The swirling winds, pounding rains and enveloping floods of hurricanes Irma in Florida and Harvey in Texas have left deep scars across two of the nation’s largest states.
But it’s still unlikely that these irresistible forces will dislodge one of Washington’s most immovable objects: the steadfast resistance of President Donald Trump and virtually all congressional Republicans to seriously discussing, much less addressing, the risks associated with global climate change.
To many climate scientists and local officials, the stunning convergence of Irma and Harvey – two storms described as events that might occur once every 500 years or more – has crystallized the growing threat of extreme weather events associated with global changes in the climate. Many climate scientists say the ferocity of these storms validated precisely their projections that warming in the water and atmosphere, coupled with rising sea levels, would breed hurricanes with greater rain, wind, sea surge and flooding.
But the administration has rejected that connection. In a revealing interview with CNN just before Irma hit, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt insisted, “To have any kind of focus on the cause and effect of the storm, versus helping people or actually facing the effect of the storm, is misplaced.” On Sunday, Trump, who has previously called climate change a “hoax,” ignored a question shouted at him from reporters about whether it was contributing to the historic power and damage of the storms.
Critics usually attribute the unwavering Republican opposition to acting on climate change primarily to ideology and money. Ideologically, most Republicans are predisposed against efforts to reduce the emissions of carbon associated with global climate change because they view it as an example of governmental regulatory overreach. Financially, the GOP hesitates to act because it receives the vast majority of the campaign contributions from oil, gas, coal and other energy industries. (In the past three elections, the oil and gas industry has directed nearly 90% of its campaign contributions to Republicans, and the coal industry channeled at least 96% of its contributions toward them in 2014 and 2016.)
But more important than either of these factors may be the geographic divide. From Congress through the White House, the Republican Party now relies overwhelmingly on the states that are the most deeply invested in the existing fossil fuel economy – and thus feel the most threatened by any initiative to reduce carbon emissions. That includes not only the states that produce the most fossil fuels like oil and coal, but also the Rust Belt states that consume large quantities of coal-fired electricity for manufacturing.
Democrats, meanwhile, now depend primarily on the states mostly along the two coasts that produce little energy and have generally transitioned more rapidly toward an information-age and service-based, low-carbon economy. For each party, the economic interests of their core states reinforce their ideological inclinations.
These contrasting allegiances were vividly apparent in 2016 presidential race.
Trump beat Hillary Clinton in eight of the 10 states that produce the most coal, according to federal Energy Department figures, including Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Montana, Texas, Indiana and North Dakota. In the top 10, Clinton carried only Illinois and New Mexico.
Trump also beat Clinton in eight of the 10 states that produce the most natural gas (losing only Colorado and New Mexico) and 13 of the top 16 (adding only California to her tally). Trump won seven of the 10 states that produce the most oil and 21 of the top 25 (with only California, New Mexico, Colorado and Illinois breaking for Clinton).
Turning the lens from energy production to consumption, Trump also won 28 of the 34 states that rely most heavily on electric power generated from coal. (Though low-cost, coal emits considerably more carbon per unit of heat generated than any alternative fuel.) The list of those coal-reliant states includes all of the manufacturing powerhouses across the Rust Belt, including Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Indiana. Of the 16 states that rely the least on coal for electricity, Clinton won 14.
Figures from the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program show that Trump similarly won 20 of the 27 states in which the share of jobs provided by manufacturing exceeds the national average; Clinton won 13 of the 23 states at or below the national average.
Perhaps the one figure that best captures these trends in both energy production and consumption is the federal Energy Information Administration’s ranking of states based on their total emissions of carbon per person. That ranking now almost precisely follows the national political divide.
Trump carried 20 of the 21 states with the largest per capita carbon emissions, losing only New Mexico in that group. (He routed Clinton in all 12 of the states at the very top of the list, including Wyoming, North Dakota, West Virginia, Alaska, Louisiana, Montana, Kentucky, Indiana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Iowa and Texas.) In all, Trump carried 27 of the 32 states that emit the most carbon per person.
In stark contrast, Clinton carried 15 of the 18 states that emit the least carbon per person. (She won the seven states with the absolute lowest per capita emissions, all of them along the coasts: California, New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, Oregon, Connecticut and Rhode Island.) Of the 18 states with the lowest per person emissions, Trump carried only Idaho, Florida and North Carolina.
These same lines of demarcation run through Congress. Republicans hold 32 of the 40 Senate seats from the 20 states with the highest per-person carbon emissions; Democrats hold 29 of the 36 in the 18 states with the lowest per-person carbon emissions. The 12 states in between are closely divided with Republicans holding 13 of their Senate seats and Democrats 11.
Energy policy alone, of course, doesn’t determine these states’ loyalties. But the relative level of carbon emissions now largely tracks the broader economic, cultural and demographic forces separating the parties. The high-carbon states – centered on the Plains, the Mountain West and portions of the South – tend to be more rural, more culturally traditional, less racially diverse and home to fewer immigrants than the low-carbon states. Most of the high-carbon states are also less urbanized, less affected by the transition to white-collar, post-industrial work, and more reliant on manufacturing employment.
Trump’s administration clearly reflects these loyalties. His appointments to the key energy and climate-related positions all came from high-carbon states: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke of Montana (which ranks sixth in per capita carbon emissions); Energy Secretary Rick Perry of Texas (which ranks 12th); and, at the EPA, Pruitt from Oklahoma (which ranks 10th).
All have moved systematically to dismantle former President Barack Obama’s initiatives to reduce carbon emissions, such as EPA regulations mandating improved fuel efficiency from cars and trucks and reduced carbon emissions from power plants. Trump capped these efforts this spring by withdrawing from the Paris global climate change agreement, putting the US alongside Syria and Nicaragua, the only two other countries not joining the agreement.
Environmentalists believe this summer’s confluence of catastrophic storms, like hurricanes Katrina and Sandy before them, will continue to consolidate a growing public consensus that the climate is changing with dangerous implications. “Over time, the devastation likely leads to a shift in the debate,” says Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, a group that often builds alliances with business. “I’m not saying it happens this week. But the parade of climate-related extreme weather events we’ve seen in recent years have moved public opinion, and Harvey and Irma are likely to continue that long-term move toward climate realism. Sooner or later, the denial will collapse on Capitol Hill too.”
But the resolute resistance by Republicans from high carbon-states could stalemate not only Democrats, and the environmental groups usually allied with them, but even Republicans from the areas increasingly worried about climate change. Over two dozen House Republicans, for instance, have joined a bipartisan “Climate Solutions Caucus,” but that list does not include any of the GOP representatives from the biggest energy-producing states such as Texas, Oklahoma or the Mountain West (except for one GOP representative from the Denver suburbs.)
Likewise, just before Irma barreled into Florida, Tomas Regalado, the Republican mayor of Miami, virtually pleaded with Trump, Pruitt and congressional leaders to address the mounting dangers associated with global climate change. “This is the time to talk about climate change,” Regalado told the Miami Herald. “This is the time that the President and the EPA and whoever makes decisions needs to talk about climate change. If this isn’t climate change, I don’t know what is. This is a truly, truly poster child for what is to come.”
But in a GOP still dominated by the states most heavily bound to the fossil fuel economy, Regalado might as well have been shouting into the hurricane wind.