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What’s on the Horizon for Environmental Policy?: An Interview with Robinson Meyer

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Robinson Meyer is an award-winning journalist who currently works as the Executive Editor of Heatmap, a media company focused on climate change. Prior to founding Heatmap, Robinson covered climate change, energy, and technology for The Atlantic and The New York Times. 

Charlie Adams: You’ve written about how Republican presidential candidates have discussed climate in their campaigns. What are some differences between the candidates and do any stand out?

Robinson Meyer: I think you could put them in three categories. There’s Trump, who’s pretty peerless and basically pledges to continue the anti-climate deregulatory activities of his first administration. There’s a second category of “standard” Republicans who also want to pursue a deregulatory, anti-climate agenda but acknowledge some of the harmful effects of climate change. Then there’s a last category of Republicans who are trying to do something, but not making a big fuss about it. 

In the second group, the divides are in how much you care about the consequences of climate change. If you look at Ron DeSantis’s record, for instance, you’ll see that he’s attended throughout his governorship to the consequences of climate change and sea level rise primarily in terms of how it affects his state. When he took office, he was quite deliberate about repealing policies put in place by his predecessor that blocked any discussion of climate change whatsoever. That said, as climate mitigation efforts are pulled into the culture war, he becomes more antagonistic because that’s kind of his central claim as a candidate. 

In your third group is Nikki Haley or Chris Christie. Haley is really interesting. When she was UN ambassador as Trump was pulling out of the Paris Agreement, she was like, “No, Donald Trump believes in climate change.” Even though, at the same time, he clearly did not. It seemed to be this dynamic where she was saying what she thought and projecting it on Trump so that he wouldn’t reject it.

Broadly, what’s interesting about the candidates is that opposition to climate mitigation—and a willingness to pursue a very fossil fuel-friendly policy—unites a lot of different parts of the Republican Party. I don’t think it’s why most politicians who are Republicans become Republicans, but I think it’s something that they basically agree on, with some exceptions. If they want to do something about climate change, it’s not usually because they’re extremely personally motivated by climate change—it’s because they understand that it’s a political liability for Republicans to continue having no climate policy, especially with younger voters. 

CA: On the flip side, what do you think is the winning message for Biden on climate coming into this campaign?

RM: Well, I would stipulate that the winning message might not be the winning policy, and it may also not be the same thing as what he should do. If we’re talking from a messaging standpoint, Biden is vulnerable because of inflation. We’re having what is on paper some of the highest economic growth in decades, an extremely healthy labor market, household finances [that] look better than they have in a long time—and yet people don’t like the economy. 

A key source of inflation that’s very salient to people is gas prices. Biden has really taken an all-of-the-above strategy to bring down gas prices because that’s a giant political vulnerability for him. At the same time, he’s been quite reluctant to take political ownership of these efforts. That’s partially due to demands by climate activists. But there’s another side to that calculus, too. Climate activists really need Democrats in power in order to get anything they want done at the national level, and that may mean that Democrats and Biden should be more upfront about everything they’ve done to reduce gas prices. If you look at the administration, it is trying to walk a balance between maintaining popular support and energy security for the US while trying to bend the US in the medium and long term toward decarbonization and reducing emissions. Frankly, it’s managing that balance that is the biggest challenge for Biden.

I think there’s another angle to this: If you look at the Republican talking points that are anti-climate policy, they’re all about jobs. But there are a lot of policies in the IRA that are fairly protectionist and anti-China and that are going to create jobs. There’s this tension right now where a lot of policies implemented by the Biden administration have been job-creating without hurting the fossil fuel industry because American oil production is at an all-time high. By repealing those policies, Republicans will be killing jobs not only in New York, but in Georgia and Arizona. These are the places getting big investments.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.