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The Threat of a GOP That Accepts Climate Change

The Republican Party could be ready to discard climate denial. But you might not like what comes next.


As the Trump administration rushes to tick off as many polluters’ wish-list items as possible before November, there are some quiet, if symbolic, changes afoot. On Monday, the American Petroleum Institute unveiled a new logo that, according to the oil and gas lobby’s Twitter account, “reflects the industry’s growth and showcases the modern, future-focused, collaborative, problem solving, and nonpartisan nature of our work.” (Instead of just red, it’s now red and blue—but mostly blue.) If this “nonpartisan” rebranding is any hint, America’s most powerful fossil fuel companies now think there’s a decent chance the administration that’s been so good to them will lose. What happens to the polluter-friendly GOP if it does?

The oil and gas industry makes 87 percent of its political donations to the Republican Party but, like all industries, is keen to hedge its bets. As of now, decades of continued fossil fuel production are still compatible with the more progressive plans coming out of the Democratic side. While they set timelines to phase out the consumption of fossil fuels stateside in some sectors, the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis report, the Sanders-Biden Unity Task Force recommendations, and Biden’s new climate plan are all fuzzy about when fossil fuel production will be phased out entirely. Clean energy and fossil fuels aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s even conceivable that, if Biden wins, his administration could offer a slightly tweaked version of Obama’s All of the Above energy strategy: boosting clean energy domestically while sending coal, oil, and gas out to the rest of the world.

Wanting to stay on a potential Democratic administration’s good side has prompted some strange doublespeak from industry leaders, who are eager for just such a reboot. API CEO Mike Sommers welcomed Biden’s plan this week. “You can’t address the risks of climate change without America’s natural gas and oil industry,” he wrote in a statement, “which continues to lead the world in emissions reductions while delivering affordable, reliable and cleaner energy to all Americans.” While lamenting the “activist groups obstructing development” of fossil fuel infrastructure, he pledged to “continue to work with members of both parties to advance real solutions to climate change that build on American energy leadership and protect the good-paying union jobs our industry supports in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania and across the country.”

Climate denial has always been a strange American export, born of corporate-funded anti-science revanchism and a powerful domestic fossil fuel industry that has effectively turned the Republican Party into its political arm. European fossil fuel companies like Shell and BP took a different approach: writing themselves into the clean energy future by offering token investments in no-carbon fuels as proof that they’ll be good-faith actors in building a low-carbon world. The past few years have seen signs that American companies are switching to this strategy. While API has traditionally been a mouthpiece for U.S. producers with less progressive messaging, it too now touts natural gas and its associated infrastructure as essential to some vaguely defined energy transition. It’s been years since ExxonMobil funded the kind of pure denial coming out of groups like the Heartland Institute, which are now reportedly struggling financially.

Greenwashing, rather than outright climate denial, is what one typically sees from the American oil industry these days. But the effects of its prior denial funding linger in the GOP, whose anti-science bluster may yet embarrass its corporate backers. Industry insiders have reportedly groaned about the Trump administration’s ham-fisted attempts to help the industry during the pandemic, trying to ramp up oil and gas production in the middle of a historic glut. Under a Democratic administration and a changing political attitude toward climate change, a GOP trying to act in the name of its favorite companies could be a political liability. In many ways, the conditions have never been better for a Republican rhetoric shift on climate change. Whether GOP politicians react to a Biden administration by pivoting away from climate denial en masse may depend on whether their fossil fuel donors can convince them to.

To many Democrats, the idea of a GOP that no longer denies the science of climate change might sound like welcome news. But what comes next?

GOP climate positions, historically, have swung wildly in response to changing political conditions. Just over a decade ago, Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich sat together on a couch talking about their shared commitment to “take action to address climate change,” setting out to “spark the innovation we need.” John McCain ran for president in 2008 on a cap-and-trade program, and Lindsay Graham supported a bill to do just that in 2009 before defecting dramatically. (Fossil fuel companies who’d backed the legislation and convinced green groups to let them weaken it to the point that it would have kneecapped the EPA also pulled out abruptly.) The internal logic isn’t hard to spot in hindsight: At the beginning of the Obama administration, climate legislation seemed inevitable, so Republicans and their donors in the fossil fuel industry came on board to make it as toothless as possible. Once it no longer seemed inevitable—lacking enthusiasm from the public and the White House both—they each withdrew their support, and Koch Industries–backed GOP insurgents found a more potent political strategy stoking ire against both cap-and-trade and the country’s first Black president through the Tea Party.

