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Is the Big-Polluter Agenda the Environmental Platform of the Republican Party?

05/11/2015 04:37 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2016
Bill Clark via Getty Images

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) asked a good question last month. He wanted to know, "What is the environmental platform of the Republican Party?" Graham said he doesn't know and suggested that 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, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House John Boehner, have consistently said "no" to or fought against anything that qualifies as an environmental policy. During the first two terms of his speakership, Boehner led House Republicans in more than 500 anti-environment floor votes. 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 the Environmental Protection Agency reducing carbon pollution, and saying "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, GOP.com. 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 that 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 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 to it in 1990, were passed with bipartisan majorities, and that's why Republican Presidents Richard Nixon and 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 3 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 1 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 President Teddy Roosevelt to the creation of Yellowstone National Park by President Ulysses S. Grant. This legacy was carried on as President Richard Nixon established the EPA, as 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-'90s. 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 that 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 3 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 toward solutions, they are pivoting toward 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, which is 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.