Four Decades of Navigating Climate Politics

Speakers Rafe Pomerance and David Roberts discussed the history of climate action, and inaction, in the United States.

This September, the Kleinman Center welcomed two climate leaders: Rafe Pomerance and David Roberts. Pomerance has been working on climate change for more than four decades. In the 1970s, he was one of the first activists to sound the alarm on the unfolding problem. Roberts, a Kleinman Center senior fellow, is a journalist at Vox and one of the foremost climate and energy writers in the country.

The conversation on climate has come far since the 1970s. “When I started working on this no one had ever heard of the problem. In over four decades it’s moved from zero to total recognition,” reflected Pomerance.

But even as there is almost universal recognition of climate change as an issue, there is still one constituency dragging its feet. “The argument against action has almost faded away entirely except for one small pocket of the world, namely the U.S. Republican Party,” said Roberts.

So how can we move the needle on climate action? When looking back at the past four decades, the lack of progress from the United States is glaring. “It has held the U.S. back from global leadership. The big actions have to be done in a bipartisan way,” said Pomerance.

While many hold out hope that those politically resistant to climate action will begin to move on the issue, Roberts also outlined a scenario where the pressures of intensifying climate change drive the Republican party and climate skeptics to insulate instead of diving into global cooperation and problem solving.

“It [could be] a call to put up walls, to keep out climate migrants, to hoard resources while they’re still available, and let the rest of the world drown,” said Roberts. “Climate change does not entail a progressive response. It is entirely possible that the U.S. Republican Party will flip from denial to something like a lifeboat: climate fascism, higher walls, less sharing, and more hoarding.”  

Or as our Faculty Director Mark Hughes put it in a prior blog post, this attitude could drive America toward three possible agendas: America First, America Great, and America for Americans. All of these approaches would allow us to burn through the world’s remaining carbon emissions budget, investment in infrastructure to protect ourselves, and tighten borders even more to ensure that these advantages would only be enjoyed by U.S. citizens. The rest of the world, be damned.

While this concept remains a dormant threat, there is the primary question: how do we move the United States forward? How can the United States catch up to where the rest of the developed world is on climate? And where will the emergency demands be? Pomerance and Roberts both emphasized that it all comes down to politics.

Roberts stated that progress is only being made in places where Democrats are elected in overwhelming numbers, overpowering Republican opposition.

“If you can move the purple states, the Republicans have to shift,” added Pomerance.

Going into the 2020 election, climate is on the mind of many voters. Earlier in September, CNN hosted the first ever climate town hall which took a deep look at climate change, asking the democratic candidates more substantive questions than they would typically get in a traditional debate. And later in the month, we saw one of the largest climate demonstrations ever, when millions of students and adults alike went on strike for climate.

Pomerance and Roberts agree that if voters demand climate action and elect representatives that reflect those values, this new political reality could help push the United States toward more significant and impactful climate action.

Mollie Simon

Senior Communications Specialist
Mollie Simon is the senior communications specialist at the Kleinman Center. She manages the center’s social media accounts, drafts newsletters and announcements, writes and publishes content for our website, and regularly posts to our blog.