By Christine Todd Whitman
May 14, 2014

This week, two teams of scientists announced that the West Antarctic ice sheet has begun collapsing, beginning what they call an “unstoppable” process that could raise sea levels by as much as 15 feet over time. “This is really happening,” Thomas P. Wagner, one of the researchers, told the New York Times. “There’s nothing to stop it now.”

The timing was especially unfortunate for Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican senator and 2016 hopeful, who had just cast doubt on the phenomenon of human-induced climate change, telling ABC News, “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it.”

Rubio has expressed more reasonable positions on the topic in the past—and he quickly sought to clarify his remarks—but I do not entirely blame him for his rhetorical shift. In an annual Pew poll, only 14 percent of Republicans cited climate change as a top policy priority. That’s down from 23 percent in 2007, the first year Pew included climate change in its priority list. The party has clearly changed in those seven years, and Rubio knows where his voting base for 2016 is on the issue.

This is not simply a problem in the Republican Party, though. The American public routinely ranks addressing climate change low on its list of priorities for Washington. This year it ranked 19th among 20 issues tested by Pew, just behind “dealing with moral breakdown” and “improving roads, bridges, public transit.”

The climate issue is politically challenging not only because it’s at the bottom of people’s priority lists, but also because of overreach on both sides of the debate. Humans aren’t the sole “cause” of climate change, and environmentalists have done a disservice in making that claim too assertively. Our activities are exacerbating natural phenomena, making us part of the problem, but the Earth and its climate has been changing since it was formed. Because of human activity, things are changing faster than nature or humans can adapt, and the sooner we start taking steps to slow things, the better off we will be.

The modern environmental movement arguably began with Teddy Roosevelt, the Republican president who established the national park system. A Republican president, Richard Nixon, and a Democratic Congress created much of our landmark environmental legislation, including the Clean Air Act and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. But Republicans have gotten away from those values in recent years. The only way to return the GOP to its roots and, in turn, make headway on climate change is by ensuring that Republicans—and all Americans—recognize the very real economic costs of not protecting our environment.

Christine Todd Whitman, former governor of New Jersey and administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is president of the Whitman Strategy Group.