A Conservative Recalibration on Climate Is Inevitable, But Bipartisanship Is Not the Endgame

What we need in the U.S. is rapid, complete, fair, and equitable decarbonization.

Climate Activists Rally Outside The Supreme Court Over Their Recent EPA Decision

Drew Angerer / Getty Images

The 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) has drawn to a close, and there have been countless headlines about the wins (funding for climate victims), the losses (no agreement to phase out fossil fuels), and the inevitable sense of déjà vu that we are still not moving fast enough. Among those headlines, there was a story that might just tell us something interesting about the state of climate politics here in the United States.

As reported by Politico, Indiana’s Republican Governor Eric Holcomb actually attended the event, touting his state’s efforts to promote electric vehicles, renewable energy, and other low-carbon technologies. Of course, there should be nothing surprising about a governor attending a global climate event. And yet, as Politico noted, Holcomb is an unlikely champion of decarbonization, given that he had previously praised former President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement

It’s important not to draw too much inference from one specific attendee. Political opponents of global climate action have long sought to have it both ways, supporting wind farms or (highly questionable!) ethanol subsidies for their home states, while decrying the global plot to force us into eating tofu. And even Holcomb’s fairly innocuous decision to just attend COP27 earned Holcomb a rebuke from the president of Club for Growth, David McIntosh, who decried it as a "flip flop" and framed it as the usual betrayal of hard work.  

The climate movement will need to be careful as that conversation shifts. Bipartisanship by itself is not the goal. Rapid, complete, fair, and equitable decarbonization is.

Yet given the Democratic Party’s stronger-than-expected performance in the recent midterm elections, and given climate as an apparent factor in a stronger-than-expected youth vote, I would be shocked if we don’t see more Republican politicians seeking to at least somewhat recalibrate their position on climate change. Certainly, conservative pundits like Raymond Arroyo appeared to recognize the threat of not engaging seriously on this topic. Speaking on the "Laura Ingraham Show," and later mocked by late night host John Oliver, Arroyo declared: “The Democrats were also very deliberate in their pitch to young people. They offered them drugs, recreational drugs; abortion; paid-off student loans; actionable policies that they were promising to advance—and also climate change!” 

However incredulous, Arroyo’s commentary suggests something important: He recognizes that failing to offer meaningful solutions to climate change is costing his party votes (and future voters). On the one hand, this shift in awareness is a very good thing. Many of us concerned about the climate crisis would dearly love to see a shift in the Overton Window so we start debating how to best fix the problem, rather than whether the problem really exists in the first place. 

And yet, caution is also warranted. As I mentioned in my discussion of conservative climate discourse in the United Kingdom, we need to guard against voices that seek to delay a transition—just as much as those that seek to deny the transition at all. And indeed, listening to Conservative Climate Caucus chair John Curtis on NPR the other day, he managed to both argue for the need for climate action while also pleading for a prolonging the use of fossil fuels—even suggesting the problem with the climate debate is the "demonization" of energy workers by climate activists:

“And it's, I think, one of the problems—why we get so divisive in this conversation and why we have so many people kind of push back is because we attack the fossil fuels and not just the fossil fuels but the very people who, for decades, have sacrificed their health and their safety for us.”

Given that climate activists have long called for a just and worker-friendly transition, not to mention worked with coal mining unions to make sure their voices are heard, the assertion that environmentalists have ignored the sacrifices of workers feels inaccurate at best, and deliberately misleading at worst. And the continued insistence that promoting fossil fuels is a meaningful way out of this crisis flies in the face of science

That’s not to say a potential political recalibration on climate is worthless. When I wrote that there’s no one way for someone to become a "climate person," I pointed to the idea, which has been pushed far more eloquently by others, that anyone who breathes air, drinks water, or eats food really has, or should have, an interest in maintaining a livable climate. 

I continue to believe this to be true and insisting on these things shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Indeed, conservative voters’ views on climate and clean air are far more diverse than their representation in congress would suggest.  

The climate movement will need to be careful as that conversation shifts. Bipartisanship by itself is not the goal. Rapid, complete, fair, and equitable decarbonization is. To the extent that inter-party policy debates can advance that cause, we should welcome them. But we will also have to keep a close eye out for bad faith efforts designed to look like reasonable debate, rather than a meaningful contribution to getting us where the science says we so desperately need to go.