For years, Republicans have been doing whatever they can to prevent the US from fighting climate change. This has led many progressives—and some Democrats—to conclude that working with them is not only a waste of effort, but a dangerous distraction when there’s so little time left to drastically cut global emissions.
The bad news is they probably don’t have a choice—they need the GOP’s help to work quickly. The United Nations has calculated based on reams of scientific evidence that without aggressive global progress by 2030 on lowering emissions, it will be virtually impossible to keep New York above water, prevent California from burning to a crisp, or lower the odds that Florida is flattened by a Category 5 hurricane. And even in the best-case scenario for Democrats—a sweep of the White House, Senate, and House in 2020—they’d likely still need at least a few Republicans to surmount the 60-vote threshold for new legislation and enact a plan to shift the US economy off of fossil fuels.
“You have to find ways to work together,” said Heather Hurlburt, a director at the think tank New America.
Working together means overcoming a set of obstacles identified by experts from across the political spectrum. These factors blocking good-faith negotiations between Democrats and Republicans include: Donald Trump, the fossil fuel industry, Fox News, distrust from progressives, and a moribund rightwing climate movement.
The good news is there are a handful of Republicans willing to confront the party establishment. “I mean, we can believe the climate deniers or we can believe our eyes,” far-right Florida congressman Matt Gaetz told VICE in March before unveiling legislation called the Green Real Deal. For now, no Republican proposal comes anywhere close to the ambition called for by an increasingly terrifying body of climate science indicating that humanity needs to decarbonize as quickly as possible. And the party’s record doesn’t encourage much hope.
Nonetheless, the barriers to enacting federal climate legislation may be less insurmountable than they currently seem, at least in theory. Let’s go through them.
Obstacle 1: Donald Trump
Even by rock-bottom Republican standards, Trump is the worst of the worst on climate. With widespread GOP support, Trump pulled the US out of the Paris climate treaty and enacted a wishlist of policies proposed by fossil fuel billionaires. The Trump-led right has also mocked proposals from Democrats, most recently decrying the Green New Deal as a socialist conspiracy to outlaw hamburgers.
One of Trump’s advisors, William Happer, founded a group called the CO2 Coalition, which claims stories about global warming are “mostly myths designed to terrify people into accepting harmful policies that allegedly ‘save the planet.’” At an oil industry conference in March, executives laughed and applauded when hearing about the access they have to the Trump administration.
Beyond Trump’s industry-friendly approach, his extreme statements on issues like immigration, white supremacists, and abortions, combined with his ongoing support from the GOP establishment, makes it difficult for many climate organizations to associate with Republicans.
“You absolutely do talk to progressive groups and organizers who say, ‘I don’t really care what [Republicans] say about climate because of their position on X issue. I can’t work with them,’” Hurlburt said.
Trump also discourages corporate leaders from advocating for progress—either through personal attacks against anyone who criticizes him, or his insistence that multinational corporations aren’t true allies to conservatives.
The corporate sector was already a shaky partner for climate action, advocating publicly for sustainability but applying little of the behind-the-scenes pressure necessary to actually make change. With Trump as president, the prospect of corporations leveraging their financial and political might for climate progress is unlikelier still. “No CEO wants to see his stock price get in Trump’s crosshairs on Twitter,” Hurlburt said.
Congressman Gaetz argues Trump is a disruptor who thrives on defying political expectations, and this makes him potentially amenable to climate action. “If we're able to put together some ideas that don't harm the American economy, but that jumpstart some real solutions around climate change, I’d be hopeful that I'm able to get an audience with the president on those ideas,” Gaetz said.
The consensus among climate advocates, however, is that no meaningful progress can come with Trump in power. Voting him out in 2020 is an absolute prerequisite.
