How Did Fighting Climate Change Become a Partisan Issue?

In January, 2000, during the run-up to the New Hampshire primaries, Presidential candidates in the Granite State were confronted by a young man—a recent Dartmouth graduate—wearing a red cape, orange long johns, and yellow-painted galoshes. He called himself Captain Climate, and asked any candidate within shouting distance, “What’s your plan?” All the candidates ignored him, except one.

That candidate was John McCain, then the senior United States senator from Arizona. McCain went on to win New Hampshire’s Republican primary and then to lose the nomination to George W. Bush. He had been troubled enough by the shouted question that he returned to Washington that spring and held a series of hearings on climate change. At the first hearing, he apologized for not having a plan to deal with the problem, but said that everyone—especially policymakers—should be “concerned about mounting evidence.” “I had a genuine sense that he wanted to know the best information,” Kevin Trenberth, a scientist from the National Center for Atmospheric Research who testified at one of the hearings, later recalled.

McCain then did come up with a plan. With Senator Joseph Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, he introduced a bill to impose an economy-wide limit on carbon-dioxide emissions. The Climate Stewardship Act, as it became known, was modelled on legislation that had been approved a decade earlier, under President George H. W. Bush, which had used a so-called cap-and-trade program to curb the emissions that cause acid rain. In 2003, McCain managed to force a floor vote on the bill, over the objections of Senate leaders. It failed, even though McCain and five other Republicans voted for it. Ten Democrats voted against it. (Joe Biden, then a senator from Delaware, was a “yea.”) McCain said, “We’ve lost a big battle today, but we’ll win over time, because climate change is real.”

Last week, the Senate finally approved a bill that aims to limit carbon emissions—the Inflation Reduction Act. It has been called “the most important climate action in U.S. history,” which is certainly true; the act provides more than three hundred and fifty billion dollars—mostly in the form of tax credits—to promote clean energy. This time, the vote was strictly along party lines: all fifty Democrats voted for it, all fifty Republicans against it. (Vice-President Kamala Harris cast the tie-breaking vote.) On Friday, the House passed the bill, also with no Republican votes. These days, it seems practically every vote in Congress is along party lines, so the votes on the I.R.A. weren’t considered surprising. But they should have been.

As a problem, climate change is as bipartisan as it gets: it will have equally devastating effects in red states as in blue. Last week, even as Kentucky’s two Republican senators—Rand Paul and the Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell—were voting against the I.R.A., rescuers in their state were searching for the victims of catastrophic floods caused by climate-change-supercharged rain. Meanwhile, most of Texas, whose two G.O.P. senators—Ted Cruz and John Cornyn—also voted against the bill, was suffering under “extreme” or “exceptional” drought.

How did caring about a drowned or desiccated future come to be a partisan issue? Perhaps the simplest answer is money. A report put out two years ago by the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis noted, “In the 2000s, several bipartisan climate bills were circulating in the Senate.” Then, in 2010, the Supreme Court, in the Citizens United decision, ruled that corporations and wealthy donors could, effectively, pour unlimited amounts of cash into electioneering. Fossil-fuel companies quickly figured out how to funnel money through front groups, which used it to reward the industry’s friends and to punish its enemies. After Citizens United, according to the report, “bipartisan activity on comprehensive climate legislation collapsed.”

When it comes to direct contributions, the top recipient of fossil-fuel money in Congress this election cycle has been Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia. Manchin killed off earlier iterations of the climate bill, and inserted into this version most of its worst provisions, including a mandate that the federal government auction millions of acres for oil and gas drilling. Among the top twenty recipients of oil and gas money are three other Democrats: Senator Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona, and Representatives Henry Cuellar and Lizzie Fletcher, of Texas. The rest are Republicans.

Even money, though, seems an insufficient explanation. The G.O.P.’s opposition to action on climate change has transcended crass calculation to become an article of faith. Several red states, including Texas and Louisiana, have taken steps to penalize financial firms that say they are reducing their investments in fossil fuels, even though these steps are likely to cost the states’ taxpayers money. As the I.R.A. was headed toward a vote, the Wall Street Journal reported that congressional Republicans were pressuring fossil-fuel companies to take a stronger stand against the bill. G.O.P. lawmakers, according to the Journal, had “become frustrated” by the oil companies’ support for some measures to combat climate change, and so they took to lobbying the lobbyists.

The I.R.A. has many flaws. Though it’s been widely reported that, by 2030, it will reduce the U.S.’s emissions by forty per cent compared with their levels in 2005, most of this projected reduction is attributable to other developments, including the fact that many power plants have already switched from coal to lower-emitting natural gas. But one of the bill’s many benefits is that it could finally break the partisan logjam. Today, roughly five hundred thousand Americans work in the petroleum industry, and another two hundred thousand work in the natural-gas sector. This represents a significant constituency for maintaining the fossil-fuel-powered status quo. If the I.R.A. functions as hoped, however, it will create hundreds of thousands of jobs in clean energy and, with them, a growing constituency for climate action. Among the bill’s provisions is a ten-per-cent “bonus” tax credit for companies that situate clean-energy projects in communities where coal-fired plants have been shuttered, or where a lot of people now work extracting oil or gas.

Perhaps when the next climate bill comes up for a vote, lawmakers from West Virginia, Kentucky, and Texas, whatever party they hail from, will be leading the charge. And let us hope that there is another bill, because, as was already clear twenty years ago, climate change is real. ♦

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