Climate change was once a bipartisan issue. Can it happen again in the Biden presidency?

Even when the federal government in the United States has lagged behind, individual states have forged ahead with climate action. But now Biden’s ambitious pledge has placed the crisis at the top of the Democrats’ agenda, it is perhaps hard to imagine that climate was once a bipartisan issue that Republicans got behind as well. The former Ohio Governor John Kasich has committed himself to raising climate change awareness. He shares with Walter Isaacson from Amanpour & Company how the GOP lost its way in the thicket of climate denial.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Even when the federal government in the United States has lagged behind, individual states have forged ahead with climate action. But now Biden’s ambitious pledge has placed the crisis at the top of the Democrats’ agenda, it is perhaps hard to imagine that climate was once a bipartisan issue that Republicans got behind as well. The former Ohio Governor John Kasich has committed himself to raising climate change awareness. And here he is talking to Walter Isaacson about how the GOP lost its way in the thicket of climate denial.

WALTER ISAACSON: Thank you, Christiane. And, John Kasich, welcome to the show.

KASICH: Thank you, sir.

ISAACSON: Hey, is there a climate plan that sensible Democrats and sensible Republicans could all agree on right now?

KASICH: Well, I think there can be, Walter. I think so. And I think it’s things like making sure we modernize the grid, so that power can be moved in both directions, not just one. I think it’s a lot of research and development into new technologies, particularly around batteries, although there’s questions about the issue of lithium and batteries, from what I understand. But if you’re going to have renewables, you have got to have storage. So, I think there would be agreement that we need storage, I think E.V.s, electric vehicles, are in the future. And I think there should be an agreement or could be an agreement about the need to have fast charging stations. I actually drive a Tesla. And my wife is like — sometimes, she says: “John, if we go out of town, it’s a hassle.” And I think the hassle needs to be eliminated. I think most people would agree with that. As to how that gets accomplished, I’m not sure. I think there’s agreement that carbon is bad and that carbon sequestration, as we see ExxonMobil — I just read about it recently. They’re interested in carbon — in being able to capture carbon. I think there would be interest in — interest in that and perhaps a carbon tax, depending on what you do to it. You could rebate it. There’s a lot of things you could think about. So, I think there are areas where you could definitely have agreement. I think what — from what I understand, though, it’s that Republicans are very nervous it is going to disrupt all of these jobs, and I think some of the claims about the fact that miraculously all of these jobs are going to appear is — you know, I think they are going to be skeptical about that. You would have to explain it. But, Walter, look, you have studied some of the greatest people throughout history. It is the ability of people to think about the we and not the I. It is the ability to break out of being trapped by your own self-interests and being able to think about the greater good for everyone. And there was a time when we did that in America. But that time is fleeting and it needs to be recaptured. And can it be? I absolutely believe it can be but it is going to take time.

ISAACSON: The simplest way to reduce carbon would be to put a price on carbon, either a tax on carbon or even a cap in trade, which is not quite as simple. You’ve mentioned that maybe you would open to a tax on carbon. Do you think that’s something you could get other Republicans to support and do you think that’s really the best way to go?

KASICH: Well, I think it’s one of the things that you can do. And it’s interesting, right, because it is Jim Bakker and George Shultz that first started talking about the carbon tax. It was Reagan that first expressed concerns according to George Shultz, I had a conversation with Secretary Schultz and it was Reagan who was worried about the ozone. I think it was Nixon that might have created the EPA. You know, somehow, Republicans have migrated away from being concerned about the environment and, you know, they need to get back to it because for a couple of reasons. One is we are healthier. One of my great friends and great thinkers, Arnold Schwarzenegger, always says, instead of thinking about icebergs 30 years from now, why don’t we think about the problem of asthma today and health and clean water and clean air. Everybody is for that. And I think when it comes to the issue of the carbon tax it gets to be about where the proceeds of that tax go. I mean, some of it perhaps could be used to build infrastructure that we all know we need in this country. But that’s a whole other discussion about other ways of thinking about it. Or perhaps it is just do, as Jim Bakker told me, just a rebate to the American people. But I think that the idea of a carbon tax is coming. I’m not so sure about cap and trade and all that. But the carbon tax is something that perhaps over time Republicans could support. Look, Walter, I mean, the problem we have is that the Republican Party is not the party that it used to be. I mean, that’s like the understatement, perhaps, of the century. But at some point, good thinking people who understands science, and I mentioned, it’s about a cleaner environment, it’s also about faith. I mean, the lord gave us the planet. We are not to worship it, as some might want to do, but we you had at to be good stewards of it.

ISAACSON: You said the Republican Party isn’t the Republican Party you knew and that it’s migrated away from caring about the environment. Why? Why did that happen?

