One day in 2009, Henry Waxman, the Democratic congressman representing Santa Monica and Malibu, paid a visit to one of his Republican counterparts, a ruddy-faced Texan named Joe Barton. After Democrats had won back the House of Representatives the previous year, Waxman staged an intraparty coup and seized the chairman’s gavel of the Energy and Commerce committee, which oversees most legislation on the environment. He vowed to address what he saw as the gravest threat facing the planet: climate change. As an opening gesture, Waxman approached Barton, the committee’s top Republican, about finding a way to work together on the new legislation.
Barton, a guy who once called Al Gore “totally wrong” about global warming and advised people to “get shade” to adapt to rising temperatures, was incredulous. Waxman recalls Barton asking why he should work on a solution for a problem he didn’t believe existed. Waxman pressed on, but Barton wouldn’t budge. “It would be like me working with you to try to eliminate U.S. support for Israel,” the Texan finally said.
The comment stopped Waxman cold. Aid to Israel is, of course, an article of faith in both parties. You commit political seppuku to suggest otherwise.
Waxman, who retired from office two years ago, realized something important in that moment. For the modern-day Republican Party, protecting fossil fuels wasn’t a pet issue; it was a religion. The Church of Carbon. And he didn’t have a chance in hell of persuading someone like Barton to join his cause. “It has always been amazing to me that the Republicans as a party have taken the view that climate change – if it even exists – is not caused by man-made pollutants, and it’s not really much of a problem,” Waxman says. “It’s an open hostility to science and evidence and facts that are becoming more and more undeniable.”
For decades, climate-change deniers got away with dismissing the growing body of science as speculation and guesswork, hysterical or politicized warnings of a disastrous future. Now, their church is crumbling. Every month of this year set a new record for the hottest monthly average global temperature in history. Fifteen of the 16 hottest years ever recorded have occurred in the 21st century. The facts are at our doorstep in the form of drought-fueled wildfires ravaging Southern California; rising sea levels in New York, Norfolk, Virginia, and Miami Beach; melting glaciers in Alaska; bleached coral reefs in the Virgin Islands. We’ve reached the point where the planet’s warming – and the extreme weather it causes – is outpacing the very models scientists use to predict the future.
The good news is this: Practically every nation on Earth grasps the severity of the problem. In Paris last year, 195 countries, including the biggest emitters on the planet – the United States, China and India – came together and offered real, substantive plans to curb their emissions of greenhouse gases. Long before Paris, the renewable-energy revolution was underway – Germany can now power up to 87 percent of the country using renewable sources, and in some areas of Australia wind power meets 100 percent of demand for electricity. In September, Chinese president Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama announced that their countries would ratify the Paris Agreement. The Chinese leader’s public comments at the event – “Our response to climate change bears on the future of our people and the well-being of mankind” – would’ve been unthinkable a decade ago.
In fact, about the only place left on Earth where lawmakers openly and avidly deny the science of climate change is the U.S. Congress. More to the point, says Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii and a leader on climate policy, “There is only one major political party in the world that denies the existence of climate change. And it happens to be in charge of the most important political body in the world.”
At this summer’s Republican National Convention, the party faithful approved their official platform for the next four years. It reads like a denier’s Christmas wish list, with nearly every point receiving the full-throated support of the party nominee, Donald Trump: Build the Keystone XL pipeline, cancel the Clean Power Plan, neuter the EPA and ban it from regulating carbon dioxide, outlaw a carbon tax, stop all fracking regulations. The broader the consensus outside Washington that climate change is real and man-made, the more elaborate Republicans get in refuting its existence. To hear Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) tell it, climate change is a global conspiracy cooked up by liberals who want to institute “massive government control of the economy, the energy sector and every aspect of our lives.”
House Republicans have subpoenaed the government’s top climatologists. They’ve invited discredited deniers to testify before Congress. They’ve even fought the Pentagon – a normally untouchable institution in the halls of Congress – over climate change. Twice this year, the House GOP majority voted to block the Defense Department from studying the national-security implications of climate change. In the words of one House Republican, Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia, the military’s efforts amount to partisan gimmicks and distractions from fighting terrorism. “Why should Congress divert funds from the mission of our military and national security,” he wrote to colleagues in 2014, “to support a political ideology?”
