Detoxifying climate change a challenge for conservatives

By Tom Baxter

How hot is it? Why, it’s so hot, that last week, a South Carolina Republican who had a 93 rating with the American Conservative Union when he was in Congress announced he’s heading up a campaign to promote conservative solutions to the nation’s “energy and climate challenges.”

Former U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis will head the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, a national campaign which will operate out of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication. Conservatives, he said, “need to stop retreating in denial and start stepping forward in the competition of ideas” over these challenges.

Both Republicans and Democrats have reasons for dismissing this news.

Republicans will point out that Inglis got trounced in the 2010 GOP primary by Tea Party favorite Trey Gowdy, who said he didn’t believe in global warming and accused Inglis of being soft on the cap-and-trade issue. No wonder, then, that he’d wind up in this job. Democrats will say the Republicans willing even to talk about climate change are few in number, and late to the party.

But the slow evolution of a conservative approach more nuanced than simple denial is a tell-tale sign, like the rings of an ancient tree, of wider changes in the climate.

To the consternation of some conservative climate skeptics,  the American Enterprise Institute, which has been something of a weather vane on the issue, has been working with environmental groups to talk about refining the idea of a carbon pollution tax. One topic at a session last week was reported to be “Detoxifying climate policy for conservatives.”

How delicate that detoxifying process will be is evident from the wording of the Inglis announcement. On its website, the Center for Climate Change Communication states unequivocally that “Climate change is the result of human actions and choices.” Note, however, that the announcement speaks of “climate challenges” while avoiding “climate change.”

In a web video,   Inglis, “a conservative who says it’s real,” is paired with Arthur Laffer, “an economist and an agnostic with respect to global warming.” The two are united in their affection for a carbon tax, which Laffer says he’d bet “really would be less damaging to the economy than the progressive income tax.”

You couldn’t position yourself any farther from Al Gore than the climate-change pitch in this video.

“We’re not buying into apocalyptic visions,” Inglis says. “We’re talking reasonable risk avoidance, and winning the triple play of this American Century: Improving international security, creating jobs and cleaning up the air.”

As summer records have continued to fall, the argument of skeptics has changed gradually from “There is no climate change,” to “There’s always been climate change.” It’s whether human “actions and choices” have much or anything to do with those broad changes that is the conservative sticking point.

“Reasonable risk avoidance” sells better in Republican circles than “apocalyptic visions,” but there would be no discussion of either if the number of record high days and extreme weather events were not multiplying at an alarming rate. When the Agriculture Department changes the planting guide map on the side of those seed packets we buy, it becomes harder to dismiss those hot days and tornadoes as random events.

There’s no inherent reason why Republicans should have maneuvered themselves into a position which will, as the evidence against it continues to mount, simply melt away. As President Obama has reminded them, it was conservative Republicans who first employed the cap-and-trade concept, with great results, to reduce acid rain emissions.

At the state level, it was often Republicans, like Georgia’s Mike Egan and Paul Heard, who were the most stalwart defenders of the environment, in an era of Democratic majorities. Eventually, voices like those will have to be heard again in the party for it to avoid a slow but steady erosion.

When Energy Secretary Stephen Chu praised an idea of his former colleagues at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory three years ago, critics of the administration pounced. Radio hosts had a ball with the idea that if everybody painted their roofs white, it would have as much impact on global warming as reducing automobile emissions for 11 years.

After the warmest 12-month period on record, that suggestion seems just a little less laughable. If not white, we may be seeing a lot of Republican rooftops converting to a conservative gray.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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