Obstacle 2: The Fossil Fuel Industry
The vast sums of money pumped into Washington by oil, gas, and coal companies is not evenly distributed. Of 2018’s roughly $84.4 million in fossil fuel contributions, 87 percent went to Republicans. Koch Industries topped the list, giving $10.5 million. A donor network led by Charles and David Koch claimed in a memo obtained by the Intercept, “we have seen progress on many regulatory priorities,” including Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris treaty and efforts to repeal the EPA Clean Power Plan.
During Senate hearings over the Green New Deal, the 12 Democrats who sponsored the resolution have gotten about $1.1 million in combined fossil fuel contributions during their time in Congress, while the 88 senators who didn’t support it (most of them Republicans) accepted nearly $59 million.
“A lot of the Republicans who spoke most powerfully against the Green New Deal, or who had the most animated floor speeches, we’re talking about folks who take in [millions of] dollars from fossil fuel companies,” said Rhiana Gunn-Wright, a policy researcher at the think tank New Consensus, which helped draft the Green New Deal proposal from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “That’s a structural barrier.”
Yet “all that is starting to change” according to Carlos Curbelo. The former Republican congressman from Florida, who co-founded the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus and lost his seat in the 2018 midterms, pointed to companies like Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhillips now “publicly and openly advocating for a carbon tax.”
“Industry knows the path we’re on is not sustainable and they want policies that give them long-term certainty and allow them to make the investments necessary to accelerate the clean energy revolution,” he explained.
Another factor for oil companies, which have spent decades blocking and dismantling legislation and denying climate change exists, is that they’re now worried about being sued. Exxon’s support for carbon pricing is contingent on being shielded from lawsuits holding the company liable for the chaos and destruction of climate change—as well as future regulations forcing it to lower emissions.
Climate activist and author Bill McKibben argued this month in the New Yorker that a modest carbon tax does far too little to address the crisis. But the merits of that policy aside, oil majors are clearly feeling increasingly vulnerable—partly due to competition from cleaner forms of energy. The best path forward, McKibben believes, is to rebuff these opening offers from the fossil fuel industry and keep the pressure for federal legislation growing.
Obstacle 3: Fox News
When the actual policy outcomes of the Green New Deal—new jobs, clean energy, safe drinking water—are presented to Americans without partisan framing, they seem to garner high levels of support across the political spectrum. But months of Fox News anchors claiming the resolution is a Trojan horse to impose socialism have shifted the debate. About 80 percent of Republicans—and 91 percent of Fox viewers—now strongly oppose the Green New Deal, according to a recent poll.
“Fox News is a 24/7 propaganda machine, they can keep talking about the same topics, the same talking points,” said Gunn-Wright. “That is not a function we have when it comes to something like the Green New Deal.”
But that cable news–driven opposition doesn’t mean that the entire GOP is full of climate denialists. “You wouldn’t know it from public statements, but there are far more Republicans in private who are concerned about climate change than are saying so in front of cameras,” said Jerry Taylor, president of the Niskanen Center and a former climate denier. “And they would like to act because they didn’t come to congress just to watch the future of their grandchildren burn.”
Taylor argues we shouldn’t read too much into Fox News’s influence. “There are some Republicans who already do buck right wing media and live to tell the tale,” he said. Florida Congressman Francis Rooney, for example, is a pro-Trump Republican who supports a carbon tax and wants to phase out coal.
Conservatives like that are for a now a relatively quiet minority. But if enough of them began picking fights with the GOP establishment over climate change, it might shift how rightwing outlets cover the issue and soften their strident opposition to action. “It has to be contested within the Republican Party—loudly and visibly enough that an organization like Fox News is actually showing two sides of the debate,” Hurlburt said.
Obstacle 4: Wary progressives
During Barack Obama’s first term, climate groups and Democrats reached out to Republicans and polluting industries, and even evangelical leaders, to support a system that would require some industries to buy emissions permits. But when the cap-and-trade bill came before the Senate, fossil fuel industry lobbyists went on the attack, Republicans like Lindsay Graham flipped, centrist Democrats wavered, and in 2010 the bill went down in flames.