Ten years on, there are still a few members of the old guard of each party holding out hope for some mythical bipartisan compromise on climate through market-based solutions. Neither the Democratic nor the Republican politicians of this persuasion seem to have much sway in Washington or even over a Biden campaign that, under pressure from its left and amid a painful recession, has ditched the older establishment climate talk of carbon markets to focus on green jobs. Despite a number of nonstart bills introduced over the last year, the bipartisan, centrist Climate Solutions Caucus is a shell of its perennially useless self, its moderate Republican figurehead—Florida Congressman Carlos Curbelo—having lost his seat to a Democrat in 2018. If it was ever truly docked, the hope for a grand bargain on carbon pricing in the United States has long since sailed.

Several suggestions have been floated for what might replace it. John Kerry—a member of the Sanders-Biden unity task force on climate—is holding out hope for a slightly different kind of bipartisan unity with a project called World War Zero. The idea is to bring together military officials, retired politicians, and celebrities from both sides of the aisle in a bid to win over conservative skeptics through a series of talks, in part around the idea of the climate crisis being a national security threat. The Economist recently speculated that a post-climate-denial GOP, under the leadership of moderate Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, could embrace its century-old ideals about conservation and land stewardship. Anti-environmentalism isn’t so core to the GOP that it wouldn’t be up for negotiation in the event of Trump losing, especially as the oil and gas industry continues to shrink and other segments of big business embrace the good P.R. from appearing to be forward-thinking on climate.

But even if some kind of business-friendly climate action does emerge from a post-Trump Republican Party, there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t still involve support for polluters trying to find paths to a larger profit. Nor would a shift in messaging on climate cause the party to abandon its other overarching commitments. With its travel bans and hardened borders ready to halt refugees fleeing heat, drought, and disaster, the GOP is already writing a form of climate policy—even if it would never call it that. Should it start to openly embrace something like climate action, the party would almost certainly retain the racism and xenophobia that has animated it for decades, fusing them into green policies far from what progressive climate activists might hope for.

As countless analyses these past four years have argued, white supremacy is today a fundamental feature of the Republican Party—much more so than anti-environmentalism. Any post-Trump pivot on the latter will likely leave the former fully intact. Versions of this hellish fusion are already visible in parties abroad, where climate denial of the American sort has been marginal.

After its bizarre and mostly unsuccessful campaign against Greta Thunberg during last year’s European Parliament election, the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland might be pivoting from its flirtation with American-style denial toward “homeland protection.” In Europe, Marine Le Pen’s far right has embraced “localist” environmentalism, calling borders “the environment’s greatest ally” as climate became a top concern among the continent’s voters. Austria’s right-wing People’s Party this year formed a coalition government with the country’s Greens. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz called their deal a “break­through,” boasting that it “is pos­si­ble to slash taxes and make en­vi­ron­ment-friendly tax poli­cies. It is pos­si­ble to pro­tect the en­vi­ron­ment and pro­tect the bor­ders.” The groundwork is already laid for this sort of development in the U.S.: American environmentalism has long had deep and ugly ties to virulent anti-immigrant politics.

What all of this suggests is that, while bipartisan compromise on climate may be possible, it could also prove just as dangerous as the Republican denialism of old. It’s all too easy to imagine some new and cursed grand bargain between Democrats and a post-Trump GOP on climate. Having agreed that climate change is an urgent threat to national security, Congressional Democrats would win a loophole-filled national renewable portfolio standard in exchange for beefed-up border security. The Department of Energy would continue to support U.S. fossil fuel producers to provide so-called energy security to Eastern Europe through natural gas exports, all the while running climate-resilient military bases fully on renewable energy. A lucrative government procurement contract would pay Elon Musk to start making electric tanks, as Tucker Carlson runs nightly segments that a do-nothing Biden administration isn’t doing enough to stop hordes of climate refugees from flooding into the American Heartland. Possibilities abound.

There’s no guarantee that Joe Biden wins in November. But as industries and politicians start to imagine what a so-called “normal” presidency might look like after Trump, and pundits start to imagine a more enlightened climate debate, there’s cause for caution. Given the urgency of the threat posed by climate change, it’s understandable to see any possibility of bipartisan legislation as a reason to celebrate. But those rooting for a post-denial Republican Party should be careful what they wish for.