By William S. Becker

We voters should keep one thing in mind as the 2020 presidential and congressional candidates talk about global climate change: It is not now, and never has been, a partisan issue. Republicans manufactured the partisan split as a political strategy nearly 20 years ago.

It is important to remember the back story about the politicization of climate change. Sometime between 2008 and 2012, the GOP chose to collude with Big Oil to discredit and deny what the petroleum industry’s own scientists knew to be true: Oil companies were selling a product that would upset the Earth’s carbon balance, cause the planet’s temperature to rise, and produce deadly weather and rising seas.

The collusion continues today in Congress and in the White House with Donald Trump’s bone-headed position that climate change is either a hoax or the result of a natural cycle that eventually will sort itself out. An important part of the back story was reported several years ago by the online news site Inside Climate News (ICN), which won a Pulitzer Prize for its work.

ICN’s investigation found that ExxonMobil’s own scientists began researching climate change in 1978  because it posed a threat to the oil business. Between 1979 and 1983, the American Petroleum Institute and the nation’s big oil companies —  Exxon, Amoco, Philips, Texaco, Shell, Sunoco, Sohio, Gulf Oil and Standard Oil of California – participated in a task force to share climate research. An Exxon memo informed the task force in 1979 that the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) was rising steadily in the atmosphere and would produce climate change.

The Task Force considered ways to reduce CO2 emissions from oil or to develop fuels that emitted less carbon. But by the 1990s, API and the group of oil companies decided instead to “derail international efforts to curb heat-trapping emissions”, according to the ICN investigation.

Meanwhile, on behalf of the Clinton Administration, Vice President Al Gore was deeply involved in working with other nations to develop the Kyoto Protocol, the first global agreement to limit carbon pollution. In 1998, after the U.S. and other nations signed the Protocol, API undertook a campaign to persuade the public and lawmakers that climate science was “too tenuous for the United States to ratify the treaty.” (Read the full account of oil industry efforts here.)

When George W. Bush assumed the presidency in 2001 he pulled the U.S. out of the Kyoto agreement and began reversing several of Clinton’s environmental policies.

Later that year, Republican communications consultant Frank Luntz sent a memo to his clients warning that “The environment is probably the single issue on which Republicans in general – and President Bush in particular – are most vulnerable.” Luntz counseled the GOP to stress its support of conservation in general, but to “continue to make the lack of scientific uncertainty a primary issue in the debate” about climate change. Republicans should argue that the federal government should act “only with all the facts in hand”, Luntz advised.

Nevertheless, some Republicans continued pushing for climate action.  Republican Sen. John McCain and Democrat Sen. Joe Lieberman cosponsored Congress’s first attempt at dealing with it, the Climate Stewardship Act, in 2003. Four other Republicans voted for it including Susan Collins of Maine, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Richard Lugar of Indiana and Olympia Snowe of Main. Later, Republicans such as Mitt Romney, New Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee and even Sarah Palin believed that mitigating climate change was the right position for conservatives.  Congress did not pass the Act.

When he ran for the presidency in 2008, McCain campaigned on a promise to fight global climate change. The GOP appeared to be behind him. Its party platform that year said:

The same human economic activity that has brought freedom and opportunity to billions has also increased the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. While the scope and long-term consequences of this are the subject of ongoing scientific research, common sense dictates that the United States should take measured and reasonable steps today to reduce any impact on the environment. Those steps, if consistent with our global competitiveness will also be good for our national security, our energy independence, and our economy.

Much like cigarette manufacturers before them, the companies responded with a high-level disinformation campaign to discredit climate science so they could continue and increase their production and sale of fossil fuels. Over time, the GOP became the party of climate-change denial. In the 2012 presidential campaign, climate change was not mentioned in the party platform except to criticize President Obama for making too big a fuss over it.

The Party was rewarded with money. Between 1990 and 2018, more than two-thirds of campaign donations from the oil, gas, electric utility and mining industries went to Republicans. In 2016, Trump received more money from oil and gas companies than any other presidential candidate. He ranked at the top again in 2018, according to data from the Federal Election Commission. Oil companies including Chevron, Exxon, BP, and Citgo, along with the coal company Murray Energy, donated major money to Trump’s inaugural celebration, including $525,000 from Chevron and $500,000 each from the other oil companies.

As the science community grew more and more confident about the link between oil, gas, coal and climate change, the conversation in Congress should have focused not on whether global warming was real, but on what we should do to manage the risk that the scientists were correct.  Instead, these many years of delay have sentenced us and countless generations to come to much more violent, deadly and expensive weather disasters.

The question has been whether the nation would reach a political tipping point before the climate reached an ecological tipping point. In other words, would the American people insist on government action in time to avoid the point at which the impacts of climate change escalated and became irreversible?

That time may finally be arriving. Several recent public opinion polls show that the extreme weather disasters taking place in the United States are persuading a large majority of the American people that climate change is underway. For example, a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago found last November that 74% of Americans say extreme weather in the past five years has influenced their opinions about climate change.

Most of the nearly two-dozen Democrats running for president right now say they support climate action. Several have released very detailed plans on how they would mobilize the federal government. In Congress, cracks are appearing in the monolithic GOP campaign of climate-change denial. A growing number of Republicans in Congress are poised to “cross the Rubicon”, according to Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a loyal Trump ally. Graham says congressional Republicans will introduce their own climate bill next year.

The test for Republican sincerity will be whether their proposals for mitigating climate change are aggressive enough to make up for the decades of delay they caused.  Any candidate or policy-maker who wants to be taken seriously must lay out a clear and convincing path to a net-zero carbon economy by mid-century, just three decades from now.

Those plans cannot depend solely on technical innovation, corporate social responsibility, state and local leadership, market forces, or voluntary actions by consumers. It must be a government-coordinated national mobilization comparable to that for World War II, as so many people have said, plus American leadership in the international response. It must include bold carbon reductions in every sector of the economy. It must be bipartisan. And it must become the highest-priority mission of all generations alive today.

To repeat, there was a moment in the 1980s when fossil energy companies made a choice between being part of the climate-change solution or the principal cause of the problem. They made the wrong choice for America, and the Republican Party chose to help them.

Next year’s elections will be the final chance for the United States to help the world hold warming to 1.5oC, the goal of the Paris accord. Climate change deserves to be the top issue in the 2020 election campaigns. It’s not about Party; it’s about Country. Global warming is an urgent national security, environmental, public health and safety issue, and a fiscal responsibility issue as the costs of weather disasters become much higher than a solvent government and its taxpayers can afford.

Voters should support the candidates who will take decisive action against climate change, whatever party they are from.