The Democrat in the White House may be different, but the attacks are very familiar. Joe Biden’s early blitz to confront the climate crisis has provoked a hostile Republican backlash eerily similar to the opposition that stymied Barack Obama 12 years ago. Once again, efforts to reduce planet-heating emissions are being assailed as radical, job killing and elitist.
Republican lawmakers in Congress have denounced Biden’s flurry of executive orders on climate and have even introduced legislation to bypass the president and approve the contentious Keystone XL oil pipeline. Republican-led states are also joining the fray with Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, who is vowing to use the courts to block Biden’s move to halt oil and gas drilling on public lands. “Texas is going to protect the oil and gas industry from any type of hostile attack launched from Washington DC,” Abbott said.
While some younger, more moderate Republicans want to reform the party’s position on climate, the criticism of Biden has wandered into bizarre territory, such as Texas senator Ted Cruz tweeting that the president has shown he is “more interested in the views of the citizens of Paris than in the jobs of the citizens of Pittsburgh” by rejoining an international agreement to cut emissions that happened to be signed in Paris. John Kennedy, another Republican senator, mocked Biden’s plan to boost take-up of electric cars by telling Fox News on Tuesday that “my car doesn’t run off fairy dust, it doesn’t run off unicorn urine”.
The Republican onslaught has been amplified and fueled by Fox News, which has aired a string of misleading claims over the Paris agreement and the economic impact of addressing the climate crisis. Much of this has centered upon the Keystone pipeline project, lamenting the loss of 10,000 temporary jobs that don’t actually exist yet. Meanwhile, despite Facebook’s attempt to promote accurate climate science, the platform is still routinely used by conservative entities such as Prager University, a non-profit media company, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute to spread dozens of climate disinformation adverts to millions of people.
This range of opposition “is pretty much the standard Republican message to any sort of climate proposals”, said Robert Brulle, an academic at Brown University whose own research has found fossil fuel companies spent $2bn lobbying lawmakers over climate change between 2000 and 2016. “This argument certainly resonates in areas with a large presence of fossil fuel employment.”
It’s also a line of attack the Biden administration has prepared for, with the early salvo of executive orders framed as a job creation opportunity for millions of workers. “Unfortunately workers have been fed a false narrative, they’d been fed the notion that somehow dealing with climate has come at their expense. No, it hasn’t,” said John Kerry, Biden’s climate envoy, last week. Kerry noted that the solar industry was rapidly adding jobs prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, while the coal industry has entered a steep decline.
But public and business opinion around the climate crisis has shifted dramatically since such tactics were able to thwart Obama on the issue. Voter alarm over flooding, wildfires and other climate-driven disasters is at record levels, with even a majority of Republicans wanting government action. The recalcitrance of elected Republicans is becoming “more and more untenable”, according to Brulle.
An energized youth-led climate movement has blossomed while a radical transformation, at least in public image, has occurred in the corporate world, where even major oil companies now accept climate science and the need for a transition to clean energy. The startling change in tenor from Donald Trump’s term, where the former president wore a coal miner’s helmet at rallies and pretended to drive a giant truck at the White House, is illustrated by a new advert by General Motors, America’s largest, staidest car maker, that uses Will Ferrell to boast of its plan to outdo Norway in electric car manufacturing.
This new context has led to warnings from younger, more moderate Republicans that the party risks irrelevance by clinging to denialism or obstructionism over the climate crisis. “Republicans have backed themselves into a corner,” said Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard University. “They need an exit strategy, and so far they have not found it.”
The deadlock may prove detrimental to Republicans among a wave of younger voters but more immediately it means there is only a narrow legislative path for Biden to help slash planet-heating gases and set the US on a path to net zero emissions by 2050. Republicans have been piqued by Biden’s flurry of executive actions on climate but the president will require Congress for deeper emissions cuts and will have to pick his battles in a finely-balanced Senate.
There’s a “decent chance” some sort of bipartisan legislation could pass around a national clean energy standard and funding for wind and solar, if not a tax on carbon or other more sweeping action, according to Jeff Holmstead, a Republican who was formerly deputy administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency.
“A lot of Republicans are looking for things they can support to deal with climate change,” said Holmstead, now a partner at the Bracewell law firm. “That said, Biden will still run into trouble if he’s seen as just attacking fossil fuels. If Biden tacks too far to the left, he’ll run into trouble with Republicans and moderate Democrats. That’s why he has kept his distance from the Green New Deal.”