The GOP's policy on climate change is moving much more slowly than the thermometer

This June was the warmest June on record, both globally and nationally. The previous global and national records were set back in June 2015, a time period so distant that Donald Trump wasn’t even a candidate for president (for part of the month). June isn’t the only month to set a record. May was also the warmest May, April the warmest April, March the warmest March, February the warmest February, and January the warmest January. 2015 was the warmest year on record, globally, breaking the record set back in 2014. 2016 is poised to break the annual record set six-plus months ago.

And this is what Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said about temperatures during a Washington Post event on Tuesday.

Congress, when Rep. Nancy Pelosi was the Speaker, had a select committee to investigate global warming — and then they decided they would make it “climate change.” Because the Earth is no longer warming, and has not for about the past 13 years. It has begun to cool.

It bears noting that the rhetorical conversion from “global warming” to “climate change” was not a function of House Democrats worrying that a cooling planet ruined the term. The change was proposed to Republicans in 2003 by conservative pollster Frank Luntz, because the environment was “the single issue on which Republicans in general — and President Bush in particular — are most vulnerable.”

It probably doesn’t even bear noting the idea that the Earth hasn’t warmed for 13 years is inaccurate, derived from a bit of rhetoric that relied on a willing misrepresentation of data from several years ago. It certainly doesn’t bear noting that the Earth is cooling, an argument that defies explanation. Global temperatures don’t increase steadily, so perhaps Blackburn is seizing on some individual year being slightly less hot than the year prior to make her case? If so, she must be thinking of 2011, the last time a year wasn’t hotter than the one prior (since 2010 was the third-hottest on record).

What Blackburn was really doing, though, wasn’t debating science. It was adhering to her party’s line in a notably awkward fashion.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.) addressed the Republican convention in Cleveland on Tuesday and did a much better job of it. Burning of coal, like that mined in her state, has been one of the primary contributors to the accumulation of heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere, creating the greenhouse effect that scientists link to increased temperatures. But mining that coal means jobs — not only for miners but for “the bus driver who drives the miners’ children to school,” as Capito put it, and “the nurse who cares for the retired miners.” That’s the tension at the heart of addressing climate change: Shifting the economy necessarily means a loss of employment somewhere, and no politician wants to see it in their own back yard.

Hillary Clinton’s declaration during a town-hall meeting in March that “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” was music to the ears of people advocating for addressing climate change. To many voters in West Virginia, though, it was a death sentence for their livelihoods. Even though Clinton modified her comments as she spoke, it was the “out of business” that stuck — and that was cited by Capito on Tuesday. Clinton lost the Democratic primary in West Virginia by 15 points.

New York’s Jonathan Chait notes that the Republican Party has continued to move further away from a position on climate change in line with the scientific consensus.

The 2008 party platform balanced the economic concerns Capito notes with recognition that carbon dioxide pollution exacerbates the negative effects of climate change.

The same human economic activity that has brought freedom and opportunity to billions has also increased the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. While the scope and long-term consequences of this are the subject of ongoing scientific research, common sense dictates that the United States should take measured and reasonable steps today to reduce any impact on the environment.

The 2016 platform doesn’t.

Information concerning a changing climate, especially projections into the long-range future, must be based on dispassionate analysis of hard data. We will enforce that standard throughout the executive branch, among civil servants and presidential appointees alike. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a political mechanism, not an unbiased scientific institution. Its unreliability is reflected in its intolerance toward scientists and others who dissent from its orthodoxy. We will evaluate its recommendations accordingly.

The IPCC leverages the work of thousands of scientists across the globe for its regular analysis of the changing climate. It is political largely in that it offers a more conservative assessment of the negative effects of climate change in the eyes of many scientists, with the apparent goal of not seeming unduly alarmist.

Why the Republican walk-back over the past eight years? Because partisanship on the subject has hardened. In April, Gallup asked Americans why they thought March was the warmest March on record. Among Democrats, 72 percent pointed to climate change. Most Americans agree that climate change is real, as FiveThirtyEight noted last year, but far more Democrats say that than Republicans. When members of the two parties were asked about policy priorities by Gallup, no single issue saw a bigger gap in urgency than climate change.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) also spoke at the convention. His state produces a lot of oil — another fossil fuel that produces carbon dioxide when consumed. “We will put coal miners and oil drillers back to work, not target them for extinction as Hillary promised,” he promised. His state, meanwhile, is literally thawing after a record-hot spring. One remote town had to be moved due to rising ocean levels.

Warm temperatures, even for months or a few years in a row, don’t by themselves prove that climate change is happening. Scientists point to a wide range of evidence that it is, however, and note ways in which their predictions for what would happen as the atmosphere warms up are reinforced by what’s actually happening. But American politics — even presidential campaigns — move faster than long-term climate trends, allowing the issue of climate change to splinter in a number of different ways depending on who’s asking.

Four years ago, Mitt Romney joked about President Obama’s call to address the environment during his acceptance speech. The party platform from that year mentioned climate change only once, putting the term in scare quotes. Since then, even with each individual intervening year being hotter than the last, the party hasn’t moved toward a fuller embrace of addressing the issue. If anything, it’s moved in the opposite direction.

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