The tide is finally turning. In last night’s third Republican debates, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and former New York Governor George Pataki both acknowledged the scientific consensus that climate change is real and linked to human activities.
These candidates participated in the “undercard” debate of four before the longer debate with the remaining 10 Republican hopefuls. But their comments are a major step in breaking the link between a conservative worldview and climate skepticism.
Increasing commentary, both partisan and nonpartisan, is making it clear that the conservative position of denying climate change is untenable. The tide of the scientific evidence is too great to hold back, and the longer the Republican Party denies the existence of the issue, the longer it will be excluded from the discussion over what to do about it.
While the top 10 Republican candidates such as Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz continue to deny climate change exists or fall back on the mealy-mouthed “I’m not a scientist” defense, the Democratic candidates are putting forward proposals to address it. This is taking place against a backdrop where President Obama is taking action on numerous national and international fronts to address the issue. The train is leaving the station and the Republican Party is not even on the platform.
In fact, the GOP is an outlier in the world on this position, as other countries, such as China and India, step forward with climate plans of their own, taking away one of the Republican Party’s excuses for resisting climate policy. Of the nine major conservative parties around the world, only the US GOP does not at least admit climate change is a problem.
But that is about to end as the voices expressing concern over this issue are expanding beyond constituents that many Republicans don’t trust – environmentalists, democratic politicians and scientists – and including constituents they do trust – namely business executives, religious leaders and fellow Republicans. The social movement, and the politics, around the issue are mounting to critical proportions.
First, key business interests are coming “out of the closet.” Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, warned in September that if we do not take action now, global warming could become one of the biggest risks to future economic stability. Cargill Executive Director Greg Page has warned that climate change is real and must be addressed to prevent future food shortages. General Mills CEO Ken Powell told the Associated Press:
We think that human-caused greenhouse gas causes climate change and climate volatility and that’s going to stress the agricultural supply chain, which is very important to us.
These are not isolated voices. They represent a growing concern within the corporate sector that we have a problem and government inaction will only make it worse. These messages are not coming from the Environmental Protection Agency, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Al Gore or an environmental nongovernmental organization, and they carry a weight with the voters that cannot easily be dismissed.
Second, religion has entered the fray. Even the pope has stepped forward to say that climate change is real and that we should do something about as a matter of religious morality. In his encyclical letter and his speeches to the Joint Sessions of Congress and the United Nations, he is breaking the link that you cannot believe in God and believe in climate change, as Rush Limbaugh and others have strongly claimed. The pope has implored the world’s leaders to take responsibility for addressing this major issue.
One of the audiences for that message is the 70 Catholic Republican congressman and 11 Catholic Republican senators in the 114th Congress. Another audience is the 70 million Catholics in the US. And the pressure from the pulpit is not exclusive to Catholics. Statements from prominent Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist leaders followed the pope’s statement with similar message of their own.
Third, Republicans are hearing it from fellow Republicans. Pataki and Graham have added their voices to those of other Republicans who are now trying to convince their party to agree with scientists. Jay Faison, a conservative Republican businessman, plans to spend US$10 million on efforts to lobby Republicans to embrace the issue of climate change. Former Republican Congressman Bob Inglis has made it his mission to get his party to see the scientific facts (and winning the 2015 Profile in Courage Award from the Kennedy Library in the process).
Conservative think tank R Street, started by former Heartland Institute staffer Eli Lehrer, is actively searching for conservative methods for addressing the issue. Even the conservative business lobbying group American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has been doing some strange and convoluted backtracking. Though Shell quit the group this year because of positions on climate change that the company says are incompatible with their own, ALEC is now not only insisting that it doesn’t deny climate change, but threatening to sue those who suggest otherwise.
Finally, this all leads to the reality that Republican voters are changing. Public opinion polls by Bloomberg, the Pew Research Center, the Brookings Institution and even some Republican pollsters show that Republican voters are becoming believers.
The majority of Republicans – including 54% of self-described conservative Republicans – now believe that the world’s climate is changing and that mankind plays some role in the change, according to ClearPath. This is a marked change from 2009, when just 35% of Republicans believed that climate change was real. The trend line is on a steady upward slope.
Plain and simple, Republicans believe in science, and the major Republican politicians are out of step.
One voter demographic in particular that has accepted the science is the current college-age generation (18-22-year-olds) who, according to a survey by Yale University, “have grown up with even less scientific uncertainty about climate change, [and] are somewhat more concerned and engaged than their slightly older 23-34 year old counterparts.”
The momentum is great and it is building. While there are some conservatives who can never back down, the rank and file is changing their opinion to match the overwhelming majority of scientists represented by over 200 scientific agencies around the world. Senator James Inhofe, for example, has staked far too much of his rhetoric, reputation and theatrics (such as throwing a snowball on the Senate floor) on the belief that climate change is “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American public.” And there are talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and entire organizations such as the Heartland Institute that have left themselves little room to make a face-saving change.
But, even before last night’s debate announcements, we had already been witnessing small defections. In January 2015, 15 Republicans joined 35 Democrats in voting for an amendment that affirmed that humans contribute to global warming. In September 2015, 11 House Republicans signed a resolution that recognized humans have a role in causing climate change and endorsed steps to address it.
The truth is that many Republicans politicians, congressional aides, lobbyists and staff believe in the science and the need to take action when safely behind closed doors. They are just waiting for the right political cover to come out in public with their views.
Will the Republican voter base really take out their wrath if they do so?
That day may have passed. In fact, many Republican voters may now be willing to reward a candidate who expresses a belief in science and avoids what former presidential candidate Jon Huntsman warned against in 2011: the Republican Party becoming the anti-science party.
General voter sentiment has demonstrated a deep appetite for straight talk. It’s time to give up the idea that climate change is strictly a liberal, Democratic issue. In fact, we cannot adequately solve this problem without all views in the debate: conservative, liberal and others. The tide is finally turning.