KASICH: You know, it’s such a — it’s a lot of things, Walter, that we — that I can’t put a firm finger on. But for some reason, this whole issue of science — I mean, got — somehow got into question. I think some of the extreme voices were able to dominate and just move us away from some sort of givens or some principles that the Republican Party really held dear. But, Walter, I may not be the best one to answer these questions because the Republican Party has always been my vehicle and never my master. And my view was, I’m an American before anything else, and the subset is the Republican Party. I don’t get — I have never taken orders from them. So, I may not be the best person to ask about what’s happened because, you know, I was never a doctrine err person. If the party doesn’t warrant it, I’m not for it. But if you look at some of the great leaders in the party, Teddy Roosevelt — I’ll tell you one that shook up the system was Jack Kemp. I mean, he thought differently. And there was more openness at some point to different opinions. And for some reason, the loud voices on the extreme of the party seem to try to cancel out those people who were frankly more moderate, people who had good ideas. Now, every time I talk about this, I start thinking about this and I am not about to absolve the Democratic Party. Because there are members of that party who really engage in the cancel culture. If you don’t think the way I do, I cancel you. And the party’s got to be careful that they are not run by the extremes, the hard left. Because I think most of the country operates in the middle. [14:35:00] And if the loud voices on both sides — because I think you grow a country, and policies, not that the extremes don’t push the middle, but you grow things from the middle out, not from the extremes in. And I think in both parties, they’ve got to be very wary of this, of being able to let the extremes dominate.

ISAACSON: What has caused this polarization when most of Americans probably do have a gravitation towards the middle, as you have said, and yet, the parties have become more extreme?

KASICH: Walter, look, that’s a much deeper question. We’ve gone from a culture of we, where we think about those things around us which we had most of the 20th century. But starting in the 1970s or whatever, we have kinds of moved to an I culture, what’s in it for me, not for everybody else. And when you get yourself in an I culture, it disrupts everything. We can begin to get back to a we culture. And then in a we culture, the extremes no longer dominate because too much of that is about I, and fear that I’m going to lose something, as opposed to the fact that we are all in a boat together and we have to row in the same direction. Today. one group rows going forward, one group rows going backwards, and the ship can’t move anywhere. But it’s not just true in politics. It’s true across the American spectrum. Now, Walter, only a guy like you would ask me a question and actually let me finish those thoughts. Because I think they are significant thoughts, and they are impactful thoughts about how we can get our country back and begin to do the things that we care about. So, on the environment, instead of a Republican being criticized because they work with Obama or they work with Biden or whatever, they say, wait a minute, there is a greater good here, I don’t agree with them on everything but there’s things here that will bring us together as a people. People will be healthier. The environment will be cleaner. Good things could happen. But right now, those considerations are secondary to what’s in it for me.

ISAACSON: More than half the Republicans in Congress are now climate deniers, meaning they don’t believe that human activity is causing climate change. And it’s growing. You on the other hand actually moved in the other direction. You were skeptical for a while to some extent about human impact on climate and you have looked at the science and moved in the other direction. How would you make an argument to that half of the Congress Republicans to get them to see it differently?

KASICH: You know, Walter, more than being, you know, skeptical, I just wasn’t all that informed. I didn’t know that much. But as governor, there were some things that were clear to me, that the more that we could use natural gas, which is really the transitional fuel, we would have more jobs. If we fracked and we did it carefully and we begin to capture methane more than even the federal government would require, if we were able to develop renewables and figure out some way, ultimately, to be able to store it, that just made all the sense in the world. And you know, for me, I was overwhelmingly reelected in our state. And — but I mean, we reduced emissions like 30 percent over the last 10 years in the state. So, these are just commonsense things. We know that burning coal is not a good thing, ultimately, for the environment, that we need to move away from coal, that we need to move into natural gas. I find it interesting that many on the left begun to embrace nuclear power. Remember, they used to have protests and wanted to shut all the plants down. Now, they want to open them up and build new ones. But, you know, over time, it made sense to me to do these things. It was smart economically and it was good for the environment. I don’t know how you can be a denier. I mean, I think part of the problem is, they say we live in cycles, that cycles come and cycles go. But when you talk to them about the amount of carbon that we now see in the atmosphere and how it heats and creates the greenhouse gas effect and all of that, Walter, if somebody just says, I just don’t — I am not going believe you, you have got to — there is a lot of fish in the ocean, you got to move on to others. I think we find in this debate right now — and I know this myself, if I’m on with some environmentalists and I agree with them 80 percent, it’s the 20 percent I become their enemy. You can’t achieve anything that way. And by the way, you can shove all of these policies through any way you want. They will not last. They will not be accepted. This has to be done in a — even though it frustrates those who are, you know, the strong environmentalists, this cannot be done overnight.

