Dan Levitan argues in the New Republic that Republican deniers of climate change, who are now on the side of the “angels,” don’t deserve redemption by Democrats unless they own-up to the harms they’ve caused by their earlier denials. Prompting Levitan to write his article was the testimony of Republican pollster Frank Luntz before the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis.
Luntz’s invitation was issued by the chair of the Committee, Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI). Unlike the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, the Senate group is not a Senate sanctioned organization. It is a self-selecting group of Democratic senators that, according to their web-site, want to examine how climate change is affecting the country and the planet and to mobilize action and support for bold climate solutions. To achieve their goal the Committee is planning to convene a series of hearings through 2019 and 2020 to gather expert testimony from a wide variety of witnesses.
The July 25th hearing was entitled “The Right Thing to Do: Conservatives for Climate Action.” Joining Luntz as witnesses were Kera O’Brien Vice President, Students for Carbon Dividends and Nick Huey, founder of the Climate Campaign and a member of the Utah Chapter of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Both O’Brien and Huey are young conservative Republicans who believe that carbon needs to be taxed.
Levitan took exception to Luntz’s presence at the witness table for, among other things, his authorship of the now-infamous 2002 memo advising the Republican Party to sow confusion about global warming. In that memo Luntz wrote:
Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you [Republicans] need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.
These days Luntz’s message is a much different one having concluded that Earth’s warming is largely the crisis the scientists—both climate and particular—say it is. Luntz was hired by the Climate Leadership Council to take the temperature of Republicans on climate change in general and specifically on CLC’s proposed version of a carbon tax. Luntz’s memo on the results of the poll stated clearly:
The ‘political temperature’ on climate change has shifted – perhaps permanently. Three in four American voters want to see the government step in to limit carbon emissions – including a majority of Republicans (55%). Voters’ concerns simply aren’t being adequately addressed – by the president or Congress. Fully six out of ten of voters believe U.S. climate policy is headed pretty seriously off on the wrong track. And this INCREASES among swing voters… While both parties cling to strong support on their ‘core’ issues, if those should falter, environmental policy – and its influence on younger voters in particular – could prove decisive.
Levitan appears willing to forgive—although not forget—other Republican deniers. He seems, however, to have particular contempt for Luntz:
Most converts should feel welcome in the political discussion about climate change; it’s a virtue to admit fault, after all. But those like Luntz—who actively furthered the climate crisis and continues to refuse to admit it—should be shunned. They have no practical use in the extremely urgent effort to solve global warming. They helped to break the world, and thus can’t be trusted to help fix it. (emphasis added)
Levitan must not have been listening when Luntz told the Committee he was them to say that I was wrong in 2001… stop using something that I wrote 18 years ago because it’s not accurate today. Luntz’s catharsis was triggered by his almost losing his home to a California wildfire but for the actions of the courageous firefighters of L.A.
I have trouble accepting Levitan’s treatment of Luntz—especially as a matter of practical politics. Luntz remains a highly sought after and respected Republican pollster. The poll’s most recent findings are a testament to changing Republican attitudes. The fact that he had sent every Republican member of Congress his analysis of the CLC poll urging them not to ignore changing Republican attitudes.
Levitan clearly wants a public flogging of Luntz and other Republicans who once denied but now embrace climate science and the need for aggressive action:
Even if Republicans’ come-to-Jesus moments swayed public opinion, they would have to include an honest reckoning of the harm caused…Embracing public figures who helped cause those harms, without any gestures toward accountability, risks alienating those who have long supported climate action.
Levitan’s expressed vitriol reflects what—in part—is wrong with today’s climate politics. First, it implies that redemption is never possible. Assume that Luntz stood up and flogged himself before God and country about his having advised clients in the past to cast doubt on climate science. Would Levitan’s judgment of him change any?
OK sure, Levitan might stop Luntz’ fall to the eighth (fraud) rather than ninth (treachery) circle of Hell—but beyond that, I doubt it would make much difference to him. Flogging or not, Levitan denies that Luntz could ever be a convincing messenger to other Republicans, which I believe is a big mistake.
The quickness to blame decades-old transgressions and the unwillingness to accept that a transgressor can change threatens any chance that a divided nation can once again be unified in its efforts to solve society’s problems. Some acts are, of course, worse than others, but has hate and the desire for vengeance so consumed us that forgiveness is never an option? Moreover, who has the right to decide?
Levitan dismisses the entire denier class as unimportant in the battle to put the nation back on course to limit Earth’s rising temperatures--
But the “cool skeptics”—a.k.a., the deniers—have held steady, at or just below 20 percent of the country, for the last half-decade. There is thus little chance of convincing them any time soon—and even less reason to try.
As a political strategy blowing off the entire 20 percent of the nation could prove a momentous mistake. Politics today is a game of inches. It is not only how many total votes are won in a presidential election; it is, as well, where they are won.
I’ve written before that moderate Republicans can be wooed over to the green side. In that effort, voices like those of Luntz and other past deniers whose stock holds value in Republican circles are likely to resonate more loudly than those who would condemn them out of hand for what they once believed.
Dismissing deniers because they have come to accept the arguments of climate defenders as true is to deny the power of truth. At the end of the day, I would hope that climate defenders will raise a “V” in victory and not in vitriol.
Lead photo courtesy of Wikimedia
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Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, MA, JD., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.