Action on Climate Change

Riley Moore, the state treasurer of West Virginia, is fed up with people who worry about climate change. “The climate has been changing in the world since Earth was created,” he informed The New York Times. “Whether these greenhouse gas emissions are contributing to the warming of the globe, I’m not sure I necessarily agree with that.”

It was said of the Bourbons, who once ruled France, that they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing. When it comes to environmental matters, Republican politicians have learned nothing and forgotten everything.

The Inflation Reduction Act signed by Joe Biden Tuesday actually has a lot more to do with combating global warming than it does with inflation. It’s a landmark achievement: the first major legislation ever to address climate change.

It will cut greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 42% from the level in 2005. It provides funds and tax breaks to encourage solar, wind and nuclear power, along with incentives for electric vehicles and energy conservation. The Rhodium Group, which does research on climate matters, calls it “a game changer for U.S. decarbonization.”

Can you guess how many Republican members of Congress voted for it? Zero. Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota scoffed at the Democrats’ approach: “They just have a million ways to slow down development of fossil fuels. And I think we know at this point that is their religion and that’s their conviction.”

His theology, by contrast, treats climate concerns as the work of the devil. A big element of the GOP brand is an ostentatious indifference to the fate of the natural world. But there was nothing inevitable about that.

It was a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who created the federal Environmental Protection Agency. He also signed the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act.

It was a Republican president, Ronald Reagan, who joined an international treaty to preserve the ozone layer. It was a Republican president, George H.W. Bush, who vowed to be “the environmental president” and signed a new Clean Air Act, which largely solved the problem of acid rain.

But today, the biggest problem is human-caused climate change, and it’s a far worse problem because for decades, Republican presidents and legislators have blocked every attempt to resolve it — and, in many cases, denied its existence altogether.

George W. Bush withdrew from the Kyoto climate accord and refused to act on carbon dioxide. Donald Trump, who mocked the notion that the planet was heating up, scrapped Barack Obama’s program to curb power plant emissions and abandoned the Paris climate agreement.

It was not so long ago — 2003 — that Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona came close to winning enactment of a “cap-and-trade” bill to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But in 2019, the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund reported that 150 Republicans in Congress “do not believe in the scientific consensus that human activity is making the Earth’s climate change.” That’s 60% of GOP members.

They are in perfect tune with Republican voters. Two-thirds of them, according to a 2021 Gallup survey, don’t believe that human activity is causing climate change — and 23% deny that global warming will ever occur.

It’s a marvel that anyone can contemplate the onset of higher world temperatures, heat waves, droughts, wildfires and floods and then deny the reality of climate change. But immediate self-interest, propaganda and ideological fanaticism have made it impossible for most Republicans to come to grips with this dire reality.

Their blindness is willful. If you accept that climate change is happening, harmful and caused by humans, you have to admit that we need to take collective action to mitigate it. That, conservatives have never been willing to do.

They have a reasonable skepticism about the ability of government to solve problems. But their attitude recalls what Mark Twain said about a cat that sits on a hot stove: It won’t ever sit on a hot stove again — and it won’t ever sit on a cold one.

Some problems can’t be solved except through government measures, and climate change is a prime example. The reasonable conservative approach, as Republicans once understood, is to harness the power of the market and ingenuity of businesses to make those remedies as efficient as possible. But today’s GOP has no place for reasonable conservatives.

Americans a generation or two from now will remember that with this legislation, we finally did something to curb climate change. But they will also remember those who chose to do nothing.

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Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune. His twice-a-week column on national and international affairs, distributed by Creators Syndicate, appears in some 50 papers across the country.