Republicans who’ve dared to buck party orthodoxy end up as cautionary tales. Take Bob Inglis, a six-term congressman with an independent streak who represented the South Carolina upcountry region. During his 2010 re-election campaign, Inglis told a local radio host that climate change was real and humans were responsible. His primary challenger, a local prosecutor named Trey Gowdy, hammered Inglis as an out-of-touch kook more worried about carbon taxes than the lives of his constituents. Inglis lost to Gowdy by a staggering 42 percentage points. “The most enduring heresy that I committed,” Inglis later said, “was saying the climate change is real and let’s do something about it.”
Inglis, who now runs a group that promotes conservative-friendly solutions to climate change, is uniquely suited to diagnose what’s gone wrong with his party. Aside from the fears of being ousted from office by angry party hard-liners, Inglis says, the GOP is stuck in a cycle of “rejectionism,” the total refusal to believe or concede any fact associated with the opposing side, no matter how many experts attest to its veracity: “It’s a rejection of the science, rejection of all things Obama and rejection of the idea that we can come together to solve really big challenges.”
It wasn’t always so. A Republican president – Richard Nixon – signed into law the Clean Air Act, approved the Council on Environmental Quality and established the two federal agencies most focused on climate change today: the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In Nixon’s day, environmental protection enjoyed bipartisan support. At the signing of the Clean Air Act in December 1970, which passed Congress with near unanimity, Nixon hailed it as “a historic piece of legislation that put us far down the road toward a goal that Theodore Roosevelt, 70 years ago, spoke eloquently about: a goal of clean air, clean water and open spaces for the future generations of America.”
The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 kick-started the conservative backlash to the environmental movement. The new administration slashed funding for regulators, laid off renewable-energy researchers and famously removed the solar panels installed on the White House roof by Jimmy Carter. The ultraconservative House Republican Study Committee issued a “special report” titled “The Specter of Environmentalism,” which cast activists as “extremists” trying to block mining operations while snatching private land away from its owners. Reagan’s Interior secretary, James Watt, called the environmental movement a “left-wing cult” and said his job was to “follow the Scriptures, which call upon us to occupy the land until Jesus returns.”
Yet even Reagan saw the wisdom in signing the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer, one of the great success stories in the environmental movement. It took a new generation of hard-line Republican politicians, led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, to make the environment a partisan issue while positioning the GOP as the party of the fossil-fuel industry. Oil, gas and coal companies had typically divided their campaign donations evenly between the two parties; now they began funneling tens of millions of dollars to the GOP – two and three times more than Democrats received – and into front groups and sham think tanks working to undermine climate science. Flush with cash, the Republican leadership “started running the Congress from the top down,” Waxman recalls. “Committees had less and less say over policy, decisions were made at the level of the speaker, and a lot of legislation was being drafted behind closed doors with special interests.”
Republicans cloaked their agenda in the language of “deregulation” and “balancing the budget”; a New York Times editorial called it a “masterpiece of legislative subterfuge.” It was only natural, then, that in 2000, the GOP picked as its standard-bearers George W. Bush, the scion of an oil-money family, and Dick Cheney, a former CEO of an oil-services company.
The last real effort Republicans made to work with Democrats on climate change brought together some of the biggest names in Congress: Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Democrat John Kerry and Independent Joe Lieberman. McCain and Lieberman had introduced cap-and-trade legislation on three different occasions, and McCain, during his 2008 presidential campaign, had said, “We stand warned by serious and credible scientists across the world that time is short and the dangers are great.” But facing a far-right primary challenger, McCain abandoned the effort early on, and the so-called Kerry-Graham-Lieberman coalition collapsed in spectacular fashion amid bickering with the Obama administration and outside conservative pressure. Their bill was never put up for a vote.
In the years since, the GOP has only descended further into the madness of anti-science denialism. And it’s not enough to say Republicans have retreated on the issue to protect themselves against well-funded primary challengers. Today, denying climate change is a winning stance, the sure path to loads of campaign cash, plus a way to wage ideological war on the Democratic Party. With the GOP takeover of Congress, the most ardent deniers have been rewarded with leadership positions on the committees that oversee our nation’s climate policies.
Look no further than Texas Republican Lamar Smith, the chair of the House Science Committee, who has received nearly $700,000 from oil and gas companies (more than any other industry) and launched a crusade to intimidate scientists at NOAA and the Union of Concerned Scientists over climate research. Since Smith took over in 2013, the Science Committee has issued more subpoenas than in the preceding 54 years. Jim Inhofe, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has gone even further, seeking to block the Obama administration’s efforts to limit methane emissions and regulate the impact of fracking on water supplies. But what else could we expect from a man whose biggest funders include Exxon and Koch Industries, who brought a snowball to the Senate floor to disprove global warming and who believes climate change is the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated”?
