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)

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.