ISAACSON: Late last year you set the tone for that type of bipartisan approach when you worked on World War Zero with Secretary John Kerry who is now the climate envoy, and Governor Schwarzenegger. Are you going to continue to try to work with John Kerry and some people in the Biden administration to see where we could go?

KASICH: Yes. Sure. But we have got to figure out a mechanism to bring more people around and to convince — you know, we have got the usual suspects in the Republican Party who buy in. We’ve just got to figure out a way how to kind of advance this among those and get some breakthroughs among people who you wouldn’t normally expect to get breakthroughs from. And we have seen that happen in other areas. You know, we have seen it in defense reform. We have seen it in health care reform. We have seen it dealing with the issue of poverty. We just have to bring people along, some of the unusual suspects, who can say, yes, this is really an issue and really a problem. But, Walter, the other part of it is, it’s the grassroots. You know, and that this diverts just a little bit but it makes my point. I was leaving — as governor, I was trying to do some agreed to gun control measures. The problem we had is that nobody wanted to show up to support them. All the people in opposition showed up. But those who should have been for them never came, and there was no pressure. I think the same is true with the environment. I think more and more young people, by the way, are very, very clued in to this. And the Republican Party better be very careful. They are going to lose all of those young people if they don’t bring them along to the issues they care about, and one of them is climate.

ISAACSON: What is the role in business, both in moderating our politics and in finding comment sense solutions on climate?

KASICH: Well, as you know, businesses now are increasingly involved in ESG, Environmental, Social and Governance issues. And they are very, very interested. In my business, I worked with them and I have come to understand their deep commitment. And I have suggested to them that environmental, social, or governance change is not a matter of checking a box, but, rather, an issue of the heart. And I find more and more of them understand that. They get it. They want to move things. And frankly, I think they are just tired of the inability of the political system to solve problems. Now, when we talk about an I or a we culture, we know there are a lot of businesses that have only cared about themselves. And so, perhaps the issue of taking political stands or engaging in something like the environment can help move them away from an I stance to more of a we stance. Perhaps they can become a leader in the fact that in America we are all in this together. So, I’m very, very encouraged by the ideas that the business community has about not just environmental, but social issues as well, inclusivity, diversity. They are all starting to pay great attention to this. And I hope that the government can lead them into it rather than beating them into it. Because when you beat somebody into something, then it becomes a check the box rather than a real evolutionary change.

ISAACSON: You have proposed some commonsense gun legislation. And with this spade of shootings we’ve had in the past few weeks, what type of gun legislation do you think should be passed? What are you pushing? And how would you get us there?

KASICH: Well, the first thing that ought to be done is a Red Flag Law. A Red Flag Law says that if we know somebody at work or in our family who we think poses a danger to themselves or others, that you can go to a court and through a due process situation, you can take guns away from them. That makes all the sense in the world because when people say it’s mental health issue, OK, I agree with that in many of these cases. But what are you doing about it? If you think it’s a mental health issue, then you shouldn’t let people who have these problems be able to have guns. Now, once they are stabilized, give them their guns back. But, look, the biggest problem we have today in our country is the fact that there is not the training that we need of our police. I mean, it’s one of the biggest problems that relates to this whole issue. We actually — I put together a group, Walter, on the issue of police and community right after we had some tragic incidents here in Ohio. And it has made a huge difference in the way that police and community work, it needs to be constantly upgraded. But we then moved towards gun measures. And this Red Flag Law to me was something that was very simple. But yet, the politicians figured out a way to not do it. Walter, until we have people demanding it, it’s not going to happen. Because the gun — people who oppose this are very strong and they are very strident. And they have to be respected. They can’t be dismissed. But At the same time if the people of this country say, look, we need to know who has those guns. And if somebody is unstable, they ought not to have a gun. Then we can get into the issue of, you know, what type of gun should you have? That’s another legitimate issue that needs to be discussed. But let’s get some early victories because we don’t seem to get too many. And I know this sounds kind of boring to people, you know. But look, power goes from bottom up. It goes from our hands up based upon a moral purpose that we have to say, we will not quit until we get what we want. And a good example on environment about that, just taking it back for a second, is Greta Thunberg, who, you know, decided she was going to hold a sign outside of a parliament and created a global movement. Everybody matters. You matter. What we do in the workplace, in our families, in our communities. Driving change. And one of the areas that has to be changed are the gun laws in this country.

ISAACSON: John Kasich, thank you very much for joining us.

KASICH: Thank you, sir.