Rep. David Jolly of Florida is one of the rare Republicans to speak out on climate change. Talking to me from the speaker’s balcony one recent morning, he traced the current inaction to the deep sense of divide and party anger in Congress. “I have colleagues who tell me the climate-change science is not real,” Jolly says. “They say it with conviction, and I think it’s simply because this issue generationally was introduced in a highly toxic political climate where both sides of the aisle dug in their heels and hardened their positions. And so because of that, I think that legacy has stayed within our party.”
As the evidence piles up that climate change is real and man-made, and an existential threat to the planet’s future, Americans of all ideologies are coming around. A 2016 poll conducted by researchers at Yale and George Mason University found that three in four registered voters believe the Earth is warming, and more than half believe humans are causing it. The poll’s biggest shift occurred among conservative Republicans: The number of those saying the climate is changing jumped by 19 percent from two years earlier. ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson accepts the prevailing research. Even Charles Koch has begun to see the light. A top executive at Koch Industries caused a stir this past spring when she said, “Charles has said the climate is changing. So the climate is changing. I think he’s also said, and we believe, that humans have a part in that.” In a subsequent interview with The Washington Post, Koch himself didn’t dispute the facts of climate change. “There is some science behind it,” he said. “There are greenhouse gases, and they do contribute to warming.”
Yet Koch is largely responsible for the one factor that helps explain why so many Republicans cling to their denier talking points (from sunspots and midcentury global cooling to “I’m not a scientist”). The GOP has come to rely on (and fear) the spigot of campaign cash from the fossil-fuel industry. The Koch brothers and their donor pals have pledged $889 million to push their conservative agenda in 2016. “The Republican voters have moved, the Republican icons have moved, but the Republicans elected won’t move,” says Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmentalist. “Isn’t that interesting? You have 889 million reasons to go against the facts, the voters and their icons.”
Oil and gas companies know that they’ve all but lost the war of public opinion on the truth of climate change. So instead they have trained their firepower on a single party in a single place in hopes of blocking progress. “They came to the key strategic choke point: Congress,” says Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). A leading voice on the climate front, Whitehouse has delivered nearly 150 speeches on the Senate floor, urging action and calling out “the Web of Denial,” the network of secretly funded groups that peddle doubt on climate change. “They put a choke chain on the Republican Party that they gave a couple of hard yanks to say, ‘Line up with us.'”
It’s a strategy born of desperation, but a clever one all the same. “They punished the Bob Inglises,” Whitehouse says. “They silenced the McCains. They got [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell totally in their corner with the floods of money they’re pouring in to support his candidates. And once they had accomplished that, they were able to take what is essentially dirty, traditional, special-interest pleading and make it look like part of the partisan wars.”
According to congressional Democrats, plenty of Republicans in the House and Senate know the truth about climate – most of them just won’t come out and say it. Whitehouse tells me he knows a dozen Senate Republicans who want to help on climate change but say they can’t, for political reasons. Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii recalls one Republican senator telling him, “I’m not crazy on this stuff, but we’ve got to wait till Obama’s gone.” The Republicans he talks to “find their own position embarrassing,” Schatz says, but that embarrassment has yet to outweigh the fear of losing their primaries. “Part of the evolution that has to occur is they have to be more scared of pro-climate voters than these Super PACs that threaten them.”
Even without Republican help, Democrats in Congress have managed to notch major victories in the fight against climate change, such as the 2015 renewal of key tax credits for the solar and wind industries. President Obama, acting unilaterally, has begun to phase out the coal-fired plants around the country with the Clean Power Plan. But in reality, the kind of sweeping, historic legislation needed to address the threats facing our fast-changing planet – picture a New Deal or a Great Society for the climate – can happen only when Congress wills itself to act.
There are initial signs that heretics exist within the Church of Carbon. This year’s creation of the Climate Solutions Caucus, a group of 20 House members equally divided among Democrats and Republicans, is evidence of an awakening to the reality that waiting one day more to act on climate change is one day too long. But Jolly, the Republican congressman, says he doesn’t expect much more movement in the current crop of GOP lawmakers. “It might take another 10 years for a new generation of Republicans to take a new approach to this,” he says. Inglis, for his part, is somewhat more optimistic. He says he believes it’s only a matter of time before the ravages of climate change – flooded cities, resource conflicts, extreme heat in the summers and unbearable cold in the winters – persuade his fellow Republicans to emerge from hiding. “It’s an unsustainable position,” he says. “We’re gonna change. The question is whether we change fast enough.”