President Barack Obama made a bet in a Vice News interview released Monday that Republicans can’t remain the party of science deniers forever. "I guarantee that the Republican Party will have to change its approach to climate change because voters will insist upon it," Obama said. "You've got one side that is denying the facts."
Obama can’t make that promise. He should know by now: During his administration, climate change deniers have grown even more powerful in the House and Senate. Today roughly three-quarters of the Republican Senate denies that human activity affects the climate. The House of Representatives has voted more than 500 times over four years of Republican control on legislation that would hurt environmental progress. Senator James Inhofe, who oversees the Senate's environmental committee, regularly refers to global warming as the "greatest hoax ever perpetuated." His stunts, such as carrying snowballs onto the Senate floor, would in a sane Senate ding his chances of advancement. Instead, Inhofe is in his second stint as the Senate's environmental chair.
The Tea Party is partially to blame. Only 29 percent of Tea Party Republicans say global warming is happening, compared to 62 percent of moderate Republicans. Meanwhile dark money has continued to boost fossil fuel interests: The expansive Koch network funneled $400 million into the 2012 election.
Even if fossil fuel corporations were to lose their grip over the GOP and moderate Republicans reemerged as party leaders, there's no counting on the GOP to admit it's taking climate change seriously. More likely, the party will simply change its message. One favorite excuse from last year has already fallen out of favor. During the midterm election, Republicans such as Florida Govenor Rick Scott and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said “I’m not a scientist” to dodge questions about climate change action. Recently, some Republicans have pivoted to new creative excuses, like highlighting the importance of acting on air pollution (but not climate pollution). On the off-chance the GOP actually nominates a candidate for president who accepts the science, that candidate likely will say addressing climate change doesn't justify its costs. Such an argument is its own form of denial, because it rejects the evidence showing that inaction can wind up costing the United States at least $150 billion per year.
The GOP may refine its stump speeches, but Obama is too optimistic in predicting the GOP will be any more willing to act on climate change in the near future. Meaningful action means the party line would need to swing fast. Policymakers and scientists warn that global carbon emissions must fall to net zero within the next 30 years to keep global warming to a reasonble amount. The policies to make that happen must be put in place now, if we're going to have a snowball's chance.