#NeverTrump conservatives are this election's most important climate constituency

11/04/2016 10:21 pm ET Updated Nov 08, 2016
President George H. W. Bush signs the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change
UN Photo
President George H. W. Bush signs the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change

Perhaps not surprisingly for an established hegemon and a rising power, there is much that the United States and China disagree on. They disagree on trade. They disagree on democracy. They disagree on Taiwan and North Korea, and on the proper dispensation of maritime borders in the South China Sea. Climate change is a notable exception. President Obama and President Xi’s joint statement on climate, made in November 2014 in Beijing, was perhaps the single most significant turning point in ensuring that COP21 negotiations in Paris in 2015 didn’t stumble – as they have in the past – over the developed/developing country divide. That cooperation has extended into this year’s joint ratification of the accord, essentially ensuring its early entry into force (on November 4th). And indeed, as the Podesta hack has recently brought to light, lead US climate negotiator Todd Stern and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua share a relationship not only of deep mutual respect, but one of genuine affection.

(Parenthetically, this is one of the great tragedies of former UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres failed bid to become UN Secretary General: had Figueres ended up in charge of the UN, the close trilateral relationship she undoubtedly shares with Stern and Xie could have been elevated far beyond the world of climate change. Sadly, the UN Security Council – an organ of the UN with a very different record of successful cooperation than the UNFCCC – put paid to that possibility.)

Yet extraordinary as it seems, the Obama Administration has been able to find much more common ground on climate change with the Chinese Communist Party than it has with the American Republican Party. That this is trite does not make it any less troubling.

For the most part, people in the climate world tend to wearily accept that Republican climate denial is immutable, and to look for ways to work around it. And for the most part, they are right to do so. In passing the Clean Air Act, the U.S. Congress assigned responsibility for dealing with air pollution to EPA and the states – and with the Supreme Court having confirmed that GHGs are “air pollutants”, there is nothing constitutionally improper about America’s climate policy being developed and implemented primarily under the CAA (including, importantly, s 115 of that Act).

Yet even so, the dangers of allowing one of America’s two major parties to hold fast to climate denial are too great for it to be an acceptable long-term strategy. To put it another way: Democrats are inevitably going to lose the White House – and with it, EPA and the State Department – before the climate crisis is resolved. That’s just the way a democracy works.

With that in mind, it is worth considering that if Donald Trump is defeated on November 8th – especially if it’s decisive, Evan McMullin wins Utah, and Gary Johnson wins a significant percentage of votes – there is a real possibility that the right wing of American politics will split into (at least) two factions: a nativist-populist Trumpian faction, and… something else. It is high time that climate folks took a keen interest in what that ‘something else’ might look like.

America today remains starkly divided on certain issues: the proper interpretation of the Second Amendment, for example, or the appropriate size and role of the federal government. A defeat for Donald Trump on November 8th would not eliminate those disagreements. But it is also clear that the prospect of a proto-fascist Ur-misogynist demagogue becoming President of the United States has turned a great swath of the American political spectrum into The Breakfast Club, and we may be seeing a brief moment in which the tribal loyalties of American politics have been muted, at least, and a properly political (as opposed to simply partisan) conversation about the best path forward for American democracy may be possible.

Viewed from a climate perspective, it seems pretty clear that if the grown-ups on the American right (who, funnily enough, seem mostly to be young people) are considering breaking with xenophobic nationalism to establish a new, intellectually rigorous and genuinely principled conservative movement, then the climate movement should welcome such a development – on the obvious and non-negotiable condition that they leave climate denial squarely on the Trump Train.

The question for every #NeverTrump conservative is simple: providing an intellectual defense of climate denial is at least as morally bankrupt, strategically myopic, and gob-smackingly anti-rationalist as is providing an intellectual defense of Donald Trump’s fitness for the Presidency – and if you’ve broken with the man already, are you really going to stand behind his claim that climate change is a Chinese hoax? In 2050, God, guns and income taxes will still be controversial in America. Climate change, not so much. It’s a dumb hill for conservatives to die on – and the smart ones must surely know it.

Granted, climate change is not exactly an ideologically neutral phenomenon. Accepting it is real means accepting that dealing with it will require (at a minimum) a significant government intervention to require the free market to internalize the social cost of carbon emissions. It is also quickly becomes obvious that success can only be global, and thus only be pursued in earnest through multilateral diplomacy and the United Nations, including with considerable financial assistance to developing nations from the developed world.

This is the stuff of fever dreams for a certain segment of the American right (and as Naomi Klein has pointed out, there’s a weird kind of honesty to those who have considered such implications and decided “Nope. I would deny gravity itself before I consent to live in that world.”) But it needn’t be. For one thing, even the most ardent defender of a “night watchman state” must see that this is exactly the kind of situation you keep the guy around for. There is far more carbon in the Earth’s crust than we can safely put into the atmosphere, and only government – or rather, governments, all over the world, acting together – can constrain capitalism to ensure that the market understands and respects that limitation.

Less theoretically: there’s money to be made. Once there is an unambiguous political signal that the clean energy revolution is both necessary and inevitable, there is a huge amount of productive work to do be done: by American labor; with American capital and American technical expertise; at home and abroad. While the idea of “American exceptionalism” is farcical on its face, it is undeniable that America could save the world from climate change, every bit as much as it saved it from the Nazis (which is to say, not without help). Andrew Carnegie would have been up for the task, and there is far more of him in Elon Musk than there is in Rex Tillerson. Sluggish global growth, low and even negative interest rates, and a vast, unmet energy infrastructure need across the developed and developing world. What more could a good capitalist ask for?

In his email to Chinese negotiator Xie, Todd Stern recalls that “President Xi told President Obama in their bilateral meeting in Paris that climate change could be an illustration of the new model of major power relations, and I think we have, in fact, made it so.” For his part, Xie writes back that he sees the Paris Agreement as “a successful model of showing leadership by China and US in our new pattern of major country relationship in international affairs, which should be carried forward in others areas in our bilateral cooperation.” It is thus clear that however many disagreements these two vast, populous, nuclear-armed rivals may have, they have at least managed to grasp that a coordinated approach to climate change is indispensible to our collective global wellbeing – and that such successful coordination has important reverberations throughout the entire bilateral relationship.

However essential a Hillary Clinton victory may be for the safety of the climate, that victory is only a necessary, and far from a sufficient, step on the path to climate safety. Democrats should heed warnings that however much Schadenfreude a GOP civil war might arouse, it also risks a situation in which the party is able to unify around nothing except blanket opposition to anything and everything that a Clinton administration might propose. For the sake of American democracy, Democrats and conservatives must find areas on which they can cooperate. For the sake of global peace and security, climate denial and American conservatism must part ways. Now would seem an opportune moment to push for both. As Benjamin Franklin might have said: we must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all bequeath a totally unlivable planet to our grandchildren, separately.

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