How to make the Republican Party care about climate change? One lawmaker thinks the topic needs a gay rights-style makeover.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, said he believes climate change needs to “line up” behind gay rights and immigration reform as a topic that cannot be ignored.
“It’s our task to make sure that climate change lines up right behind immigration and gay rights as an issue where the Republicans see that if they stick with this, they’re going to run off the cliff like lemmings.”
Ignoring that lemmings don’t actually run off cliffs, though they do migrate with sometimes lethal abandon, the mainstream scientific consensus is that climate change is happening, will be incredibly harmful to life as we know it, and that multifaceted action, from reducing our dependence on fossil fuels to tackling ocean acidification, must be taken in order to minimize the harms and manage those already manifesting, Republican legislators in particular drag their heels.
Take the recently announced Murkowski plan that, far from offering the necessary definitive steps, gives us clean-energy redefined so that it could incorporate burning fuel oil because it is slightly less harmful than burning wood for heating, and demands expanded drilling programs or there will be no future for Obama’s proposed “Advanced Energy Trust Fund.”
To say Congress is missing the mark seems an understatement.
So what, if anything, could the gay rights fight offer to help reinvigorate climate change talks?
In terms of gay rights, and the crystallizing point of gay marriage, a “right side of history” has arisen that has made it almost untenable for Democratic legislators to hold an anti-marriage equality position, while there is an increasing pressure on the Republican Party – and from the young Republican members especially — to be on the right side of the line and not marginalize the party into complete irrelevance on civil rights issues.
Ask anyone involved in the LGBT rights struggle and they will tell you the change happened long before American lawmakers decided to fall in line. Indeed, one of the big factors in finding support for LGBT rights measures is the humanizing connections the community has to cultivate.
Just under 20 years ago, when the Defense of Marriage Act sailed through Congress with almost unanimous support, gay people were considered a minority threatening the American way of life. Today, they are our daughters, our brothers, our dads and moms, or friends and neighbors. They are part of us, indivisible. They evoke our empathy because they are part of our lives.
The immigration reform battle, similarly, is moving on from presenting “illegals” and “aliens” to talking about “undocumented workers” and recognizing that we are talking about people, and this is perhaps the key issue.
Despite the overwhelming evidence that climate change is a very real threat, the harms it will create have so far been an abstract concept for many people at the local level.
Large swathes of land under water. Species wiped out. Increased rates of natural disasters. Famine. Probably more wars due to fewer resources. These predictions, things that absolutely should make us care and about the future of our planet, have become background noise because while there’s general agreement that something must be done, there’s very little to pin those warnings to in our everyday lives. Except that there is.
What those who are passionate about action on climate change seem to have embraced is the idea of the world we leave behind. It is true that for the majority alive today, climate change’s impact will be relatively, and it is worth emphasizing the modifier, small. But what of our children? And their children? What will the world be like for them?
This is where Senator Whitehouse told the Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference he felt that battle could be won.
The real question is, if you are concerned about the future of the Republican Party, do you want to have the image of that party, as this generation grows up, to be that they were the party that stopped and opposed action on what likely will be the most important issue in these kids’ lives, and did so on the basis of a lot of propaganda and lies from the polluting industry. That is a narrative that can’t be good for the party.
Just as Republican lawmakers are now coming out in support of marriage equality because they realize the issue impacts their families, changing the narrative to include the personal cost of inaction over climate change is a step Whitehouse believes could give new impetus to the climate change fight. The question remains, however, whether that evolution in the debate can happen quickly enough.
Image credit: Thinkstock.