The Next Partisan Climate Battle Will Be About When to Act

Mike Lee’s tauntaun theatrics and AOC’s fiery sincerity frame the new debate in Congress.

Photo illustration of New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Utah Sen. Mike Lee discuss climate change, albeit differently, on Capitol Hill.
New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Utah Sen. Mike Lee discuss climate change, albeit differently, on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Financial Services Committee/U.S. Government.

Sen. Mike Lee took to the Senate floor on Tuesday with a promise to treat the Green New Deal “with the level of seriousness it deserves.” What followed was a not-so-tight 12 that went viral, complete with large posters of Ronald Reagan firing a machine gun from atop an American flag–waving dinosaur and Luke Skywalker riding a tauntaun on the ice planet Hoth. The Green New Deal is not the solution to climate change, the Utah Republican declared. “The real solution to climate change,” he said, is “babies.” Global warming, in his telling, is simply “an engineering problem” that can therefore be solved by future generations of engineers. “The solution to so many of our problems, at all times and in all places,” Lee said, “is to fall in love, get married, and have some kids.”

The same day, on the other side of the Capitol, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortex had a viral moment of her own. Responding to a charge from Rep. Sean Duffy (R–Real World: Boston) that her Green New Deal was elitist, the New York Democrat didn’t need props. “You want to tell people that their concern and their desire for clean air and clean water is elitist?” she said. “Tell that to the kids in the South Bronx, which is suffering from the highest rates of childhood asthma in the country. Tell that to the families in Flint, whose kids have their blood ascending in lead levels. Their brains are damaged for the rest of their lives. Call them elitist. You’re telling them that those kids are trying to get on a plane to Davos? People are dying. They are dying.”

The clips were the latest reminders that Democrats, by and large, view man-made climate change as the existential emergency the science says it is, and that many Republicans see climate change as the perfect opportunity to troll the libs and get invited on Fox News. Viewed in tandem, however, the clips also point to where the partisan fight is heading: from arguing about whether the United States should act to debating when it needs to.

This is urgent, declares Ocasio-Cortez. Let our kids deal with it, says Lee.

As risible as Lee’s can-kicking is, the optimist in me glimpses some progress for the GOP. The senator acknowledged two things that much of his party, including the president, still refuses to accept: Humans are warming the planet, and humans will need to do something about it. Lee isn’t the only conservative lawmaker trending that way, either. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee are offering (baby-free) legislative responses to the Green New Deal, dubbed the Green Real Deal and the New Manhattan Project for Clean Energy, respectively. Both are heavy on R&D half-measures focused on conservative favorites like carbon-capture and nuclear energy—and neither set serious emission targets—but both explicitly acknowledge the reality that climate change poses a threat to mankind. Other GOP senators, including Mitt Romney, Lindsey Graham, Lisa Murkowski, and even Mitch McConnell now grudgingly acknowledge that fact as well, as do the several dozen House Republicans in the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus formed last Congress to “educate members on economically-viable options to reduce climate risk.” This all represents a significant change from four years ago, when most GOP leaders wore full-fledged climate denial as a badge of honor.

To be clear, Republicans saying climate change needs to be addressed in the future is just a different way of saying it doesn’t need to be addressed now. It’s also only a step forward when viewed through a narrow lens. It wasn’t all that long ago that 10 GOP senators crossed the aisle in 2005 to vote with Democrats on a resolution that acknowledged not only mankind’s role in climate change but also called for the government to actually do something about it. One of those Republicans, the late John McCain, would win the GOP nomination in 2008, the same year Newt Gingrich sat on a couch with Nancy Pelosi and told Americans “our country must take action to address climate change.” Things got much worse before they got slightly less worse.

Still, the latest change in posture suggests that the GOP is starting to feel the heat from an American public that is increasingly worried about climate change. According to the latest survey taken by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, the number of Americans who say they are either “alarmed” or “concerned” about the issue has doubled in the past five years to 59 percent, while the number who are “doubtful” or “dismissive” has dropped by more than half to just 18 percent. Voters’ growing acceptance of the problem is undeniably good news, but being concerned is not the same as being concerned enough. In a Pew Research Center poll early this year, global warming came in second from the bottom on a list of Americans’ 18 top policy priorities—26 percentage points behind the economy. There’s a reason that almost all the Senate Democrats, with Ocasio-Cortez’s blessing, voted “present” when McConnell pulled his own Green New Deal stunt this week.

If the federal government is going to take meaningful action to avert the worst impacts of climate change, it’s going to take buy-in from both sides of the aisle—and soon. We shouldn’t celebrate Republicans showing up late to the table, and certainly not for showing up at the front door with a Sharknado 4 poster while their friends in the administration are finding ways to roll back the limited progress that has already been made. But for the first time in roughly a decade, the climate debate in Washington is changing, however slightly. If it gets us even a little closer to a meaningful debate, I say bring on the Star Wars gimmicks. With Donald Trump in the White House, they may be our only hope.