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Saturday, December 30, 2023

What will it take to change Republicans’ minds about the climate crisis?



Cartoon by Tom Toles from the Washington Post
Rome is burning. Republicans are twiddling their thumbs.

Scientists are loathe to give too much significance to one event, but we’re not talking about one event anymore.

“This is climate change,” Michael Mann, a geophysicist and professor of environmental science at the University of Pennsylvania, put it bluntly. 

“We’re seeing it now in all of its forms in…the wildfires in Canada, what happened in Maui, the flooding rains that we’re now seeing in California, you see greater extremes at both ends of the spectrum.”

Just don’t expect these recent disasters — or, for that matter, a consistent cascade of future precedent-setting fires, floods, snowstorms, hurricanes or droughts — to move Republicans’ minds about the role of climate change.

Consider an August analysis from the Pew Research Center.

While the percentage of Democrats describing climate change as a major threat to the country’s well-being rose from 58 percent to 78 percent over the last decade, the share of Republicans who consider climate change a major threat barely budged over the same time period, rising from 22 percent to 23 percent, per Pew.

The fact that Republicans’ opinions haven’t changed over the last 10 years is startling when you take stock of the objective signs of a changing climate during this same period.

For starters, “the years 2015 to 2022 were the eight warmest” since records started being kept in 1850, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

At the same time, oceans have gotten hotter, global sea ice has shrunk, snow cover has fallen and sea levels have risen.

But forget about changes in Antarctica, the North Pole or the Maldives. Republicans aren’t seeing changes in their backyards either.

While 40 percent of Democrats said climate change has affected their local communities “a great deal,” only 10 percent of Republicans said so, according to a March Pew poll.

If climate change had spared Republicans during the last decade, then this difference would make sense. But it hasn’t. It’s wreaked havoc on red counties and states.

You can almost hear the desperation in an official Texas agency’s report from last December:

“Drought is hitting the livestock and dairy industries hard this year,” reads the Texas Comptroller’s analysis. “At one point, 39 percent of the state’s rangeland was in poor condition…Texas A&M AgriLife reported this summer that both U.S. and Texas cattle herds were shrinking. Cattle producers have had to cull their herds with grazing land, grain feed and water in low supply.”

Beyond droughts, record-shattering hurricanes have ransacked Republican states in the last decade.

In 2017, Hurricane Harvey flooded Texas with 19 trillion gallons of rainwater, causing $125 billion in damages and tying Katrina for the most expensive tropical cyclone in American history, per federal records. 

Nearly 780,000 Texans evacuated; and more rain fell on Houston than on any city from a single storm in American history. The same year, the fifth most expensive hurricane in US history —Irma — hit Florida with 185-mph winds, knocking out power to 65 percent of the state and creating $50 billion in damages, per federal data.

Increasingly intense wildfires haven’t spared Republicans either.

Of the 10 largest wildfires in California last year, seven were in counties that voted for Donald Trump in 2020. And among the eight states facing the greatest current risk of wildfires — that is, in the Mountain West — half voted for Trump.

But if Republicans aren’t insulated from climate change, why don’t they see it?

Simple, the only major news source a majority of Republicans trust is Fox News. And to put it bluntly, Fox — the de facto media arm of the carbon-belching extractive industry-funded GOP — doesn’t want Americans to believe climate change is real and urgently requires action that’ll hurt their precious profits.

Of 247 news segments involving discussion of climate change in the first half of 2019, 86 percent “were dismissive of the climate crisis, cast warming and its consequences in doubt or employed fearmongering when discussing climate solutions,” according to nonprofit Public Citizen’s analysis.

Unsurprisingly then, a Yale-George Mason University study in 2020 found that “in all news audiences except that of Fox News, large majorities think global warming is happening and human caused.”

The next decade poses to see even more climatic extremes, but don’t expect Republicans to change their minds about the demonstrably obvious signs of climate change, even as their cattle are culled, their fields are burned and their homes are flooded.

As long as Fox News tells them not to believe it, Republicans won’t see it.

Max Taves is a lifelong Californian, a concerned citizen and an award-winning reporter and business columnist for the Wall Street Journal, CBSi-CNET, Village Voice's LA Weekly and