltering in the summer heat because they won’t be able to afford air conditioning. But with rise of the Wacko Wing of the GOP, these sort of attacks have become increasingly shrill and aggressive.
They are also increasingly out of touch with mainstream America – and mainstream Republicans, for that matter. The other day, the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication released its latest survey results on American’s attitudes toward global warming and clean energy.
• 71 percent of Americans say global warming should be a very high (13), high (27), or medium (31) priority for the president and Congress, including 50 percent of Republicans, 66 percent of Independents, and 88 percent of Democrats
• 91 percent of Americans say developing sources of clean energy should be a very high (32), high (35), or medium (24) priority for the president and Congress, including 85 percent of Republicans, 89 percent of Independents, and 97 percent of Democrats
• 82 percent of Americans (including 76 percent of Republicans, 74 percent of Independents, and 94 percent of Democrats) say that protecting the environment either improves economic growth and provides new jobs (56), or has no effect (26). Only 18 percent say environmental protection reduces economic growth and costs jobs
• 68 percent of Americans support requiring electric utilities to produce at least 20 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources, even if it costs the average household an extra $100 a year, including 58 percent of Republicans, 64 percent of Independents, and 82 percent of Democrats
When I called Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale project, to discuss the result of this study (one of several has been working on, in one form or another, for more than a decade), he pointed out that most Americans are light-years ahead of the GOP candidates on energy policy: "Long ago, a huge majority of Americans gave [government] permission to take action on clean energy issues."
So why all the EPA-bashing? Why the failure to engage in any discussion of progressive energy policy? "It’s all about appealing to the Republican base, which is a very small sub-set of Americans," Leiserowitz says. "They have managed to turn climate change and clean energy into a litmus test for a broad set of conservative values." How that happened, Leiserowitz says, is deeply connected to "the dysfunctionality of American political system," from the lobbying power of Big Coal and Big Oil to the need for a supermajority to pass significant legislation in Congress. He also cites the failure of Democrats and environmental activists to connect climate change and energy issues to things that people care about, like public health and national security. "This should not be an inside-the-beltway debate," Leiserowitz says. "Climate and energy issues are at least as fundamental to our lives as, say, health care. And yet the political discourse is far more limited."
Ultimately, Leiserowitz’s work shows there is no reason clean energy and climate change need to be taboo subjects among Republicans. "This is not a partisan issue," he says. "Some of the most significant environmental legislation in history – including the establishment of the EPA [by Richard Nixon!] – has been passed by Republicans." In the long run, Leiserowitz believes the GOP is shooting itself in the foot by trying to turn energy and climate issues into the political equivalent of abortion and gay marriage. “This is all about short-term tactical moves,” Leiserowitz says. "There is no long-term strategy here. They are all playing checkers, when we need to be playing chess."