Republicans Are Talking Differently About Climate Change

A suddenly more nuanced position speaks to the party’s belief in the issue’s coming potency.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 13: U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks during a National Press Club Newsmaker Luncheon May 13, 2014 in Washington, DC. Sen. Rubio delivered a policy speech on social security and answered questions during the luncheon. 
National Journal
June 18, 2014, 5:46 p.m.

These days, it takes care­ful pars­ing to pin­point what Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates be­lieve about cli­mate change.

The GOP’s Sen­ate can­did­ate in Michigan, Terri Lynn Land, is­sued a press re­lease last month that de­clared glob­al warm­ing was “ab­so­lutely” a real­ity. Such an ac­know­ledg­ment, on its face, would once have amoun­ted prac­tic­ally to heresy for a party hos­tile to the sci­ence of cli­mate change. But lest any­one be­gin to con­fuse her with Bill Nye the Sci­ence Guy, her cam­paign’s spokes­wo­man quickly emailed a fol­low-up state­ment: Al­though Land thinks the Earth’s cli­mate is chan­ging partly as a con­sequence of hu­man be­ha­vi­or, she’s du­bi­ous about the de­gree to which hu­man­kind is re­spons­ible.

To a cli­mate sci­ent­ist, that’s a bit like watch­ing a golfer line up a per­fect putt, only to see the ball un­ex­pec­tedly lip out of the hole at the last mo­ment. But as the dust settles on Pres­id­ent Obama’s pro­pos­al to cut car­bon emis­sions, her al­most-but-not-quite em­brace of cli­mate-change sci­ence is in­dic­at­ive of a broad­er shift with­in the Re­pub­lic­an Party — one that has shucked the de­fi­ant skep­ti­cism of its re­cent past for a nu­anced view on the sub­ject.

Cer­tainly, base-wary Re­pub­lic­ans haven’t gone all-in yet. Their ad­just­ment, however, is no ac­ci­dent: While the sci­ence it­self is largely the same, the polit­ics of its le­git­im­acy has turned against Re­pub­lic­ans in all but the red­dest of states. It’s a sep­ar­ate de­bate from the eco­nom­ic-fo­cused one about the po­ten­tial loss of jobs from the reg­u­la­tions — one Re­pub­lic­ans are con­vinced they’ll win — but it’s non­ethe­less an is­sue rear­ing its head in the midterm elec­tions.

“I don’t think it would be wise for a Re­pub­lic­an to shut the door on a dis­cus­sion of cli­mate change,” said Dick Wadhams, a Col­or­ado-based GOP strategist. “But I do think it’s sens­ible for a Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate to ex­press skep­ti­cism about this head­long rush … a lot of Demo­crats seem to be hav­ing to kill the coal in­dustry.”

Wit­ness Marco Ru­bio, who like Land sim­il­arly ar­gued that the cli­mate is chan­ging but doubted wheth­er hu­mans are the main cul­prit. Thom Tillis and Joni Ernst, two Re­pub­lic­an Sen­ate can­did­ates in purple-hued North Car­o­lina and Iowa, re­spect­ively, have also ex­pressed views in shades of gray. Rick Scott, the Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernor of Flor­ida, has star­ted say­ing that he’s “not a sci­ent­ist.”

And that’s when Re­pub­lic­ans talk about the sci­ence at all: Many, such as Ed Gillespie in Vir­gin­ia or Cory Gard­ner in Col­or­ado, opt against say­ing any­thing all, in­stead keep­ing their fo­cus trained squarely on the ef­fect reg­u­la­tions will have on jobs and elec­tri­city bills.

It wasn’t al­ways this way. As re­cently as 2009, Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers such as then-House Minor­ity Lead­er John Boehner were pub­licly mock­ing cli­mate-change sci­ence. Ap­pear­ing on ABC News’s This Week, Boehner said the no­tion that car­bon di­ox­ide was a car­ci­no­gen was “al­most com­ic­al.”

“Every time we ex­hale, we ex­hale car­bon di­ox­ide,” he said. “Every cow in the world, you know, when they do what they do, you’ve got more car­bon di­ox­ide.”

In many in­stances, Re­pub­lic­ans avoided talk­ing about the is­sue at all (some­times go­ing to great lengths to avoid do­ing so). It’s not that Re­pub­lic­ans have al­ways out­right re­jec­ted cli­mate-change sci­ence; be­fore the tea-party wave of 2010, the GOP had largely em­braced not only the sci­ence but some meas­ure of poli­cy­mak­ing to com­bat it. But with the rise of the ul­tracon­ser­vat­ive base, the fail­ure of the Demo­crats’ cap-and-trade le­gis­la­tion, and sub­sequent deep un­pop­ular­ity of that pro­pos­al, Re­pub­lic­an at­ti­tudes changed.

“In the af­ter­math of that, no one had to be care­ful,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a prom­in­ent Re­pub­lic­an eco­nom­ist and out­spoken ad­voc­ate about the threat posed by cli­mate change (who op­poses the pres­id­ent’s EPA rules). “You could just lam­baste everything as­so­ci­ated with it.”

Now they do. Nearly six in 10 Amer­ic­ans think hu­man activ­it­ies are mainly to blame for the rise in glob­al tem­per­at­ures, ac­cord­ing to a Gal­lup Poll from March. And des­pite the party’s long­stand­ing skep­ti­cism about cli­mate change, 41 per­cent of Re­pub­lic­ans say the same.

But more im­port­ant than how many voters it reaches is which voters it reaches. The re­jec­tion of cli­mate-change sci­ence — and the po­ten­tial to con­sequently be labeled as anti-all sci­ence — risks ali­en­at­ing the crit­ic­al bloc of mod­er­ate and even GOP-lean­ing voters. “There’s a slice of mod­er­ate and lib­er­al Re­pub­lic­ans, part col­lege-edu­cated, part wo­men, part un­der-50, where there is an op­por­tun­ity for Demo­crats to get a lot more of those voters than they nor­mally would,” said An­drew Bau­mann, a Demo­crat­ic poll­ster who works with en­vir­on­ment­al groups.

Cli­mate change won’t single-handedly change minds, not by a long shot. Few in­di­vidu­al is­sues do. But it’s one of a mélange of top­ics — among them im­mig­ra­tion re­form, gun con­trol, and abor­tion rights — that Demo­crats can use to win over the bloc of af­flu­ent sub­urb­an mod­er­ates, a kind of death-by-a-thou­sand-cuts strategy. It’s the same group of voters who also pop­u­late a lot of crit­ic­al 2014 swing areas, such as the North­ern Vir­gin­ia or the Den­ver sub­urbs.

Des­pite the com­pel­ling polling on the is­sue, Re­pub­lic­an strategists say it’s one that’s eas­ily nav­ig­able by tal­en­ted can­did­ates. A de­bate about sci­ence isn’t good for the party, but it doesn’t have to be, they say, ar­guing that the fo­cus on EPA’s car­bon reg­u­la­tions and the po­ten­tial job losses that res­ult steers the de­bate to­ward far firmer ground for the GOP.

Be­sides, voters still rank com­bat­ing cli­mate change near the bot­tom of their list of pri­or­it­ies.

“The ques­tion is, is cli­mate change go­ing to be on the menu of what’s driv­ing voters in North Car­o­lina?” said Paul Shu­maker, a North Car­o­lina-based GOP strategist who works for Tillis, the party’s Sen­ate nom­in­ee. “How many people in North Car­o­lina are be­ing dir­ectly im­pacted by it now?”

Ac­cord­ing to sci­ence, all of them.

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