“V” is for Vitriol, When It Should Be for Victory

August 13, 2019

Dan Levitan argues in the New Republic that Republican deniers of climate change, who are now on the side of the “angels,” don’t deserve redemption by Democrats unless they own-up to the harms they’ve caused by their earlier denials.  Prompting Levitan to write his article was the testimony of Republican pollster Frank Luntz before the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis.

Luntz’s invitation was issued by the chair of the Committee, Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI). Unlike the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, the group is not a Senate sanctioned organization. It is a group of Democratic senators wanting to examine how climate change is affecting the country and the planet and to mobilize action and support for bold climate solutions. The Committee will convene a series of hearings through 2019 and 2020 to gather expert testimony from a wide variety of witnesses.

The July 25th hearing was entitled “The Right Thing to Do: Conservatives for Climate Action.” Joining Luntz as witnesses were Kera O’Brien Vice President, Students for Carbon Dividends and Nick Huey, founder of the Climate Campaign and a member of the Utah Chapter of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Both O’Brien and Huey are young conservative Republicans who believe that carbon needs to be priced.

Levitan took exception to Luntz for, among other things, his authorship of the now-infamous 2002 memo advising the Republican Party to sow confusion about global warming. In that memo Luntz wrote:

Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you [Republicans] need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.

These days Luntz’s message is much different. He was hired by the Climate Leadership Council to take the temperature of Republicans in general on climate change and specifically on CLC’s proposed carbon tax legislation. Luntz’s memo on the results of the poll stated clearly:

The ‘political temperature’ on climate change has shifted – perhaps permanently. Three in four American voters want to see the government step in to limit carbon emissions – including a majority of Republicans (55%). Voters’ concerns simply aren’t being adequately addressed – by the president or Congress. Fully six out of ten of voters believe U.S. climate policy is headed pretty seriously off on the wrong track. And this INCREASES among swing voters… While both parties cling to strong support on their ‘core’ issues, if those should falter, environmental policy – and its influence on younger voters in particular – could prove decisive. 

Although Levitan appears willing to forgive—if not forget—other Republican deniers, he feels particular contempt for Luntz:

Most converts should feel welcome in the political discussion about climate change; it’s a virtue to admit fault, after all. But those like Luntz—who actively furthered the climate crisis and continues to refuse to admit it—should be shunned. They have no practical use in the extremely urgent effort to solve global warming. They helped to break the world, and thus can’t be trusted to help fix it. (emphasis added)

I have trouble accepting Levitan’s position on Luntz—at least as a matter of practical politics. Luntz remains a highly sought after and respected Republican pollster. The poll’s findings are a testament to changing Republican attitudes. Luntz’s willingness to carry and stand-by the message not only to CLC but to Republicans in general increases the likelihood it will be heeded at least by some portion of Republicans.

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Levitan clearly wants Luntz and other Republicans to flog themselves publicly for their early denials of climate science before they can be accepted into the society of climate activists:

Even if Republicans’ come-to-Jesus moments swayed public opinion, they would have to include an honest reckoning of the harm caused…Embracing public figures who helped cause those harms, without any gestures toward accountability, risks alienating those who have long supported climate action.

Levitan’s expressed vitriol reflects what—in part—is wrong with today’s climate politics. First, it implies that redemption is never possible. Assume that Luntz stood up and flogged himself before God and country about his having advised clients in the past to cast doubt on climate science. Would Levitan’s judgment of him change any? Would he really let bygones be bygones?

OK sure, Levitan might stop Luntz’ fall to the eighth (fraud) rather than ninth (treachery) circle of Hell—but beyond that, I doubt it would make much difference to him. Flogging or not, Levitan would still deny that Luntz can be a convincing messenger to other Republicans, which I believe is itself a mistake.

The quickness to blame decades-old transgressions and the unwillingness to accept that a transgressor can change threatens any chance that a divided nation can once again be unified in its efforts to solve society’s problems. Some acts are, of course, worse than others, but has hate and the desire for vengeance so consumed us that forgiveness is never an option? Moreover, who’s to decide?

Levitan dismisses the denier class as unimportant in the battle to put the nation back on course to limit Earth’s rising temperatures–

But the “cool skeptics”—a.k.a., the deniers—have held steady, at or just below 20 percent of the country, for the last half-decade. There is thus little chance of convincing them any time soon—and even less reason to try.

As a political strategy blowing off the entire 20 percent of the nation that continues to deny Earth’s warming is an act of our and not nature’s is a mistake. Politics today is a game of inches. It is not only how many total votes are won in a presidential election it is, as well, where they are won.

I’ve written before that moderate Republicans can be wooed over to the green side. In that effort, voices like those of Luntz and other past deniers whose stock holds value in Republican circles are likely to resonate more loudly than those who would condemn them out of hand for what they once believed.

Dismissing deniers because they have come to accept the arguments of climate defenders as true is to deny the power of truth. At the end of the day, I would hope that climate defenders will raise a “V” in victory and not in vitriol.

Joel Stronberg

Joel B. Stronberg, Esq., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years of experience, based in Washington, DC. He writes about energy and politics in his blog Civil Notion (www.civilnotion.com) and has recently published the book Earth v. TrumpThe Climate Defenders' Guide to Washington Politics based on his commentaries. He has worked extensively in the clean energy fields for public and private sector clients at all levels of government and in Latin America. His specialties include: resiliency; distributed generation and storage; utility regulation; financing mechanisms; sustainable agriculture; and human behavior. Stronberg is a frequent presenter at conferences and workshops.

Tags: American politics, civility