The Right's Road to Nowhere on Climate
Our plans and projects are going to be disrupted more and more often by weather-related disasters. Will Republicans even attempt a response?
When we planned an ambitious family vacation out west nearly a year ago—our first since before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic—it seemed like we were being smart. The summer of 2021 in Montana was hot and filled with fires that left the air thick with smoke in many places by early July. So we would visit early, in the second half of June 2022, when the high country of Glacier National Park is often wetter than a month later. We’d deal with the cold and dampness in return for diminished risk of fire and then close out our visit with a few days at Yellowstone National Park, a first for our nearly grown kids.
Scuttled Plans and Projects
Things didn’t quite turn out as we hoped. Unlike last year, this has been an incredibly wet and cold spring in the Montana mountains. Glacier NP received three feet of snow earlier this month, slowing down the always-colossal task of clearing Going-to-the-Sun Road, which was nowhere near open for our visit this week. But at least we’ve been able to do some very chilly hiking and rafting on the park’s perimeter.
The same can’t be said for Yellowstone NP, which, as you may have heard, was slammed with torrential floods early last week that shut down the park entirely, washing away multiple roads and burying others under mudslides and downed trees in the northern half of the park, and shutting down the north entrance for what could be years. Entrances at the southern end of the park are scheduled to open Wednesday, with restrictions designed to limit traffic in the hobbled park, but they are roughly a five-hour drive away from where we are staying. So the kids won’t get to see Old Faithful, the astonishing wildlife, and the park’s other spectacular sights, at least not on this trip.
Which is disappointing but obviously not a catastrophe. In Montana there is natural beauty everywhere you look. We will have no trouble finding alternative things to do. And anyway, as my father has always said (with a touch of hard-earned cynicism), “Man plans, fate laughs.” There’s no controlling the weather. Some fire seasons are worse than others. There can be June blizzards in Glacier National Park. You never know when a stretch of heavy rain will wash out roads built through wilderness along rushing western rivers. It happens. That’s life.
Yet there’s also a way in which my family’s experience this past week has given us a personal glimpse of a reality that awaits all of us. We tried to plan an excursion in response to last summer’s miniature environmental calamity (fires) only to have our expectations scuttled by a different miniature environmental calamity (floods). That’s our future—trying to go about our lives in the world as normally as we can while our plans and projects are ever-more-frequently upended by ever-more severe thunderstorms, hurricanes, typhoons, blizzards, tornadoes, heat waves, freezes, fires, floods, droughts, and famines.
That’s a more realistic assessment of our common future than what we hear from those who fret about an apocalypse poised to render the Earth uninhabitable for human beings. We aren’t about to be wiped out. We’re about to be forced to live with greater weather-related uncertainty, unpredictability, and extremes (along with their unhappy human consequences) than any of us are accustomed to.
Are we ready for it? I’m honestly not sure. But what really inspires head-scratching is contemplating how the right will respond to it all.
A Preference for Trolling and Reaction
Parties and politicians of the center-left and left are clear and consistent: They think the government has a crucial role to play in addressing the problem. We need regulations to force cuts in emissions that are bound to make climate change worse. We need to tax fossil fuels to force a rapid transition to clean and renewable energy sources, which should be heavily subsidized by the public sector. We should build sea walls to protect coastlines and discourage development in flood-prone areas. And so forth—all to try and slow down the global temperature rise and forestall the worst consequences of warming.
What about the right? Less than two decades ago, plenty of conservative policy wonks, while often downplaying the threat of climate change, had ideas about how to address it, through carbon taxes and other efforts at nudging civil society and the market in a more environmentally friendly direction.
But that now seems like ancient history. The Trump administration’s number one environmental priority seemed to be trolling the left by reversing Obama administration regulations, breaking promises to cut emissions, and tripling down on fossil fuel extraction. What was once an in-your-face populist provocation associated with Sarah Palin—“Drill, Baby, Drill!”—has become the Republican Party’s sole contribution to thinking about the environmental future. Which means it isn’t thinking about the environmental future at all.
So, for a moment, let’s imagine the Democratic nightmare. Well, maybe not the Democratic nightmare, which involves Trump and a scenario in which democracy itself is overturned, but a bad one nonetheless: The Republican Party wins control of both houses of Congress in 2022 and then Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis takes the White House in 2024 with a 60-plus-seat majority in the Senate, giving the GOP complete control of the federal government with comfortable margins.
Unlike the Trump administration, which was led by a real-estate mogul and reality-show star who knew and cared nothing at all about most aspects of public policy, the DeSantis administration would be staffed by people from the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Claremont Institute, the Manhattan Institute, American Affairs, and even an Ivy League faculty member or two.
What would this smarter and more knowledgeable band of populist conservatives do to respond to climate change? I honestly have no idea at all—and kind of assume they’ll do nothing beyond reacting to climate-related disasters when they happen, as they are bound to, more and more frequently. Keep drilling. Keep working to make it easier and cheaper for people to buy and drive gasoline-powered cars. Allow business to do what it wants without concern for environmental consequences. And then clean up after the floods and fires and storms that wipe out communities from sea to shining sea.
In a nutshell: Do nothing to prevent the worst from happening, and then react when it does, and then react again, and again, ad infinitum.
Am I wrong about this? Is anyone on the right writing anything about climate change, its consequences, and how our country, civilization, and yes, government should prepare for and at least try to slow it down? And even if there is someone whose work does this, would a DeSantis administration dare to hire and listen to him or her?
I doubt it very much. And that means that, in addition to confronting a painful environmental future, our country is confronting a possible political future in which we’ve resigned ourselves to absorbing blow after blow from worsening natural disasters as if doing so is just the unavoidable, inevitably rising cost of living and doing business on our planet.
That’s certain one way to respond to climate change—by not responding at all. Until recently, I assumed we could do better than that. But maybe I was wrong.
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