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The nexus between the climate change and democracy crises » Yale Climate Connections


The crises the U.S. is facing regarding global warming and representative democracy are similar in some ways. Both have been serious problems for several decades, but have taken on new urgency in the past five years. In both, the Republican Party is a key barrier to progress or the instigator of regress.

Both now place the U.S. increasingly at odds with our allies in Canada and Western Europe. Beyond those similarities, the two crises also are linked: To address climate change effectively requires addressing the democracy crisis.

The limits of bipartisanship

Over the past 50 years, Democratic and Republican administrations have not heeded findings of climate science and have failed to respond with adequate climate policies. But currently, the Democratic Party shows substantial interest in a rapid energy transition and other ambitious greenhouse gas mitigation policies, while the Republican Party does not. Recently, even the reinstatement of Obama-era methane regulations, which was supported by the major oil companies, attracted only scant Republican support on Capitol Hill.

And much stronger policies are needed to meet the United States’ nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Climate Agreement, which requires a 50% cut in emissions over the 2005-30 period. Republicans consistently and forcefully oppose ambitious policies or any form of carbon pricing, and Republican-nominated federal judges are hostile to the Environmental Protection Agency’s use of its administrative authority to regulate emissions. As the Republican Party has moved to the right on climate policy, climate change has become a defining issue separating the parties and their base voters.

Republican intransigence is damaging to the prospects for climate protection, but this obstacle would not necessarily block progress on the issue in a democracy for a simple reason: The need to compete for votes should eventually force the party back toward the center. That is what happened in the 1950s, when the Republicans under President Eisenhower accepted New Deal social programs, and again in the ’90s, when Democrats under President Clinton accepted limits on government spending, cuts to welfare, and harsher criminal sentences.

Let’s acknowledge the reality: This process is not smooth or fast. A party that loses elections can hope to get back into power in a subsequent election simply because its opponents are seen as having failed on important issues of economic management or national defense.  But over the long term, any party that keeps losing elections because of its unpopular positions on key issues will need to modify its approach to at least some of them.

The missed opportunity

Shifting toward support for climate policy could allow Republicans to win over some swing voters. Over 60% believe that global warming is human-caused, that its effects have already begun, and that the federal government should do more to address it.  Even majorities of Republican voters support tougher carbon emissions limits, a carbon tax to be paid by fossil fuel companies, and a national renewable portfolio standard. More than 70% of adults support expanding wind and solar energy, and only 10-35% favor using more coal or natural gas.

In the first decade of this century, Republican leaders were willing to take up the climate issue. President George W. Bush initially favored carbon dioxide regulation, and moderate Republicans like John McCain, Mitt Romney, then-Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, and then-Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee supported a national emissions trading system. 

But the national Republican Party turned hard against climate policy once Barack Obama was elected president, throwing in its lot with the fossil fuel industries and putting forward an economic vision premised on low-cost, fossil fuel energy. On this and other issues – tax reform, same-sex marriage, abortion bans, and support for radical gun rights – Republicans deepened their commitment to a base mobilization strategy even as doing so required taking positions unpopular with a majority of the public. Former party stalwarts and a few still in office feared the traditional GOP was painting itself into a corner. Obama suggested that the “fever may break” after electoral defeat in 2012, but it did not.

Rather, many in the Republican Party began to turn against democracy in two ways. First, they sought a way out of their predicament by combining a base mobilization strategy for winning elections with the pursuit of a minority-rule strategy within constitutional rules. And then, under Donald Trump’s leadership, they began to consider shredding traditional and foundational rules for deciding elections in order to stay in power or get into it.

Two threats

All of which leaves us with a crisis in representative democracy that involves both immediate and long-term threats. Immediately, we need to be concerned about the prospect of a single major political party simply overturning election results, as Trump and his allies attempted in 2020-21. Defenders of electoral democracy need to try to defeat its opponents in state-level races, protect the states’ vote certification machinery from political interference, and remove loopholes in the federal Electoral Count Act.

But less attention has been paid to the dangers of the Republicans’ minority-rule strategy, which has a number of inter-related elements:

  • Senate elections are structurally biased in favor of the Republican Party, given advantages in rural areas, to the point that the senators (virtually all of them Republicans) who approved the 2017 tax cuts and the Supreme Court nominations of Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch represented about 43-45% of the U.S. population.
  • Senate control allowed Republicans to first deny Obama the opportunity to fill vacancies in more than 100 federal judgeships and in Justice Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court seat, and then to rapidly confirm Trump’s appointees once they had control of the presidency and Senate.
  • The electoral college makes it so the party losing the popular vote can win the presidency, as the Republicans did in 2000 and 2016, partly because it does better in the small-population states, which are slightly overrepresented in the electoral vote.

The combined long-term impact of these elements has been that Republicans, while winning only a large minority of the two-party vote, can win the presidency occasionally, the House and Senate often, and most of the federal judiciary. If the functioning of representative democracy is impaired – if Republicans can win elected offices and national political power without appealing to the median voter – then their intransigence on climate policy can prevail indefinitely.

Is big business the key?

No one of course can predict the future in these areas, but there is reason to think that the Fortune 500 corporations and their interest groups could be key actors in addressing the interlinked crises of democracy and climate change. 

Big business has access to decision makers, capital, and structural economic power, and also to some extent a long enough planning horizon to be interested in the consequences of continued global warming and of the continued degradation of representative democracy. 

The Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and 200 CEOs of major corporations urged Congress to resist Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, and much of business has been shifting away from Republican orthodoxy on climate change. Most automakers now have ambitious electric vehicle goals and want federal assistance with charging stations and consumer tax credits, and big oil interests now favor methane regulation. Most utilities seem ready to accept some kind of a clean electricity standard, and the financial sector now supports disclosure requirements concerning climate risks and greenhouse emissions.

Republicans and corporations have been moving apart on other issues too, including “bathroom bills,” immigration restrictions on technology workers, gun violence, voting restrictions, white supremacist violence, and abortion rights. Many corporations oppose Republicans’ use of wedge issues because they favor social harmony with their workers and want to keep their customers and attract international talent. Voter realignment along education lines is helping to push the Republican Party away from corporations, which are run by highly educated people, hire an educated workforce, and are aware that educated people have disproportionate spending power.

If Republicans move far to the right on key policy questions and on representative democracy itself, major segments of business might defect from their coalition with the party. If they want to check the Republican Party, corporate leaders will have a variety of levers, some of which they have used tentatively in recent years:  withholding campaign money; boycotting state economies; lobbying Congress for Democratic party priorities; boycotting right-wing media outlets; ending support for polarizing groups like the NRA; giving legal aid to voting rights groups; and giving workers time off to vote and to work at the polls. Or corporations may stick with the Republican Party because of their common ideological opposition to government intervention in the economy and common interests in low tax rates for corporations and the wealthy, in lower social spending, and in environmental and workplace deregulation. Much will depend on the direction they choose to take.

Roger Karapin is a political scientist at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He writes about the politics of climate and energy policies, including in Political Opportunities for Climate Policy: California, New York, and the Federal Government, which won the APSA’s Caldwell Prize.



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