"He would see this country burn if he could be king of the ashes."
--Varys, regarding Littlefinger, in Game of Thrones
He might well have been describing the modern Republican Party. Overlooked among the chaos of last week's border bill fiasco: Republicans rejected aid to fight climate-fueled wildfires, and the social contract frays a bit more.
Tuesday, the House denied President Obama's request for wildfire funding, contained within the border bill, entirely. Obama requested $659 million to deal with an unusually strong wildfire season with an estimated price tag of $1.8 billion. The House's allocation in response: zero. The Hill quotes Hal Rogers: “Although on wildfires, the agencies have a big pile of money already,” Rogers said. “I don’t think there’s an urgency on the money part.”
Thursday, Senate Republicans blocked wildfire aid again, both in the border bill and in a separate standalone bill. President Obama requested $615 million to help fight Western wildfires. Senator John Cornyn R-TX) objected, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) demanded cuts elsewhere, stating that "I also want to make sure our children have a future," and that was the end of that.
The House did manage to find $35 million to beef up border patrols, because what's more scary: refugee children wanting a better life in America or thousands upon thousands of acres burning to a crisp in the tinderbox of drought-stricken California?
And so Congress heads into a scorching hot August recess having done nothing about wildfires ravaging near districts of Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), David Valadao (R-CA), and other Western members of the House Appropriations Committee. Yes, the same Kevin McCarthy who bashes Obama's climate agenda while ignoring California's drought.
Meanwhile, California Gov. Jerry Brown declares a state of emergency as more than a dozen major wildfires burn - activity comparable to a normal September.
What's going on here? Is the modern Republican Party now driven by anarchy, the real-life Joker who just wants to watch the world burn? Does raw ambition blind it to the consequences of action - the modern Littlefinger who'd be king of the ashes?
It's easy to snark on the anarchy aspect - I've been using #GOPWantsToWatchTheWorldBurn on twitter - but we're seeing the beginning of a deeper shift. Firefighting should be one of the most basic functions of government, a paradigm example of why citizens organize and tax themselves. Gauis Publius at Americablog writes that the climate crisis will break the social contract: "Nothing like a squabble over scarcity (pretend or otherwise) to tear a society literally apart."
The White House has, quite correctly, connected the dots between the drought-scarred, overheating West and its wildfires. More broadly, Democrats in leadership positions are beginning to make the economic case for action on climate change; Sen. Patty Murray is distributing talking points to her colleagues emphasizing the costs of inaction on disaster relief, among other things. The economic pitch on climate change is simple: spend some now or spend a lot later, with the implied message that the fiscally prudent party prefers choice (a).
Yet protection of the fossil fuel industry is deeply embedded within Republican DNA.
Fossil-fuel-captured Republicans are beating both fiscally conservative Republicans and the social contract. They've gotten fairly good at denying that some effects of climate change are already happening - for example, sea level rise in North Carolina has been legislated out of existence. Admitting that this is a bad year for wildfire would be a tacit admission that they and their donors Exxon and Peabody Coal have lit the match of California. This budget skirmish is the beginning of an ugly spectacle in which Republicans will refuse to spend money on climate change adaptation, even if it means abandoning the social contract of basic government services. So they've skipped town, telling each other that it's all right because the agencies are just "sitting on a big pile of money."
Rather than acknowledge that climate change is worsening Western wildfires and that a core government function is fighting fires, Republicans are telling the West to burn during the August recess so that they can be kings of the ashes in September.