Climate change denial is killing the GOP’s future

“If conservation does not align with conservative principles then words have no meaning at all.”  

No, this is not an excerpt from an SNL sketch. These were the closing remarks from Republican Rep.  Chris Gibson of New York at the 2015 Young Conservatives For Energy Reform Summit. 

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His words were not greeted with boos or pitchforks, or cries of “fake news.” Rather his message was met with raucous applause from hundreds of young Republicans and conservatives gathered together in our nation’s capital to advocate for clean energy and discuss with lawmakers the clear and present dangers of climate change.

Three years later, while young conservatives like myself concerned about the environment continue to grow in number, our views have been marooned on the edge of political exile, the result of intractable tribal division and partisan brinksmanship.

In 2015, only 49 percent of all Republicans believed that climate change was real.  Today, that number has jumped to 64 percent, according to a recent Monmouth University poll.  And yet, the ideological orientation of the GOP toward our shared environmental reality is more hostile today than ever before, galvanized by a President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump watching 'very closely' as Portland braces for dueling protests WaPo calls Trump admin 'another threat' to endangered species Are Democrats turning Trump-like? MORE who views climate policy decisions through a political prism, not a moral one. 

At the heart of our partisan divide on the environment lies a generational disconnect: Less than 46 percent of millennial Republicans favor the expansion of coal mining, nuclear energy or offshore oil and gas drilling.  And yet, because the GOP continues to cater to a narrowing base of aging voters to win elections, young Republicans stand to inherit a political party crippled by unpalatable positions on the seminal issue of our time: climate change.

Republicans have stepped away from the table when we should be leading the conversation on the climate solutions and energy policies that will define the 21st century.  That does not require Republicans to espouse the government-centric gospel of global warming preferred by the political left, or co-sign Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's “Green New Deal.”  But it does mean that we must have the courage to embrace real free-market solutions to combat the undeniable realities of climate change.  Otherwise, the decisions that shape tomorrow’s energy and environmental landscape will be bereft of conservative influence, and we will have nobody to blame but ourselves. 

Organizations across America are attempting to lead the way for a slowly emerging climate-conscious majority on the right.  There has been a steady increase in interest for conservative climate courage on college campuses from western New York to San Antonio, Texas.  An EcoRight movement is building.  But that progress is continuously undermined by a rudderless political class beholden to an aging voter coalition in the stranglehold of a president who has embraced a war on climate science, doubled down on the myth of “clean coal,” and declared anyone who says otherwise a heretic. 

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Worse, potential Republican leaders on environmental reform need only look to the soon-to-be former members of Congress Reps. Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloOvernight Energy: Warren edges past Sanders in poll of climate-focused voters | Carbon tax shows new signs of life | Greens fuming at Trump plans for development at Bears Ears monument Carbon tax shows new signs of life in Congress Democratic lawmaker pushes back on Castro's call to repeal law making illegal border crossings a crime MORE (R-Fla.) or Mia LoveLudmya (Mia) LoveFormer GOP lawmaker: Trump's tweets have to stop Congressional Women's Softball team releases roster The 31 Trump districts that will determine the next House majority MORE (R-Utah) as examples of what happens when you challenge party orthodoxy.  Both of them suffered political defeats at the polls, both were derided publicly by the leader of their own party, and their downfall highlights similar cautionary tales of other would-be conservative climate change stalwarts.

What’s clear now is that Republican climate solutions can no longer be driven by a fragile band of political insurgents hungry for change.  If we are going to cultivate a broader conservative coalition, climate change needs to become not just a truth we acknowledge but a principle we support with our time, our dollars, and our votes.  Because the climate is changing, the Arctic ice is melting, and if the GOP continues to deny what the majority of Americans know to be true, the future of the party may be one of political extinction or perhaps more horrifying, societal irrelevance.

Joseph Pinion is a Republican political consultant. Pinion consulted for Gov. Jeb Bush and Gov. John Kasich’s 2016 presidential campaigns. Pinion is a conservative commentator who appears regularly on CNN.  He is a national spokesman for republicEN.org and the New York State Leader for Stand Up Republic.  Follow him on Twitter at @JosephPinion.