11/19/2014 08:36 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2015

Fatal Miscalculation

Republicans are making a big mistake if they think that because environmental protection ranks far down on the public's list of priorities, the issue is fair game.

Environmental protection has filled a back seat in surveys because most Americans assume it is too elemental not to be implemented, and they thus take it for granted. Much environmental degradation, especially global warming, also tends to be incremental, a pace that invites complacency.

That said, the public's innate attachment to their surrounding environment is a "sleeping giant" that could erupt at the initial onset of a major ecological crisis. Scientists warn that just such a crisis is looming if we sit on our hands in dealing with global warming. And their admonitions are reinforced by the weight of evidence.

If Republican lawmakers make their denial of global warming's threat a signature campaign issue leading up to the 2016 national election, they will be writing their own political obituary. Many of the voting blocs who were under-represented in the mid-term elections -- such as youth and minorities -- will be out in full force in 2016, and they tend to be climate change believers.

Yet this vulnerability has not registered. Newly elected Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell perfunctorily dismisses the Obama initiatives to combat global warming as an "ideological crusade" that is a frivolous act of self-gratification and in effect, a "war on coal." Nor do the Republicans appear ready to minimize embarrassment by reining in Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma. The aforementioned is slated to head the Senate Environmental Committee and considers global warming a hoax concocted by left wing scientists to attract research funding.

The same GOP negativity is directed at other environmental issues as well. Republican lawmakers have expressed intentions to weaken ozone reduction standards, water quality protections, and roll back regulation of coal ash, mountain top mining, and methane emissions. Subsidies to clean renewable energy will be opposed as will administration efforts to add to federal wilderness areas.

It is a crucial mistake if Republicans treat all regulations the same. Polls show a majority of Americans distinguish between environmental rules which protect public health, and red tape which impedes business activity. The former is favored, the latter opposed.

Republicans' contention that existing environmental regulations are onerous overreach which are killing jobs and raising utility rates to exorbitant levels simply don't hold water. For example, since the enactment of the Clean Air Act in 1970, emissions of common air pollutants have declined 72 percent. At what cost to the economy? Gross domestic product has grown 219 percent and total private sector jobs have increased 101 percent. Mandated integration of renewables into the energy mix usually has increased electricity bills less than one percent if at all. And the renewable energy industry is more labor intensive than its fossil fuel counterpart, thus ultimately producing a net job gain (coal industry employment is shrinking significantly because of automation and competition from natural gas).

In summary, should Republicans persist in their vendetta against environmental protections, they risk gifting the 2016 presidential election to the Democrats, not to mention ending up on the wrong side of history.