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Five Republican Delusions About the Environment

Justin Sullivan/ Getty Images

When climate change and energy policy come up in Wednesday's Republican presidential debate, you can expect the candidates to describe a world that doesn't much resemble the one we live in. While the climate crisis received prominent billing in the first Democratic debate and inspired an unusually healthy discussion of real-life solutions, Republicans have charged ahead with energy plans that hardly recognize current reality.

The GOP’s attitude toward energy and environment might best be summed up by a recent comment Donald Trump made to Fox News’s Chris Wallace. Trump said he would cut virtually all of the funds going to the Environmental Protection Agency, an action he insisted would have no repercussions. “We’ll be fine with the environment,” he said.

The rest of the candidates apply the same “we’ll be fine” attitude as they also call for gutting much of America’s regulatory apparatus—and as they ignore, more broadly, what's happening to the planet. In the last few weeks, Marco RubioJeb Bush, and John Kasich have released their energy platforms; Ted Cruz and Bobby Jindal offered their plans way back in 2014. Their policy prescriptions could have just as easily come from last century—even as the rest of the world is finally getting serious about climate change and clean energy. 

These candidates need a reality check—five of them, in fact:  

1. Actually, climate change is a problem.

We're long past due for a Republican to offer some kind of plan for addressing out-of-control greenhouse gas pollution. The presidential candidates will talk all day about how they will reverse President Obama's landmark restrictions on carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants, called the Clean Power Plan, and pull the U.S. out of a pending global climate deal. But even the small minority who, like Jeb Bush, will admit out loud that climate change is a threat refuse to propose any action that could help address it. That might be what the conservative base in Iowa demands, but the candidates are out of step even with their own party: One poll conducted by prominent conservative pollsters found that 54 percent of GOP voters support a revenue-neutral carbon tax and renewable energy tax credits. 

2. We cannot drill our way to energy independence. 

For decades now, ever since President Richard Nixon pledged to make it happen, just about every Republican—joined by many Democrats—has promised energy independence. Republicans say that by opening all of the public lands and the entire ocean for fossil fuel development, America would no longer have to rely on oil from the Middle East. It’s a false promise, because the U.S. will still be just as susceptible to global oil price shocks, and will likely remain a net importer, even if more of our oil is being produced in North America. Meanwhile, Republicans ignore the other half of the equation to achieving something near energy independence—efficiency measures like raised mileage standards for cars that cut Americans’ demand for oil in the first place.

3. The clean energy industry isn't some fantasy Al Gore dreamed up.

Republicans'  are casting their "drill, drill, drill" vision of achieving energy independence by boosting fossil-fuel development—both onshore and offshire—as bold and visionary. Democrats’ enthusiasm for solar and wind energy, by contrast, is seen as failed and outdated; as Marco Rubio’s plan says, “Hillary Clinton’s energy vision is stuck in the past.” Numbers tell a different story: At 174,000 employees, the solar industry may make up just one-tenth of 1 percent of U.S. jobs, but the industry is growing at a rapid clip. It accounts for one in every 78 new jobs in America, according to the industry trade group Solar Foundation. The wind industry counts nearly 80,000 employees (for a point of comparison, the Keystone XL pipeline would employ a couple thousand employees for a temporary project, and fewer than 50 permanent employees). And how do Republicans respond to these numbers? They ignore the fact that the clean energy industry exists, unless they're pooh-poohing it. 

But clean energy is saving consumers and businesses more and more money, as prices come down. “Onshore wind is today competitive in many places in the U.S. and around the world with coal and gas fired generation technology,” an analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance recently told the Washington Post. “Solar generally remains pricier, but prices are also dropping fast." But when Republican candidates do talk renewables, it's only to bemoan these credits as a waste of taxpayer dollars on a failed technology. 

4. Coal country won’t be saved by repealing Obama’s initiatives.

Republicans love to talk about out-of-work coal miners—you know, the guys who've lost their jobs entirely because of Obama's Environmental Protection Agency—but their plans are light on ways to help them. How about a jobs program to retrain them for new fields, for instance? No, the answer is promising to repeal as many EPA regulations as possible, particularly Obama's Clean Power Plan. Bush wants an outright repeal of the plan; Rubio suggests regulatory reforms that would effectively stanch most major EPA initiatives; and Cruz would exclude greenhouse gasses from EPA regulation altogether. The senator from Texas summed up this reasoning in a June speech: “The Obama administration’s EPA has been unbelievably abusive and it is killing jobs across this country."

But repealing or scaling back EPA initiatives won't bring back lost coal jobs. A major reason coal has suffered under Obama can be chalked up to the free market Republicans like to celebrate. Natural gas and the clean-energy boom have applied pressure to the coal industry by driving down prices, and it's cost the industry the most in states where it's more expensive to mine for coal. That means central Appalachia has suffered greatly, losing two-thirds of its coal jobs as mining has shifted to cheaper production in the Midwest. (Obama's record on coal is hardly as harsh as conservative critics suggest; he too has come under criticism for subsidizing Midwest coal production by cheaply leasing public lands to coal companies.) 

5. Energy prices are not about to skyrocket.

Republicans foretell a coming doomsday for the American economy if regulations aren’t kept in check. “The Obama Administration would like Americans to believe in the inevitability of energy scarcity and ever-rising energy prices—the same failed mindset of the Jimmy Carter Administration," Jindal says in his plan. "Energy scarcity and skyrocketing energy prices result from failed public policy, not our unparalleled energy abundance.” Bush predicts that “Obama’s Carbon Rule will increase electricity prices for everyone and threaten the system’s reliability.” 

The fossil fuel industry has been warning of the same thing for decades. It has never once been correct. Even if you discount the health and economic benefits from less air pollution, the estimated costs of regulations usually turn out to be overstated. For example, after the coal industry warned of huge rate hikes following the federal acid rain program in the 1990s, electricity prices in many states actually declined.