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How Paris changes climate politics

It’s not just the physical climate that’s changing.

Post-Paris conference, the political climate is shifting too — and steadily eroding the uneasy soil on which the Republican Party’s climate-change skepticism resides. And that could leave most of the GOP’s presidential hopefuls mired in the quicksand of their own illogic.

Despite industrial efforts to create doubt about global warming, the scientific consensus has only strengthened. The GOP, however, has large impediments to embracing that science.

One of its top national figures, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, hails from Kentucky, a state where coal mining matters. It would take a larger, braver politician than McConnell to speak tough transitional truths on an issue that so affects his home state.


Meanwhile, the Koch brothers, because of their family conglomerate, have a significant financial interest in retarding efforts to move away from fossil fuels. They, of course, are major donors to the conservative cause.

Further, a certain pixilated part of the GOP base is invested in the notion that climate change is a myth born of a liberal desire to extend government control over the economy.

Most of the Republican candidates now find themselves in increasingly dubious positions. Front-runner Donald Trump denies anthropogenic global warming outright, as does Texas’s Senator Ted Cruz, arguably his chief rival.

Most of the others are trying to thread a difficult needle: avoid looking like antiscience obscurantists while also forgoing any policy commitments. That leaves some insisting the science isn’t yet settled, when in actuality it has reached a level of certainty that should prod prudent policy makers to act. A second sidestep has been that US efforts won’t matter absent the rest of the world, or at least the other big carbon dioxide emitters, taking similar action.

Even pre-Paris, the rest of the world largely credited the climate science consensus. But now, the world has also pledged itself to meaningful action. That makes it much harder for a presidential hopeful to duck into either of those gopher holes.


There are certainly other dodges available, of course. One could argue, as some did pre-Paris, that other nations can’t be trusted to follow through on their commitments, so this country shouldn’t move forward on ours. But that’s a transparently tinny rationale for inertia, and defeatist to boot. Nor is it a position likely to renew the Grand Old Party’s one-time appeal to younger voters.

So the Paris agreement has thrown the feints and evasions into stark relief.

Nominating either Trump or Cruz would mean embracing their dogmatic disregard of science.

But it would be almost as bad to go into fall battle behind a candidate stuck in pre-Paris temporizing.

Just imagine the general-election debates.

A claim that the science still isn’t settled would be met by this simple rebuttal:

Really? The rest of the world begs to differ.

The assertion that acting alone can’t accomplish anything, or that other nations can’t be trusted to keep their commitments, fairly invites these retorts:

Acting in concert with 195 other nations surely can. And one simply can’t, as the world’s leading nation, declare preemptive surrender on an issue this important.

It’s too early to have a clear sense of how the GOP arguments will evolve. (Fie on CNN for not including a climate-change question in Tuesday’s debate.)

But if the response to Paris is simply to ignore the international accord or dismiss it as meaningless, the party should ditch the elephant and adopt the rhinoceros as its symbol.


Members of the Rhinocerotidae family, after all, are congenitally myopic.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.