As Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, George Shultz faced off against Muammar Qaddafi, the Soviet Union and Chinese communists.
His latest cause, though, is one few fellow Republicans support: fighting climate change.
Two years ago, Shultz was alarmed when a retired Navy admiral showed him a video of vanishing Arctic sea ice and explained the implications for global stability. Now, the former Cold Warrior drives an electric car, sports solar panels on his California roof and argues for government action against global warming at clean-energy conferences.
Living a life powered “on sunshine,” Shultz, at 93, has a message for the doubters who dominate his own party: “The potential results are catastrophic,” he said in an interview. “So let’s take out an insurance policy.”
As the United Nations gathers almost 200 governments in Lima this week to discuss new carbon limits for the planet, the U.S., as with so many other issues, looks badly divided. While President Barack Obama has pledged to accelerate reductions to greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 and is using his executive powers to put policies in place, Republicans have retaken the Senate and stand firmly opposed.
When Obama announced an agreement on carbon controls with Chinese President Xi Jinping three weeks ago, incoming Senate leader Mitch McConnell dismissed it as an “unrealistic plan” that would boost electric rates and kill jobs. Yet, there are signs of growing acceptance to the idea that climate change spurred by human actions is a mounting problem.
Across the U.S., a series of weather anomalies -- from a record West Coast drought to Midwest flooding and Superstorm Sandy -- are gradually helping to shift public opinion on climate change, according to a string of recent polls. Two in three Americans now believe global warming is real, according to an October survey of 1,275 people by Yale and George Mason universities. That’s up from 57 percent in January 2010.
“There’s a great middle in this country that basically agrees that something needs to be done,” said James Brainard, the Republican mayor of Carmel, Indiana, who served on a climate preparedness task force organized by Obama. “They can see that weather patterns are changing drastically.”
Activists have seized on severe weather and other geographic changes to try to shape public opinion in the U.S., the world’s biggest source of carbon emissions per capita. From weather anomalies to the worsening problem of seawater fouling drinking supplies in Florida, public awareness is on the rise, said Jennifer Morgan, director of climate programs at the World Resources Institute in Washington, an advocacy group.
“The penny has dropped in terms of the costs of climate change,” Morgan said.
Scientists, too, have made the connection, though they’re not always as resolute in their findings. A trio of studies into California’s three-year-old drought published in September in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, reached conflicting conclusions about the role of climate change. The study was part of a package of reports finding that nine of 16 global weather disasters in 2013 bore the mark of human-stoked warming. It increased the odds of heat waves in Australia, China and Europe, heavy rains in the U.S. and a severe dry spell in New Zealand, scientists said.
A year earlier, researchers in the same journal said Sandy’s rampage through New York and New Jersey was exacerbated by rising sea levels brought on by a warmer climate. The origins of the storm itself, however, were too complex to tie to any one factor, the scientists wrote.
Munich Re, the world’s biggest reinsurer, said last month North America is among continents that experienced the largest increases in weather-related loss events since 1980.
Shultz, now a distinguished fellow at Stanford University, said the reality was driven home for him during a visit to the California campus by Gary Roughead, the U.S. Navy’s retired chief of naval operations. Roughead shared a time-lapse video of the Arctic ice cap shrinking over the last quarter-century.
“That certainly was an eye-opener,” Shultz said in an interview last week in San Francisco, where he spoke at an energy conference. The video showed what Shultz called “new oceans” being unlocked from the ice.
Opinion surveys show most Republicans disagree with taking steps to control climate change. Only 37 percent of party members say they believe there’s solid evidence the earth is warming and just 25 percent view it as a major threat to the U.S., the Pew Research Center said in a September report. That compares to 61 percent of all Americans in the same poll who said the globe is warming and 48 percent who see it as a threat.
Republican leaders reflect that skepticism. The party won control of both houses of Congress last month by running against Obama’s policies, including new rules from the Environmental Protection Agency on power plant pollution.
James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican set to lead the Senate environment committee, has written a book dismissing climate science as a hoax. After last month’s election results, Inhofe showed no sign of giving ground.
