Despite Trump, Republican view on climate change evolves

President says he doesn’t know if global warming is manmade.

US President Donald J. Trump’s October 14 interview with 60 Minutes was noteworthy for several reasons, though less for the president’s words on climate change than for the slowly—but meaningfully—changing political climate around him.

First, it was remarkable, though laudable, that amid all the short-term issues swirling around the White House—from China to Saudi Arabia to the ongoing special counsel investigation—interviewer Lesley Stahl chose to open with a focus on Hurricane Michael and to provide the president with an opportunity to clarify his views on climate change. The president’s first words, that “something’s happening,” were welcome, though he unfortunately followed these with the inaccurate assertion on climate change that “it’ll change back again,” and that “I don’t know that it’s manmade.”

The president was clearly making reference to natural climate cycles, which continue to be present but which are, according to the president’s own agency, NASA, currently being overpowered by anthropogenic (“manmade”) increases in atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations. This warming trend will also not, in fact, reverse unless global GHG concentrations are brought down or unless active climate intervention strategies—which still have uncertain costs, benefits, and risks—are pursued.

Beyond the interview itself, however, was further evidence that a recent spate of extreme weather events may be galvanizing a slow but important shift in the political landscape of climate change. The same day as Trump’s 60 Minutes interview, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) declared on CNN that humans are indeed contributing to climate change. This was a break from Rubio’s previous positions on climate change. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) went further, calling for Republicans “to be at the forefront” of addressing climate change. US Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Republican who represents the district in Florida adjacent to where Hurricane Michael made landfall, joined a number of other Florida Republican colleagues this year in acknowledging that sea-level rise threatening the state is a result of human-driven climate change. Gaetz’s willingness to engage in dialogue on real climate solutions will hopefully only be strengthened in the wake of this latest disaster.

It would, of course, be preferable to see these same elected officials focus on the vexing challenge of climate change via the comprehensive, rigorous, and growing body of objective scientific consensus, such as that presented in the most recent UN scientific report on the topic, rather than via compelling, but ultimately less informative, individual events such as destruction wrought by Hurricane Michael.

Indeed, just as it would be inaccurate to clutch a snowball in the middle of a white winter and declare that climate change is not occurring, so too is it premature and inaccurate to announce that climate change caused a hurricane such as those seen over this year. What we do know with certainty, however, is that climate change is making such events—including Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, Maria last year—potentially more frequent and certainly more severe.

A leading meteorologist from West Palm Beach, Florida, described the phenomenon well: continued climate change leads to ocean conditions that are akin to “high octane fuel” which hurricanes such as Michael feed on to grow more powerful as they approach inhabited coastlines.

In terms of the political economy of the matter, Republicans have more and more to gain from at least embracing the existence of human-driven climate change and the benefits of clean energy in addressing them. The four US states with the highest share of wind energy—Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and South Dakota—all voted for Trump in the 2016 election, and around 70 percent of all wind energy in the United States is generated in states that voted for Trump. A leading market research firm reports that eight of the ten fastest-growing state solar markets are in “Western, Midwestern, or Southern states that voted for Trump.” Beyond wind and solar, a number of technologies actively supported by the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress, including advanced nuclear and carbon capture technologies, would actively benefit from US leadership on climate change. A decarbonizing world, led by clear US signals, also means an expanding market for US liquified natural gas (LNG), particularly where it can displace dirty coal that is also contributing to poor air quality in cities across emerging markets.

Indeed, it is a useful time to remember that the Reagan administration’s leadership on the Montreal Protocol helped to unleash an American industrial advantage in the global market for pollution control technologies, and that the George H.W. Bush administration’s leadership in creating a cap-and-trade program to address acid rain helped stimulate innovation that similarly handed US industry an advantage.

The current Trump administration position toward climate leadership could be generously construed as one of unconstructive ambivalence, while it might be more accurate to deem it simply as a lack of strategic foresight. In any case, it is the ambiguity of the US position via the Paris climate agreement, not its participation in it, that is allowing countries such as China to escape further scrutiny and accountability on the important issues of monitoring, reporting, and verifying their climate efforts.

Surely conservatives and progressives alike would like to ensure that any US efforts to address climate change are consistent with the broader US strategic interests and are matched by comparable efforts in other key countries and economies around the world. This should be common ground for Republicans and Democrats alike, and further underscores why it is imperative for the United States to remain inside of global frameworks such as the Paris Agreement, where it can better defend its own interests than it can from the outside. And conservative principles, including a preference for market-based solutions and an appreciation for the critical role of innovation, have an important role to play in US climate discussions.

Parsing the president’s 60 Minutes interview, then, is less important than continuing to engage Republican thinkers and leaders that do wish to act on climate change, in the hope that a change in the political climate here in the United States might eventually put the country in a stronger leadership position. This would pay dividends for US citizens, and for US strategic interests, for decades to come.

David Livingston is the deputy director for climate and advanced energy in the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center. Follow him on Twitter @DLatAC.

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Image: U.S. President Donald Trump talks about Hurricane Michael next to maps and projections on the storm during a meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. October 10, 2018. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)