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Climate Disruption, Conservative Values and the Politics of Neglect

Republican presidential candidates remain unwilling to confront climate change, even as it affects their own constituents.

People walk through the flooded aftermath of Hurricane Sandy on October 28, 2012, in Miami, Florida. Republican presidential candidates remain unwilling to confront climate change, even as it affects their own constituents. (Photo: meunierd /

Part of the Series

The 2016 presidential primary will be noted as a seminal event in the brief history of climate disruption: one in which the three leading contenders for the Republican nomination for president not only failed to seriously discuss the issue of climate change but also openly discounted its existence and mocked any attempt to consider policies that could reverse its deleterious impact on the planet. Donald Trump, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have clearly chosen to promote radical ideological beliefs at the expense of definitive scientific evidence, ignoring the immediate plight of millions of people around the world who have had their lives uprooted by destructive conditions associated with climate change.

It is clear from the scientific evidence that we are running out of time to reverse the effects of climate disruption. The year 2015 was the warmest year on record.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

The scientific consensus is definitive about anthropogenic global warming. The challenge now is in policy development: creating political agendas that focus on strategies to aid communities that have experienced the disruptive effects of climate change as an immediate objective, while continuing to mitigate the causes of global warming in the long term. The complex nature of climate change policy suggests that government will be the primary driver behind both agendas.

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s American Energy Renaissance Act would create an environmental dark age by opening federal land to oil and gas exploration.

As Naomi Klein has analyzed in her book, This Changes Everything, enhanced government involvement and regulatory measures are anathema to many conservatives. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s American Energy Renaissance Act (AERA), submitted to the Senate in March 2015, is a case in point. The bill would create an environmental dark age by opening federal land to oil and gas exploration; allow offshore oil drilling along the coastal plain of Alaska, on villages of Native Alaskan people; and allow states to regulate hydraulic fracturing. The AERA specifically states greenhouse gases should be exempt from Environmental Protection Agency regulation. Cruz argued in a NPR interview that the real issue concerning climate change is “liberal politicians who want government power over the economy, the energy sector and every aspect of our lives.” Turning climate science on its head, Cruz argued in the interview that “a number of scientists receiving large government grants – disregard the science and data and instead push political ideology.” Cruz has stated that if elected president, he will pull the United States out of the Paris climate accords.

In a similar vein, Sen. Marco Rubio’s energy plan stresses drilling, hydraulic fracturing and dismantling President Obama’s environmental policies. He admits that the climate is changing, but argued during an appearance on “Face the Nation,” “There’s never been a moment where the climate is not changing. The question is what percentage of that is due to human activity.” Like Cruz, Rubio stated in the second Republican debate, “We’re not going to destroy our economy the way the left-wing government that we are under now wants to do.” Rubio has concluded that government regulation will “not do a thing” to solve environmental problems associated with climate disruption.

Donald Trump has stated, “I’m not a believer in global warming. And I’m not a believer in man-made global warming.” In a December 2013 Twitter comment, Trump tweeted “Global warming is a total, and very expensive, hoax!” Shortly after President Obama addressed the Paris climate change delegates in December 2015, Trump remarked, “I think one of the dumbest statements I’ve ever heard in politics – in the history of politics as I know it which is pretty good, was Obama’s statement that our No. 1 problem is global warming.”

The three Republican candidates’ unwillingness to confront the realities of climate disruption is indefensible, given the glaringly disruptive effects global warming has had in many states they will visit during the campaign. For example, The New York Times reported a scientific study in February 2016 that found the “oceans are rising faster than at any point in the last 28 centuries and human emissions are primarily responsible.” The Times noted that “increasingly routine tidal flooding is making life miserable in Miami Beach; Charleston, SC; and Norfolk, VA. The tidal floods are becoming a strain in many towns killing lawns and trees, polluting fresh water supplies, blocking streets and stranding entire island communities for hours by covering the roads to the mainland.”

In Rubio’s home state of Florida, 15 South Florida mayors signed an open letter trying to persuade Rubio to change his opposition to addressing climate change. The mayors stressed, “Our cities and towns are already coping with the impacts of climate change.” They identified tidal flooding, increased frequency of severe storm surges and increased saltwater intrusion into aquifers as climate-related problems their communities are facing. The mayors emphasized the need for a “realistic national plan to slow global warming emissions.”

In Alaska, the melting of polar ice and glaciers, increasing storm intensity and coastal flooding has led to infrastructure damage, threatened safe water supplies in coastal villages and increased coastline erosion. The Iñupiat village of Kivalina; Newtok, a Yupik village, and several others in the Alaska Arctic are facing climate-induced relocation inland – a move that will severely alter their centuries-old subsistence culture.

In Texas, a 2014 National Climate Assessment report found the state was getting hotter, increasing the likelihood for droughts. Sea level rise and storm surges threatened low-lying communities along the Gulf Coast. These examples of the devastating impact of climate disruption are not some conspiratorial left-wing plot to destroy free markets or impose a socialist regulatory agenda on corporate America; they are documented evidence of the impact that climate change is currently having on communities throughout the United States. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the United States has sustained 188 weather and climatic disasters since 1980, with damage costs exceeding $1 billion. The NOAA estimates the total cost of these disasters exceeds $1 trillion.

The embrace of market fundamentalism by modern conservatives has led to a form of anti-intellectualism and ideological dogma that is no longer sustainable. Climate disruption has presented a dynamic dilemma for contemporary capitalism. The free market system has proven incapable of solving problems that have multidimensional causes and require cooperation on a global scale. The collective survival of humanity is antithetical to the profit motive that drives all capitalist endeavors. As Marco Rubio cynically intimates, if proposed solutions to climate disruption do not generate profits, why pursue them?

Societal adaptation to climate change will require a fundamental restructuring of the capitalist order. As such, restrictions on individual liberties deemed sacred to modern conservatives – limited government, voluntary compliance to public policy, the primacy of individual self-interest and profit as the essential motive of economic relations – will be necessary. Facing a problem so perilous that it will alter planetary stability and uproot millions of people around the world demands dynamic political leadership and government intervention that will mobilize citizens to act. The threat of climate disruption represents a historic moment in which the capacity for civic agency must be unleashed to ensure the planet’s survival. Unfortunately, instead of action, the Republican Party candidates offer denial, obstruction and cowardice in confronting one of humankind’s greatest challenges.

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