“On the left that kind of left a bad taste and a lot of anger and the feeling of, We’re never going to be able to work with these folks we’re just going to have to beat them,” Hurlburt said.
The Green New Deal—which in addition to trillions in green infrastructure investment proposes universal healthcare and a federal jobs guarantee—is the clearest distillation yet of this logic. Instead of seeking to please Republican leaders—or even moderate Democrats—the unabashedly progressive resolution is aimed at Americans for whom health, jobs and the environment are primary concerns.
“We are trying to think about who could become a climate voter and recognize that the folks who can be activated around climate, and are activated, are a way larger pool than most people consider,” Gunn-Wright said.
Taylor, who wrote a long essay criticizing this theory of change, said if a Democrat takes the White House in 2020 promising a Green New Deal it would be virtually impossible to follow through on that promise. “No Republican is going to sign on to anything remotely like that,” he said. “There’s no place for conversation or compromise, any of the positive movement in the GOP [on climate] is not going to come to anything.”
But the salience of the Green New Deal as a 2020 campaign issue may actually give more Republicans permission to speak openly about fighting climate change.
“The dynamic this has created is that Republicans get asked about the Green New Deal, they reflexively oppose it, as I do, and then they’re asked what their plan is,” Curbelo said. “And that’s where the growth can take place. That’s where the opportunity is to arrive at that bipartisan compromise.”
Obstacle 5: Weak right-wing support
The conservative climate movement is not taken very seriously in Washington. It consists mostly of a handful of obscure think tanks and grassroots groups that lack the funding or influence to run ad campaigns, commission polling, meet with key members of Congress, or develop substantive policy. “This community doesn’t have the resources or connections to do any of that,” Hurlburt said.
It also faces the problem of engaging on an issue whose solutions—nearly all of which require government intervention in the economy and collective action—are anathema to values most conservatives say they adhere to.
Republicans like Gaetz attempt to resolve this tension by pushing forward climate plans that rely on federal research and development in carbon capture technology, nuclear power, renewables, and smart grids—and avoid discussions of mandating emissions cuts. “I don't think that America’s regulations will proliferate around the globe as fast as our innovations will,” he said.
With zero in the way of carbon targets or fossil fuel reductions, plans like Gaetz’s Green Real Deal don’t have much credibility among climate hawks. But a focus on business and technology, which is the approach favored by most conservative climate groups, is not totally misguided. Some of the fastest progress on climate change is currently being driven by the renewables industry.
Solar and wind technology has improved so much over recent years that it’s now cheaper in most areas of the US than coal. These rapidly shifting economics have made it feasible for states like Washington, New Mexico, and Maryland to recently pass bills moving them towards 100 percent clean energy.
It’s possible enough states commit to aggressive action that “Republican members of Congress start hearing from their core local business constituents, Hey would you please do this at the federal level, because we have one set of rules in New Mexico and another set in Arizona and another set in California and it’s killing us,” Hurlburt said.
In this scenario, the president—let’s say a Democrat whose election was due to millions of new voters passionate about climate—would begin meeting with Democratic and Republican leaders about federal action. Oil and gas companies, desperate to preserve their business model, agree to call off their lobbyists. Sensing the changing winds, Republicans go on Fox News to shit-talk climate deniers and argue about how great climate legislation will be for the US economy. Meanwhile, thousands of Green New Deal activists push for provisions protecting low-income people and communities of color. The bill that’s eventually passed is a bit clunky and unwieldy—it fits no one’s ideal perfectly—but it does pass.
Imagining this future requires taking several leaps of logic and predicting a sea change in climate politics—and even then, we’re talking about an imperfect compromise. But with the world getting warmer and more dangerous every day, it’s a whole lot better than nothing.
Geoff Dembicki is the author of Are We Screwed? How a New Generation Is Fighting to Survive Climate Change. Follow him on Twitter.