“The American people spoke against the president’s climate policies in this last election,” Inhofe said on Nov. 12. “They want affordable energy and more economic opportunity, both of which are being diminished by overbearing EPA mandates.”
Belief in global warming has waxed and waned over the years, said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.
Democrats and Republicans held roughly the same views on the topic until 1997, when then-Vice President Al Gore signed the Kyoto Protocol on behalf of the U.S., Leiserowitz said. The agreement, which the U.S. never ratified, called on wealthy countries to cut emissions while giving a pass to developing nations like China and India.
“That’s the moment when the two parties really start separating from one another, where Democrats become increasingly convinced it’s a serious problem and Republicans are increasingly convinced it’s not happening,” Leiserowitz said in an interview. Since then, it’s become “one of the most polarized issues in America.”
He raises the possibility global warming could follow the same trajectory as same-sex marriage, another issue that divided voters for years before public opinion shifted in favor.
Gay marriage rapidly gained support in the U.S. as a determined “social movement” racked up legal victories, he said. The question for climate policies will be whether there is “going to be a strong, powerful set of voices demanding this rule, as opposed to the set of voices that are actively resisting?”
Republicans who buck the climate view within their party say they’re motivated by signs that the greenhouse effect is no longer an abstract threat.
Brainard, the Indiana mayor, points to increasingly heavy rainstorms that have overwhelmed the storm-sewer system in Carmel, a fast-growing town of 80,000 people north of Indianapolis. The town has had to spend millions to upgrade the system, he said in a telephone interview.
John Thune of South Dakota, the U.S. Senate’s third-ranking Republican, told Fox News on Nov. 16 that climate change is happening, in part due to human activity. “The question,” he said, “is what are we going to do about it and at what cost?”
Mark McKinnon, a former media adviser to President George W. Bush, sees “incremental evolution” on the issue within the Republican party. “Rather than denying the science, many are simply saying they are not scientists,” he said. “On this issue, that’s actually progress.”
Shultz said he witnessed the havoc wrought by the 1973 Middle East oil embargo when he was treasury secretary for President Richard Nixon. The crisis bolstered his concerns about U.S. reliance on foreign oil and the Treasury Department began funding research into alternative energy sources. Yet the money dried up soon after the embargo lifted and oil prices dropped.
The concerns make for a natural alliance between national-security hawks concerned about energy independence and climate activists who want to reduce heat-trapping pollution from fossil fuels, Shultz said.
In June, he joined Maine Senator Olympia Snowe, a Republican, in signing onto a bipartisan report that said a warmer climate could cause hundreds of billions of dollars in economic losses. Hank Paulson, George W. Bush’s former treasury secretary, was another signatory.
If he’s a renegade within his party, it won’t be for long, according to Shultz.
“Reality is going to do a lot,” he said. “It will become more and more evident that there are big melts all over the world that are going to cause water problems and other problems. People will have to notice.”
Shultz recalled the Montreal Protocol he helped Ronald Reagan broker in the 1980s to reduce chemicals that were eroding the ozone. There were skeptics then, too, “but we got them to agree that we should take out an insurance policy,” he said. “There were consequences, we could see the consequences.”
Shultz, a former University of Chicago economics professor, supports a system to reduce emissions through a revenue neutral tax on fossil fuels that would recycle the money collected back to citizens in the form of a carbon dividend check.
The consequences of not acting could affect more than just the environment, he said. It could involve national security as well, creating new political, health and social threats globally, according to Shultz.
“For example, we’ve been worried about communicable diseases, right?” he said. “Now we are going to have some new diseases to cope with. That’s just one example. There are all kinds.”
Shultz tools around the Stanford campus in a scarlet plug-in Nissan Leaf, bought around the same time he saw the Navy video. He added solar panels on his home on the Stanford campus about six years ago. He figures he’s already made his money back in lower energy bills.
The savings were only part of the attraction. Asked about his clean-energy conversion, the ex-statesman said he also wanted to send a message: “I thought I should walk the talk,” he said.