Which Will Melt First—GOP's Climate Denial, or the Polar Ice Caps? | Opinion

The chimney stacks of the Capitol Power Plant, a natural gas and coal burning power plant that provides steam and chilled water for heating and cooling of the US Capitol and surrounding buildings, is seen near the US Capitol in Washington, DC, August 22, 2018. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Mitch McConnell certainly intended to use this week's Senate vote on the "Green New Deal" (GND) to drive a rift between the Democratic Party's climate hawks and doves. Instead, all it did was expose the real rift within the Republican Party; between those who acknowledge the reality of climate change and those still trapped in the mental prison of denial.

Unfortunately, most of those on the right who are finally acknowledging that human activity is behind climate change are only offering lip service solutions.

The shift from denial to delay has been a long time coming, but seems to be here. Which makes sense, as it's getting harder and harder to ignore the impacts of climate change. Fortunately, with the meteoric rise of the GND, which poses an ideological threat to many conservatives, Republicans are finally starting to bring their own proposals to the table.

While there are still those, like Sen. Mike Lee who advanced the silliest of bad faith arguments (that the solution is having more babies and waiting for them to solve the problem,) there are others who have begun to acknowledge that we need to do something about climate change.

As GND spearhead Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez explained in an instantly-viral clip, caring about climate change is a matter of caring for regular Americans across the country. Though some still trot out the old denialist talking point that environmentalism is a hobby for the Davos-going elites, it's all of us, but especially the poor and most vulnerable who are the hardest hit.

The people of Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida, who were hit by a string of hurricanes made worse by global warming last year. The folks in Paradise California who literally lost their entire town in one of the worst wildfires in history. The children in inner cities who choke on exhaust and struggle with asthma attacks inflamed by the effects of warming. The agricultural workers sweating in the summer heat that's only getting hotter, and increasing their risk of heat stroke as they harvest our meals. They aren't making big bucks; but you know who is? The fossil fuel industry.

For decades, fossil fuel money has kept Republicans from taking a sane position on climate change. And it still is—senators who voted "no" to the GND resolution have received over 11 times more money from the fossil fuel industry than those who voted "present." Those who voted against the resolution have received an incredible $55 million in contributions from the fossil fuel industry over their career, according to Center for Responsive Politics. And it's obvious what that money is buying.

It continues to fund a rearguard attack, denial and delay, like Sen. Lee's circus sideshow the other day. But it's also buying a piece of the GOP's proposed climate policies. During Tuesday's debate, for example, Republican Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee bent over backwards to explain that their opposition to the GND wasn't opposition to climate action in general. Yet their solutions were hardly sufficient.

So while a growing number of Republicans are coming around on investments in renewables—which is definitely a step in the right direction—the fossil fuel money lining the pockets of many Republican lawmakers has them twisting themselves into knots to explain how we can both try to reduce carbon emissions while also continuing to develop coal and natural gas; all the while pretending that expensive, difficult-to-scale and, at least currently, economically unviable technologies such as carbon capture could possibly make an adequate dent.

The litmus test for serious climate policy is easy: Any proposal that doesn't move us off of fossil fuels isn't a solution at all.

It doesn't have to be this way. Republicans don't have to be the party of fossil fools. I know this is true, because not all that long ago, Republicans were still willing to rise and defend climate science.

Back in 2005, for example, Republicans such as Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, the chair of the House Science Committee, and Sen. John McCain defended my co-authors and me from attacks by "Smokey" Joe Barton. There's no reason in principle for science to be partisan.

It's not impossible, then, to imagine a GOP that genuinely cares about climate change. But before that transition will happen, we need to make them care more about their constituents than their fossil fuel campaign contributions.

Denial only works for so long. When the ocean levels rise up to meet your doorstep, or fires consume your town, or drought or floods destroy your crops, denial is no longer a luxury you can afford. Unless, of course, the fossil fuel industry pays you for it.

Fortunately, it seems that GOP climate denial may be starting to thaw, as they evolve from a party of outright denial to one that at least pays lip service to solutions. The only question is which will melt first, Republican denial and delay, or the polar ice caps?

Michael E. Mann is Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Pennsylvania State University. His most recent book, with Tom Toles, is The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy (Columbia University Press, 2016).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.