Guests:

David Gergen, Professor of Public Service and Founding Director, Center for Public Leadership, Harvard Kennedy School

Marianne Lavelle, Reporter, InsideClimate News

Lori Weigel, Partner, Public Opinion Strategies

What does a former advisor to Richard Nixon think about the climate crisis?

“This is turning out exactly the way scientists predicted, with one exception: it’s happening faster than they thought,” says political analyst David Gergen, who served in four presidential administrations. “The question is what can we do rapidly that would alleviate this and be fair to all.”

Gergen is in favor of urgent acting on climate, but is skeptical of the all-encompassing vision of the Green New Deal. “The last thing we need is another fight that leads to a big environmental bill that the minority won't vote for,” he says referencing the Affordable Care Act, “and it's only voted for by the majority, and then the minority spends the next five years trying to undo it.”

At a minimum, Gergen believes Republicans would be in favor of getting the U.S. back into the Paris Accord and setting a reasonable price on carbon. So what keeps Republican lawmakers from signing on to meaningful climate legislation?

“You have to think that the Republican Party takes a contrary view in part because of the money [from the fossil fuel industry],” he laments. As someone who grew up in tobacco country and lost his father to cancer, Gergen can’t help but see the parallels between that industry and oil companies.

“The science… may not be 100% correct and maybe it's only 95% correct,” he says, “but whatever the number is we should have an insurance policy to protect our kids and our grandkids. I mean it’s just, that’s just obvious common sense.”

That common sense, as more and more voters experience more frequent extreme weather, is serving to move the climate debate forward in Washington. “There’s a lot of signs that voters, you know, they may not completely agree with the Green New Deal,” says Marianne Lavelle, a reporter with InsideClimate News, “but they’re not very happy with having politicians who are just not paying attention to climate and just not doing anything.”

Lavelle credits the proponents of the Green New Deal for the new momentum, though they are not necessarily following a radical new playbook. “The principle that really motivates the backers of the Green New Deal is considering climate change as an economic policy, not just an environmental policy,” she explains, adding that the U.S. had already signed on to an environmental and economic framework for addressing climate change at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

As an climate journalist, Lavelle is especially pleased to see Republicans no longer – or at least not as full-throatedly – denying climate change, even proposing solutions, however modest. “This is the thing that we have tried to get across in our coverage,” she says. “For so many years the discussion was stuck on is climate change happening or not and that is not going to be a productive discussion. But a debate on which approach would be better... is a discussion that could become productive.”

Ultimately it is Republican voters who are pushing their legislators to act, since many of them, especially in western states, find their views on energy and conservation at odds with the current administration’s environmental policies.

“The vast majority of Western voters say we need to make sure that we protect [public lands] for all Americans,” notes Lori Weigel, a GOP pollster. “It shouldn't be something where economic value or resource extraction is taking priority over the uses that we’re most familiar with.”

Republican support for immediate action on climate, framed in those terms, has barely moved in the last 20 years. But, Weigel says, “if you broaden your language and talk about should we be transitioning to cleaner energy, should we be taking some sorts of actions, then you get far more Republicans, especially Republican women, especially younger Republicans to say yes – yes, we ought to be doing something.”

“When we talk about clean energy, when we talk about solar and wind and being more energy-efficient, honestly, we see very little partisan distinction on those things.”

Related links:

InsideClimate News

Public Opinion Strategies

Center for Public Leadership, Harvard Kennedy School